How we talk about education and poverty

In the past two or three years the popular rhetoric of “education reform” has, on more than one occasion, rubbed me the wrong way. The words we use, particularly those of us who had the privilege of top-notch educations, often seem discordant with the actual experiences of people living the struggle on a daily basis. “Speak your own truth,” I learned in college. Yet, as education reform leaders, we do not always speak our own truths — rather, we profess to speak the truth for people whose backgrounds we do not share.

A recent example: Democrats for Education Reform, whose D.C. chapter I lead, tweeted yesterday the following quote from LBJ.

“Education is the only valid passport from poverty.” I read those words, and, as someone who benefited from a rigorous (and expensive) K-12 and college education, they sounded inspiring.

And yet… something didn’t feel right.

I mulled it over for a few minutes before remembering another article I’d seen — with another quote about a passport from poverty. This article, though, was written by a woman who had moved from poverty to the middle class. She speaks her own truth:

I essentially married into the middle class. I could never have made it to college, to work, or anywhere without help.

In the essay, the author, Elizabeth Waterhouse, talks about how her husband’s financial resources and what we might call the knowledge of “privilege”— of navigating financial forms and documents, of applying to college, of finding a therapist and appropriate health care — helped her graduate from college at 26.

Reading this story as an “education reformer” made me think — and made me question LBJ’s words. Is education the only passport from poverty? For Waterhouse, accessing both financial and knowledge resources was the passport from poverty. And that second word: valid. Is education the only valid passport from poverty? As in: do we in the middle and upper-middle classes judge moving out of poverty via any other vehicle as invalid? (A caveat: Here I am using LBJ’s words as an example of a broader trend in education reform rhetoric. The quote is not indicative of either LBJ’s or DFER’s views.)

We with privilege like to think that those in poverty can work, learn, and simply strive out of poverty. It’s the American dream. But it’s also what I think of as the “bootstrap myth.”

A good friend of mine, Lelac Almagor, is a teacher at a public charter school in Washington, D.C., with outstanding academic results. About a year ago she wrote a powerful piece for the Boston Review about the perils of viewing character education and “grit” as a magic wand to lift poor — and often black and brown — children out of poverty. She writes:

It is tempting to see the successes of our students as triumphs of personal responsibility. If our kids — most of whom are nonwhite, most of whom grow up in poverty — can study hard, do well on standardized tests, graduate from college, and get decent jobs, they seem to falsify the argument that larger systems of racial and economic oppression are responsible for the inequalities that persist in other kids’ lives. In other words, if some children can succeed within the system, then what’s wrong isn’t the system; it is the kids who fail.

This line of thinking, as Almagor points out, is more traditionally the “conservative” view. In her piece, she also highlights a more “liberal” view among social justice-motivated ed reformers — certainly the circles I often find myself in here in Washington, D.C. And yet I worry that the conservative view may be what we inadvertently imply by using dramatic education reform rhetoric that is exclusive of other pathways out of poverty, such as the social capital Waterhouse benefited from.

So: what about other creative approaches to combating poverty? Social innovators in a variety of sectors are developing rigorous, research-backed approaches to alleviating poverty and providing pathways to the middle class. I personally find conditional (and unconditional) cash transfers very compelling. And a few months ago, John Sutter at CNN suggested four potential approaches to addressing child poverty in Silicon Valley. He calls for:

  • Expanding housing subsidies
  • Raising the minimum wage
  • High-quality early childhood education and child care subsidies
  • Direct cash transfers

In education reform, we like rigor. We like data. We like the econometric analyses done by labor economists like Eric Hanushek, Caroline Hoxby, Jonah Rockoff, and Roland Fryer. And just as I hope that policy-makers and electeds consider the evidence as they make education policy, I hope we as education policy wonks and advocates (and when I say “we” I largely mean white, privileged education advocates like me) consider the evidence that education may not be the only valid passport from poverty.

We should still work tirelessly to improve our schools and end educational inequity. We can be fierce, compassionate, loud advocates for high-quality education, for parental choice, for increasing access to college preparatory classes, for rigorous academic standards like the Common Core. And we can hold all those thoughts in our minds at the same time that we believe that education is part of the solution, that education is a passport out of poverty — and a powerful one at that — but not the only one.


This post was revised 4:45pm April 10th

This post was in part inspired by conversations I have had and continue to have with wonderful friends and advocates who often tweet with the #EdForward hashtag, including @citizenstewart, @juscohen, and @msalmagor. I am also indebted to my friends and peers who speak their own truths, and who encourage me to examine the privileges I have had in my own life.