The Fine Line Between A Problem and an Excuse

  • 07 June, 2011

Recently, Diane Ravitch had an article in the New York Times. One of the things that she said was that, “If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved.” This is a familiar echo of an earlier David Berliner article, “Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform,” in which he emphasized the educational importance of poverty and its horrifying off-shoots: ill nourishment, lead-paint poisoning, psychiatric disorders, drug/alcohol abuse, inadequate housing, and so on.

  And who can disagree? Poverty is horrible, and children in poverty should be an affront to our sensibilities. The correlations are clear: poverty kids are less safe, less secure, less healthy, and, yes, indeed, they do less well in school.

  But while I don’t disagree with either the claim that poverty matters in children’s education and that children’s poverty needs to be alleviated, I also don’t think poverty gives us any respite from our responsibilities as educators.

  The Bush administration emphasized schools only (as opposed to parents) in its educational policies, in an effort to make sure that educators grasped their responsibility for increasing learning. I think that approach goes too far, as there are many ways that parents and communities can help support kids’ learning and we ought to take advantage of every lever that we have.

  Likewise, however, we cannot afford to give into the kind of fatalism that afflicts too many of our colleagues. There is plenty that can be done to improve the education of poverty children beyond the things that the housing community, health community, economic development community, and others are doing; they are the ones who fight for lead abatement, nutrition programs, and jobs (of course, we can support those efforts politically and through our own charitable giving and volunteer work). But we are the ones who fight illiteracy and our professional emphasis should be on trying to increase students’ learning no matter how bad their life situations may be.

  Educators should focus their attention on making sure that teachers are well-prepared to serve the children in high poverty schools; and that the certification, hiring practices, and economic supports are arrayed in ways that will attract and keep good teachers in such schools. We need to be the proponents of longer school days and school years. We need to be the ones who argue for policies that encourage the thoughtful application of research findings to practice; for intensive and extensive professional development for teachers; for a sufficiency of high quality materials and programs (no, teachers should not be expected to teach without such support); for research dollars targeted on solving real problems.

  Poverty is terrible and it impacts children’s ability to learn. But anyone who spends much time observing teaching in high poverty schools knows that poverty is often a lousy excuse for not giving these children the teaching they deserve.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Karl Androes Jul 02, 2017 12:10 AM


Thank you, Tim!! Please get this published somewhere where millions will read it - like as a response piece in the NYT! I have been listening to an alarming number of educators in public forums lately saying basically "there's nothing we can do, these kids are poor". And I keep remembering something I heard you say at our Summit and elsewhere - "the good news from the data is that teachers DO matter". Amen!

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The Fine Line Between A Problem and an Excuse


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.