Paul C. Gorski is an associate professor of Integrative Studies in George Mason University’s New Century College, where he teaches classes on class and poverty, educational equity, animal rights, and environmental justice. He recentedly designed the new Social Justice undergraduate program and minor there as well. He has been an active consultant, presenter, and trainer for nearly twenty years, conducting workshops and providing guidance to schools and community organizations committed to equity and diversity. He created and continues to maintain the Multicultural Pavilion, an award winning Web site focused on critical multicultural education. Paul is serving his second term on the board of directors of the International Association for Intercultural Education (IAIE). He has published four books and more than 40 articles in publications such as Educational Leadership, Equity and Excellence in Education,Rethinking Schools, Teaching and Teacher Education, Teachers College Record, and Teaching Tolerance. Prior to his current position Paul taught for the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland, and Hamline University. He continues to publish and present in education-focused forums on topics including white privilege and racism, anti-poverty education and economic justice, and multicultural organizational transformation. He lives in Washington, DC, with his cats, Unity and Buster.
For years I have been dissatisfied with many popular frameworks for talking about diversity and equity in schools, nearly all of which—cultural competence, cultural proficiency, intercultural communications, multiculturalism—tend to put culture rather than equity at the center of the conversation. Sure, every educator should learn as much as possible about the cultures of individual students. But knowing a little bit about Mexican or Mexican American culture does very little to prepare us to see and respond effectively to bias or inequity—especially to the most subtle bias and inequity.
Nowhere is the “culture” obsession more dangerous than in the ways in which teachers generally are taught to think about poverty. This is especially, devastatingly, true given the baffling popularity of the “culture of poverty” approach for understanding low-income students’ experiences. I call it baffling because the idea that we can assume anything at all about a student based on a single dimension of her or his identity or that all people in the hugely diverse population of people in poverty universally share the same beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors is nonsensical.
The excerpt below, taken from my recent book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (Teachers College Press, 2013), describes what I call Equity Literacy, a framework first used by my super-genius colleague, Katy Swalwell, to describe a kind of literacy youth should learn in school. I built on her conception of Equity Literacy to include the skills and consciousness with which teachers ought to be equipped in order to create equitable learning environments for students and families in poverty.
I came to define Equity Literacy as the skills and understandings that enable us to recognize, respond to, and redress conditions that deny some students access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by their peers and, in doing so, sustain equitable learning environments for all students and families.
The Equity Literacy framework borrows some of its principles from other approaches for thinking about diversity in schools including resiliency theory, diversity pedagogy theory, funds of knowledge theory, and cultural proficiency. What distinguishes Equity Literacy, broadly speaking, from these and other popular frameworks is Equity Literacy’s recognition that the problem is not primarily cultural. The issue before us, as we attempt to create more effective learning environments for low-income students, is not culture, but equity. I can learn everything I want to know about this or that culture, but doing so is not going to help me spot subtle bias in learning materials or help me realize the injustice at play when schools eliminate arts and music programs, which are known to help low-income students achieve academically.
The principles of Equity Literacy are the consciousness behind the framework. Each principle is based on research about congruence between what educators believe about, and their effectiveness working with, low-income students and families.
The equity literate educator understands that inequities in, say, levels of educational attainment, reflect, for the most part, inequities in opportunity rather than deficiencies in the characters or capabilities of people at the lower end of the economic hierarchy. The primary purpose of any conversation about poverty and education, in the view of Equity Literacy, ought to be how to ensure a more equitable distribution of that opportunity.
Socioeconomic status does not exist in a vacuum. Class is linked inextricably to race, gender, (dis)ability, and other identities. If we hope to understand and respond to the implications of poverty on childhood and schooling we must also be willing to consider other forms of inequity and how they relate to class.
Like every big and widely dispersed group of people, low-income people vary by race and ethnicity and nationality; by religion and language; by political affiliation, vocation, and value system. Most of what poor people have in common has to do with bias and a lack of access to basic needs. As a practical, educational, matter, this means that there is no silver bullet, no magic list of ten easy strategies for teaching every low-income student, which makes our pursuit of equitable schools considerably more complicated than, say, a “culture of poverty” approach can explain.
