Debate Magazine

Pedagogy of Poverty

By Stevemiranda

My friend Rachel sent me a link to an essay by the always feisty Alfie Kohn in which he condemns “the pedagogy of poverty.” That’s when schools serving low-income kids of color focus the curriculum on drill-and-skill, repetition, and maintaining a tightly controlled routine. Kohn advocates a pedagogy centered on “meaning and understanding.” He writes,

Rather than viewing the pedagogy of poverty as a disgrace, however, many of the charter schools championed by the new reformers have concentrated on perfecting and intensifying techniques to keep children “on task” and compel them to follow directions. (Interestingly, their carrot-and-stick methods mirror those used by policy makers to control educators.) Bunches of eager, mostly white, college students are invited to drop by for a couple of years to lend their energy to this dubious enterprise.

Is racism to blame here—or perhaps behaviorism? Or could it be that, at its core, the corporate version of “school reform” was never intended to promote thinking—let alone interest in learning—but merely to improve test results? That pressure is highest in the inner cities, where the scores are lowest. And the pedagogy of poverty can sometimes “work” to raise those scores, which makes everyone happy and inclined to reward those teachers.

Unfortunately, that result is often at the expense of real learning, the sort that more privileged students enjoy, because the tests measure what matters least. Thus, it’s possible for the accountability movement to simultaneously narrow the test-score gap and widen the learning gap.

* * *

I spent nine years teaching in an urban high school, which was unique in that it served primarily two distinct populations.

There were the kids who grew up in the local neighborhood, which, while in the process of being gentrified, has been poor for generations.

The other group consists primarily of white students enrolled in the Accelerated Progress Program, which pushes kids two grades level ahead. These students bus in from more affluent neighborhoods around the city.

There was always pressure to teach these groups of students the same, to offer the same rich academic experience to both.

* * *

I taught some classes with students who were very serious about school and seemed to genuinely enjoy academic learning. They’d had success with academic learning their entire lives. It was an arena in which they excelled, so naturally they felt comfortable in it.

Delivering a curriculum grounded in meaning and understanding was a joy. I could say, “Read up to page 75 by Thursday,” and most of them would do it. On Thursday, I could begin class by saying something like, “What did those first four chapters make you think about?” They would respond by saying a bunch of thoughtful, interesting things. It was awesome.

I also taught classes with students who had not experienced a lifetime of success with academic learning. By the time they reached 10th grade, they had already come to some definitive conclusions about the role of school in their lives. Getting these students to engage in a learning process focused on “meaning and understanding” was often a major challenge, because in many cases they had already decided they didn’t care what it meant, and they weren’t interested in understanding.

The resistance that students can bring when they first walk in the door is a very real phenomenon. It’s one of the most important—and least talked about—issues in education.

* * *

The point here is that, from a classroom teacher’s perspective, teaching a drill-and-skill curriculum to students who have already decided that school has nothing to offer them might be the best option. To teach for meaning and understanding requires that students open themselves up to the process, and that they offer some of their life energy to participating in it.

Many kids living poverty, for very legitimate reasons, are not going to do it. They’ve accumulated a lifetime of negative experiences in school, and they have five other classes with teachers who may or may not believe in them. Because they live in poverty, they go home to an environment in which the value of any particular lesson plan may not seem relevant. It’s only relevant as part of a daily practice experienced over time.

I remember teaching a class—I was teaching for meaning and understanding—in which students were reading and deconstructing a classic novel. A student named Joe, whose father had recently died from a lung ailment as a result of toxic conditions at his workplace, approached my desk. He was frustrated. He said to me, “Mr. Miranda, I need to know what’s real. You know what I’m saying?”

I had to grapple with some very difficult questions. Was I really serving Joe by teaching him to analyze a classic work of literature? Because of his life circumstances, was he able to get anything from the experience, or was it just a lot of white noise? Was he truly able to dedicate life energy to participating in a process that must have seemed so abstracted from his day-to-day life? Would he be better off getting daily practice in basic literacy, and daily coaching on sustained focus, respectful interactions, and delivering a completed product in a set framework of time?

I didn’t know the answers to these questions.

* * *

I tell this story to get at the real point of Alfie Kohn’s essay, because it highlights one answer that I do know. He writes,

“Remarkable results with low-income students of all ages have also been found with the Reggio Emilia model of early-childhood education, the “performance assessment” high schools in New York, and “Big Picture” schools around the country. All of these start with students’ interests and questions; learning is organized around real-life problems and projects. Exploration is both active and interactive, reflecting the simple truth that kids learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Finally, success is judged by authentic indicators of thinking and motivation, not by multiple-choice tests.

* * *

This is why I’m such an outspoken champion for PSCS. The traditional public school model will never effectively serve low-income kids of color. It’s not because the teachers are bad; the traditional public school model suffers from a series of fundamental design problems. That big public school in your community that serves low-income kids of color will never deliver the outcomes that we want, no matter how many financial incentives and punishments are implemented by state and federal governments. It can’t, by design. Those institutions can only be laid to rest and re-invented as new kinds of schools with a different culture and a different environment, organized according to a different set of principles, brought into being by a different structure.

A great place to start—this is where PSCS starts—is with students’ interests and questions. Students need to know what’s real, to them.

You know what I’m saying?

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