Randy BomerRandy Bomer is an associate professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin, where he directs the Heart of Texas Writing Project. He has also been on the faculties of Indiana University and Queens College of the City University of New York, and he was Co-Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Randy has also worked as a literacy consultant with K-12 teachers and administrators in districts all over the United States. He is the author of Time for Meaning and For a Better World, and he holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

I’m honored to have an opportunity to participate in the discussion on NIUSI-Leadscape. I want to think with you about the most vulnerable people in our schools—children from low-income homes. Principals are aware, probably more than anyone else, that NCLB requires reporting of the progress of economically disadvantaged students. The naming of that category makes students from poor families visible and vulnerable in a whole new way. Kids were poor before, and poverty created gaps in achievement and opportunity, but now there is a newly motivated interest in “fixing” poor children, and that interest fits into longstanding American traditions, which have not served the poor well. One of the problems in this effort to improve people is that it positions educators toward adopting a focus on children’s deficits.

Curt Dudley-Marling has written that we are now seeing a “return of the deficit.” A deficit perspective is one that regards students, their families, and/or their communities as defective, as having internal or cultural flaws that get in the way of successful learning. Adopting this form of blaming the victim can make a teacher approach the student differently—asking lower-level questions, assigning lower-level tasks, expecting lower-level outcomes. Teachers, like anyone else, act like they know whom they are talking to—so whenever they speak, they assign students positions. The teacher may position a student from a low-income household as less thoughtful, engaged, and curious, more likely to misbehave or disengage from complex tasks. When treated that way, minute by minute, day by day, students often become the people their teachers expect to walk into the classroom.

Some professional development for teachers tends to trade in deficit perspectives. Such experiences build upon people’s existing biases creating collective biases about families and children living with poverty —that they have brought poverty upon themselves because they are lazy, morally questionable, full of bad habits, living unstructured lives. And, that all people who experience poverty are similar in their habits, cultural histories, languages, perspectives, dreams, and aspirations. The workshop offering then intensifies those prejudices into psuedo-academic knowledge. I have demonstrated in a couple of research articles that this pattern well describes the work of Ruby Payne and her company here and here (or email me for copies). Payne, as my colleagues and I have demonstrated, makes many claims about poor children, their families, and their communities, and uses these unsubstantiated perspectives as the basis for recommendations for how to teach children from economically disadvantaged environments.

Educators would be well advised to look critically at any research on the impact of poverty on families, children, and educational experiences.Instead of stiffening their deficit thinking, teachers need to build an asset-based assessment of poor students’ competence. This assessment is not just walking on the sunny side of the street. Rather, I am calling for a recognition that anyone who learns does so by constructing new understandings from what they already know. And the knowledge that the poorest students bring to school must be seen as sufficient for building new thinking. Furthermore, middle class people, including educators, are notoriously and persistently ignorant about the wealth contained in homes that they view as lower class. An antidote to this ignorance is a curious, inquiring approach to parents, caregivers, and communities, such as that detailed in Gonzáles, Moll, and their colleagues in their work on “funds of knowledge.”

Teachers need support in some tricky aspects of teaching students from economically disadvantaged households. Poor students’ lives are often touched by material and social threat, and some of the topics and stories they bring to school may not fit into the official curriculum or the teacher’s sense of what is safe to discuss in school. Teachers need help in expecting and thinking through humane and compassionate (but not sentimentalizing or over-dramatizing) responses when a student writes or talks about such topics as: housing insecurity, food insecurity, violence against family members, absent members of the household, problems with police and other authorities, and limited privacy both within and around a household. Be cautious also in assuming that these experiences are only those of children who live in economically deprived households. Economic security does not prevent children from experiencing a variety of harmful contexts that can include over-reliance on medication, alcohol and other substances, various forms of sexual predation, the absence of parental leadership and support, and lack of role models for civic engagement. And educators need to be aware, too, of how much their assumptions about normal life are grounded in a consumer-oriented, relatively leisured style of living that many students have never shared.

Students from disadvantaged families and communities often have another resource that tends to be overlooked—a deep, personal understanding of inequality and an instinct for social critique. When educational goals are explicitly oriented toward a more fair and just world, students who experience disadvantage have a special perspective to offer and a strong voice in the conversation. They may, as Patrick Finn has suggested, be able to contribute an attitude of critique that they have developed through their awareness of inequity, and even their family’s conversations about fairness, difficulty, and hope.

Isn’t it hope, after all, that is the point of an education for democracy? Hope that the world is not finished yet, that others may join us in redressing wrongs, that the inequalities we face at present are not permanent.

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