Reaping what we’ve sown: Poor parents and schools

Recently, I’ve been seeing more comments from people who argue that poverty causes people (specifically parents) not to value education. Some of this has been in response to the recent story of a young honor student being beaten to death (unfortunately, not the only such case, just one of the most dramatic and publicized). However, some of these comments are coming from frustrated educators and others who think we are wasting our time trying to improve poor performing schools in high-poverty communities because so many, if not most of the parents there just don’t care.

After 20 years of teaching in one of the poorest regions of the country, I respectfully disagree. Parents who do not love their children or don’t want the best for them, frightful as that is, are still the exception. Much more common are the assumptions and arguments about the lack of support for education among the poor and working-poor for education.

Perhaps more parents in poor communities appear to value education less because less value has clearly been placed on them and their children by the public education system. Feeling powerless to change that reality can lead to confrontation, resistance, or just plain indifference toward the closest representatives of the educational system—the principal and teachers at their children’s school. These attitudes are not born out of poverty; they are a reaction to what these disenfranchised parents and students correctly perceive as a broken promise.

My high school students, here in the Delta, understood very well that the historically white high school across town had a science lab and we did not; they got new textbooks when we did not; they had new computers that actually worked, while we had older ones some of which had never worked; their school offered classes such as drama, dance, and creative writing which we could not, and on and on. They also realized this disparity did not start here in the new millennium; most of their parents had come through this same school system with many of the same issues. Nor is it lost on students or parents when their school gets the temporary teachers, the teachers hired at the last minute, or the extended substitutes in classes such as algebra and science.

Many schools in high-poverty areas are visually depressing, unsafe; some are falling apart around the students and staff. How does a teacher convince a kid (or a parent whose child is) sitting in a leaking trailer or dodging falling plaster that we REALLY believe all children deserve a high quality education? What do such disparities say about the level of expectations the nation or the state (upon whom these schools rely for funding) has for the students and teachers who are there?

Some of the parents try to improve the school with whatever limited resources they can raise. We used to have one grandmother who personally decorated every classroom door in the building just to make things brighter. One mother with a minimum wage job didn’t have money to send to the school for various activities, but she brought me a sack of apples from her yard for helping her children after school. There are millions of hard-working parents in poor urban and rural communities who did not finish school themselves, but desperately want their child[ren] to have a better life. But let’s not forget, many of the parents about whom some are complaining, were themselves poorly served by these same schools and systems.

In fact, it is more common, traditionally, that poor communities have pushed their youngsters to pursue education as the best way to not only achieve their individual goals, but more important to help uplift the entire community. Unfortunately, inequity is also a deeply-rooted tradition in American education. Waves of immigrant parents have had to fight for the education for their children, despite prejudicial efforts to limit them to menial training. The movement to end separate-and-unequal schools which led to the Brown decision, also resulted in the retaliatory termination and demotions of thousands of Black educators across the South. More recently, the collateral damages from frantic attempts to meet the provisions of NCLB have further exacerbated the underlying disparities that created the achievement gap in the first place.

It might surprise some to learn that are and have been teachers who have given extra hours, visited student homes, and had high expectations for students in poor communities long before TFA, KIPP, or Michelle Rhee. Some of those teachers have grown just plain tired of the unappreciated Herculean effort each school year requires, not to mention the irreplaceable toll that such on-going overexertion can take on their responsibilities to their own children and families.

My TLN colleague, Anthony Cody at Living in Dialogue, has addressed some of these same questions quite eloquently in his recent must-read blog posts [“NCLB—The Modern Face of the Civil Rights Movement” and “Rich Schools/Poor Schools: The Gap Grows“]

In their recent guest blog at ASCD InService, Budge and Parrot ask: “Why can’t any high poverty school become high performing?” They, and others, point out quite accurately that there are schools in poor communities that are high performing (let’s leave aside the discussion of how we measure that for right now). The unasked question is: Why do we make it so much harder for those who need education the most to get it? And why is that okay?