A Decent Education

Dec 27 2011

The role of poverty in what have come to be known as “school outcomes” (or more precisely, test scores) has been getting a fair bit of attention lately at Schools Matter, and elsewhere. Rightly so. At my own school we’ve even been given a reading assignment for our winter holiday, and have been invited to read Ruby Payne’s “Framework for Understanding Poverty” (summary here). This is to prepare us for the indoctrination session to follow upon our return from our break. I’m going to read the book since I opened my mouth at a staff meeting and said that many people disagree with Ruby Payne, and “Would we have a chance to air dissenting points of view?” Take Paul Gorski’s Savage Unrealities or Randy Bomer’s Miseducating Teachers about the Poor, for example. These authors tell us that Payne claims, without any real evidence, that the poor are trapped in a “culture of poverty” and need to be explicitly taught the “hidden rules” of being middle class. I don’t especially look forward to reading this, but I want to be prepared for the meeting, which is part of our school improvement plan after too many of our low-income students did not meet the standardized testing targets last spring.

Servicing the poor is actually a growth industry in our present economy, and it’s been a magnet for school reformers like Ruby Payne and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America. Kopp’s organization was the subject of a critical piece by Andrew Hartman, who contextualizes the whole mess by pointing out:

The organs of middlebrow centrist opinion"”Time Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic"”glorify TFA at every opportunity. The Washington Post heralds the nation"™s education reform movement as the "œTFA insurgency""”a perplexing linguistic choice given so-called "œinsurgency" methods have informed national education policies from Reagan to Obama. TFA is, at best, another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality. At worst, it"™s a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education reform movement.

It’s exhausting, being on the lookout for all of the Trojan horses that are being wheeled into our schoolrooms these days. My response has been to try to maintain my focus on the kids, and try to ignore as much of the outside noise as I can. But occasionally, one does need to pay attention to it. I was grateful that Hartman closed his article with a reference to Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation. Goodman prefaces this short collection of essays by telling us that in his criticisms he does not choose to be generous or fair, since modern life has delivered us into an unprecedented set of conditions which have caused much confusion and resulted in the rigid application of old methods which is “grossly wasteful of wealth and effort and does positive damage to the young.” Hartman summarizes Goodman:

In Compulsory Mis-Education, Goodman extended this general critique of the "œorganized society" to a more specific attack on its socialization method: compulsory schooling. Schooling as socialization, which he described as "œ"˜vocational guidance"™ to fit people wherever they are needed in the productive system," troubled Goodman in means and ends. He both loathed the practice of adjusting children to society and despised the social regime in which children were being adjusted to"”"œour highly organized system of machine production and its corresponding social relations." For Goodman, compulsory schooling thus prepared "œkids to take some part in a democratic society that does not need them."

Goodman published Compulsory Miseducation in 1964. His criticisms are still strikingly, and disturbingly, apt. I would like to close here with just this one, more general recommendation – one which echoes a model of educational change outlined today by P.L. Thomas, Social Context Reform: Where to Start. It should concern us all that we are still trying to articulate a framework for progressive education reform, and I offer Goodman’s recommendation as a kind of mission statement for the era of the Occupy movement.

Fundamentally, there is no right education except growing up into a worthwhile world. Indeed, our excessive concern with problems of education at present simply means that the grown-ups do not have such a world. The poor youth of America will not become equal by rising through the middle class, going to middle-class schools. By plain social justice, the Negroes, and other societies have the right to, and must get, equal opportunity for schooling with the rest, but the exaggerated expectation from the schooling is a chimera — and, I fear, will be shockingly disappointing. But also the middle-class youth will not escape their increasing exploitation and anomie in such schools. A decent education aims at, prepares for, a more worthwhile future, with a different community spirit, different occupations, and more real utility than attaining status and salary.

We need to make this happen.

5 responses so far

  1. Thanks for posting this. Hadn’t heard about Payne’s work. I checked the Wikipedia page. A couple of thoughts.

    1. No one’s going to get it all right. To the extent that she raises new concepts for discussing poverty, some people will see things they haven’t seen before, and this is generally good.
    2 To the extent she feels her model is ‘the truth’ that’s bad. I’m always concerned when people say there are a certain number of categories of anything. There is an infinite number of types of poverty, she’s merely come up with eight ways of labeling some of them. To the extent that people see this as one way of talking about poverty, it’s fine. But if they accept this as ‘the truth’ it’s not. (I haven’t read her book or heard her, so I don’t know how she handles this.) To say, though, that there are only four ways out of poverty is pretty limiting.
    3. From the Wiki piece, I get the sense that although she lists different forms of poverty, she’s focused on economic poverty, but again, not sure. That seems unwise.
    Since the problem this is supposedly solving is helping teachers reach poor students, the implication is that teachers aren’t poor, reinforcing my guess that her key focus is economic poverty. Clearly there are many teachers who suffer their own form of poverty from the list. Perhaps the program would be more effective if it helped teachers deal with their own types of poverty, starting, perhaps with emotional which seems pretty widespread.
    4. Identifying the spiritual resource as “Believing in divine purpose and guidance” probably makes this easier to sell, but ignores other kinds of spiritual wealth. And it implies if you don’t believe in God, you’re spiritually poor.

    That’s probably enough. Thanks for making me think about this a bit. I’m confident you’ll have fun at the workshop not letting anyone get too comfortable with this as a ‘solution.’

  2. Hello Doug,
    I’ve really enjoyed reading your ‘Borderland’ blog. In fact today I have read a lot of blogs and across so many different situations teachers are articulating a lamentable failure of the administrations to acknowledge our professionalism. Instead political notions are dictated to us and any concept of vision is focused on self and the short term.
    As for me, I love teaching and my little school is so irrelevant I don’t think people know we exist, so we get on with having a nice time and trying to offer the children opportunities they feel rewarded by. Coincidentally I received an e-mail form an adult who was in my first class, twenty odd years ago … and they liked me. I know that is egocentric, but it was such a human kindness that she shared. I had to apologise for being a rather rough and ready teacher, but she had a business and had gone to Uni so no harm done.
    I only have one lung now and can’t any longer run, reading about your snow shoe running was a joy.
    We are right to be critical of what is being done to us as teachers. We have a three year pay freeze followed by two years of 1% increases! My retirement age has gone from 60 to 67, etc. But I will not take it out on the children, however I will also have to stop one day as 67 might never come.

    Happy New Year
    loved the Northern lights video

    david eldridge

  3. David, thanks for the endorsement. I like the idea of operating below the radar as much as possible, and as you say, offering children rewarding opportunities. Looking to the students for feedback is what testing claims to help with, but the problem is that the tests mainly limit our view of what the kids know and care about.

    Sorry to hear about your deteriorating working conditions – same thing is happening to us here; we’re working this year without a contract since our last one expired six months ago.

    Steve, I’m glad to know you took a few moments to learn more about Ruby Payne. Funny thing, after I spoke up at the staff meeting about whether we’d have time to entertain dissenting points of view, a few of my colleagues took note and began to find out more about her framework for themselves. I still haven’t read the book, either, but I plan to. I’ll post a review of our “training” session, as well.

  4. As always, excellent, Doug. I can’t tell you what a rush of memory this reference to Paul Goodman produced. I read Compulsory Miseducation soon before I started teaching and over the years went back to it again and again. But not recently. I am very grateful for the reintroduction. He’s more relevant now than he ever was. I always find a gem when I visit your blog. Thank you.

  5. [...] [...]