Because our attitudes about poverty and our assumptions about why poor people are poor drive our beliefs about and even our behaviors toward people in poverty, practical strategies are not enough. Research has shown, for example, that our beliefs about who or what is to blame for poverty pretty well predicts the sorts of practices we will imagine in response to class inequities. These beliefs are shaped by ideology; by how we are socialized to see and interpret poverty. This is why learning about this or that practical pedagogical strategy is not a sufficient approach for creating or sustaining an equitable learning environment. We also need to examine our class biases by developing deeper understandings of poverty and its effects on youth.
The deepest understandings of poverty and schooling begin with an acknowledgement that poverty is not a personal or individual issue that can be solved by fixing the cultures or behaviors of poor people. Rather, it is a structural condition, related to all sorts of bigger social problems like unequal access to healthcare, the lack of living wage work, and unequal access to educational opportunity. So in order to truly understand poverty and schooling, we need to examine, not only the impact of class inequity on low-income students and their families, but also the systems and structures that perpetuate class inequity. This is not to say that every schoolteacher is responsible for taking up the banner of global poverty eradication. The question is, What can I do within my sphere of influence to make that sphere as equitable as possible?
Test scores represent one sort of outcome, and not even a very robust one. They don’t speak to other important matters, such as whether students feel affirmed at school or whether their parents or guardians feel welcome and respected by teachers and administrators. Who has access to what sorts of instructional approaches? Who has access to school nurses and the most wondrous libraries? Who sees themselves reflected in their curricula? The equity literate educator, while being realistic about the current testing climate in today’s schools, does not limit herself to a vision of educational equity that only values test scores.
At most every stage of schooling, poor and working class youth are denied the opportunities and resources many of their wealthier peers take for granted. We can begin that conversation in preschool, and the quality of preschool to which students from different economic backgrounds have access. In fact, we might begin even earlier, by looking at disparities in access to prenatal care.
According to the deficit view, low-income families are to blame for the very class disparities that weigh most heavily on them. They are, the deficit argument goes, intellectually, culturally, and even spiritually inferior, and their poverty is the best evidence of these deficiencies. Of course, referring, again, to Principle 7, the only way to buy into the deficit view is to ignore the inequities experienced by low-income families. An equity literate educator champions the resiliency view, recognizing student and community strengths and funds of knowledge.
There is no lack of evidence about the sorts of strategies that tend to help low-income students learn and remain engaged in school, and this is why it’s strange that so much of what schools do these days to bolster the achievement of low-income students appears to be based on the precise opposite of what the evidence tells us to do. One particularly illogical example has to do with art and music programs. These programs are being downsized to save money or to create more time in the school day for reading, writing, math, and, sadly, even test-taking instruction. I suppose this would make sense if we had evidence that some students do not perform as well on standardized tests because they spend too much time learning art and music and not enough time learning reading, writing, and math. But students, and particularly poor and working class students, who have access to art and music education actually perform better on a wide range of academic measures across virtually every subject area. The Equity Literacy framework urges us to choose our strategies by considering evidence of what works. We might consider the results of formal research, but other important sources of data for our data-driven approach includes our own careful observations and what we know about the communities in which we teach and the individuals in those communities.
The equity literate educator demonstrates high expectations through higher-order teaching. This is not mere “student-centered” fluffiness. Research shows clearly that low-income students are more engaged in school and perform better on a wide variety of academic measures (and, yes, even achieve higher standardized test scores) when we teach them in ways that illustrate for them that we believe they can think creatively, complexly, and critically.
A wide variety of frameworks and models can help us better understand the challenges low-income families face and the gifts they bear. What is most important is that we build our strategies and practices around understandings of equity and not around simplifications of culture. You can learn more about Equity Literacy by reading Katy Swalwell’s article, “Why Our Students Need ‘Equity Literacy’,” by downloading free handouts about it at the EdChange web site, or by reading my recent book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap.
*Parts of the this blog are excerpted from my new book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap.