Imagining a Future: When Is a Question a Good Answer? Recommendations to Teachers About the Relationship Between Poverty and Schooling

Joseph Flessa

Recently ETFO asked me to review the research and professional literature on the relationship between poverty and schooling so that the federation work with members to develop practices and approaches that will help all students succeed. The literature review asks two difficult questions:


Can schools make a difference?

To change the relationship between poverty and schooling, would policies directed at the societal (macro) level or the school (micro) level make more difference?

All traditional measures of school success systematically rank students from poor families lower than their  wealthier peers. For more than 40 years, educational researchers have argued that outside-of-school influences, especially the family, have a greater impact on student achievement outcomes than any other variable. Many argue that in order to fix schools society must be fixed first.

However, “effective schools” researchers, who focus on highly successful high-poverty schools, argue that when educators take this position, they’re making excuses for low performance by schools.


How do we view students?

When we describe what is or should be “different” about schooling for children affected by poverty, are we using an unstated point of comparison, one that not only draws attention to inequalities but also might reinforce “deficit frameworks” of students and communities; that is to say, do we look at children and see what’s there, or do we look at children and see what’s missing? Many of the policy recommendations that deal with poverty and schooling are built on deficit frameworks. Some of the most popular professional development resources for teachers working with students in poverty rely on unsubstantiated stereotypes of communities, families, and learners, and provide generic lists of pedagogical remedies. The literature review raises questions about how best to target interventions for children experiencing poverty without blaming students or their families for their poverty or finding them lacking in abilities.


The either/or temptation

A focus on either/or problems and either/or solutions is not just incomplete but also harmful. Research findings from the macro and micro levels are unambiguous: outside-of-school influences play a large role in shaping learning; and some schools do far better than others in resisting this deterministic relationship.

To talk about one aspect of the relationship between poverty and schooling without at the same time talking about the other contributes to the false idea on the one hand that schools can do nothing and on the other hand that schools can do everything. This is the macro–micro tension. The challenge, therefore, is to tell a consistent story about the importance of school initiatives in the context of other mutually supportive social policies.


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