Words hurt. We’re all adults and we’re used to the invective thrown around in the education conversation as freely as pies in an episode of The Three Stooges. I hear such words most often when I stand firm behind the belief that we shouldn’t wait until poverty is fixed before we improve schools. Suffice to say, there are many detractors.
The trouble with adopting an incrementalist approach to achieving educational equity is that the hostile, lingering attitudes towards people in poverty are left to fester among people whose very jobs are to teach children from straitened circumstances.
These attitudes, as shown in Vox and The New York Times, show words that have the power to traumatize our most impressionable as described by a 17-year-old black teenager named Ebbie Banks who reflected on his experience tutoring a child in kindergarten.
I tutored a kid. This little black kid. He looked up to me a lot. One day he asked me, “Mr. Ebbie, is jail a good place to be?” I said, “Why would you ever ask that?” He said: “My daddy’s in jail and he said he gets three meals a day. And sometimes my mom can’t make me food and I’m hungry.” I went home and I cried that night. This is a kindergartner. Teachers told him he was going to jail. I looked at him as a 5-year-old. I didn’t see a criminal. I didn’t see a drug dealer. I didn’t see a rapist. I didn’t see a gangbanger. I saw myself, when I was a little kid 10 years ago.
If we choose to delay fixing schools in favor of tackling poverty, we do nothing to remove educators who hold low expectations of their students—so low a 5-year-old is being told he is destined for prison—because they are poor and black.
We do not address the fact that teachers are overwhelmingly white. We continue to see children of color not encouraged to take advanced classes even when they’re qualified. We can perpetuate the belief gap and conveniently brush aside the myriad ways racial bias manifests itself in the classroom and thwarts the success of children of color.
I would argue fixing schools is fixing poverty. We must turn schools into places where children can believe the best about themselves and feel emboldened to pursue their dreams rather than being told to wait for a solution to come to them on some perfect day off in the murky, distant future when the demon of poverty is no more.
But if a child is provided a good education furthering their sense of agency, such a day need not come. They can learn to climb out of poverty themselves, to be their own agents for change.