Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Access to Meaningful Education: Obstacles and Opportunities in Early Childhood Education

This is the text of a presentation written and delivered with fellow Welcoming Path board member, Holly, at a local conference on August 12, 2017. 


A tale of two children (Holly) 

When he was born, Sam’s parents worked at working-class jobs and lived on the outskirts of town in a low-cost neighborhood. Sam attended a local daycare, but was frequently sent home early with coughs and colds. His mom had to take off work so many times that she lost her job. At a year old, Sam was diagnosed with asthma, aggravated by the smoke from the nearby coal plant. Sam’s mom became determined to move to a different part of the city; after moving, mom began looking for work again. Times were rough, and the job search was difficult. The ongoing stress from having only one income while trying to afford rent in a nicer area strained the family, and Sam’s parents began to argue - a lot. Sam cried when they shouted, and stress hormones washed over his brain time and time again. 

Eventually, the family was evicted for failing to pay rent, and Sam’s parents chose to separate. After weeks of couch-surfing, Sam’s mom managed to find a small apartment (one bedroom, small kitchen, and bathroom) near the airport. The rent was low enough she was able to accept a minimum wage job and just manage to scrape by. Sam spent his days with a neighbor, who made sure his physical needs were met but didn’t play or interact with him much beyond that. The television was a constant background noise, humming just above the buzz of the airport traffic, making it difficult to concentrate. Sam’s mom took extra shifts to try to make ends meet; by the time she got home from work and made dinner, it was time for bed. Each night she lay beside Sam and read to him, but often fell into an exhausted sleep. They would have to wait until tomorrow to read. 

Jim was also born into a two parent home in the same city. His parents had professional jobs that paid well; they lived in a fairly quiet, middle-class neighborhood. They were able to hire a nanny with a degree in early childhood education to care for Jim in their home, and together they went on outings to parks, museums, and libraries; created art; told stories; read books; and played games. Jim participated in preschool classes and groups, from gymnastics to music. His parents also took vacations and spent time together as a family.

Barriers to equal access to early education (Holly) 

Though Jim and Sam lived in the same city, their very different circumstances and experiences could dramatically impact their readiness to learn and access to education. In Sam’s situation, environmental pollution, health complications, family employment and income, family dynamics, brain development, socio-economic status, noise pollution, and poor-quality childcare interacted to limit Sam’s chances to have enriching experiences and healthy development. 

Other structural barriers to education weren’t specifically demonstrated in Sam’s story, particularly regarding racism and implicit bias. There is, as the ACLU describes it, 
“a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out. / ‘Zero-tolerance’ policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in schools lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.” (
Our school systems also face financial obstacles to equal access: low pay or insufficient training for teachers; limited programs or materials in low-income school districts; inadequate transportation; inadequate or unsafe facilities; and higher classroom student-to-teacher ratios. Similarly, neighborhood concerns, such as food deserts, make it difficult to receive adequate nutrition; neighborhood violence (including police violence) create high stress levels; poor housing, inaccessible healthcare, and a lack of safe play spaces further complicate the issues. 

When we look at the obstacles that have the biggest impacts on access and achievement, they’re largely structural and cultural and must be addressed as such. Yet much of the popular discourse around education and educational policy focuses on how to change the student: to raise test scores, encourage compliance, increase attendance, and so on. As Paul Gorskii puts it, “We never will realize educational equity in any full sense until we address bigger economic justice concerns,” such as “food insecurity, the scarcity of living wage work, unequal access to healthcare, and the scars of class bias” (Paul Gorski, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap. New York: Teachers College Press, 2013: 118). 

Behind the structures (David)

A glimpse at history reveals that these are enduring issues that have never been adequately addressed. In 1909, the American freethinker, feminist, and anarchist, Voltarine de Cleyre, wrote that the politician influencing educational policy 
“considers himself profoundly important, as representing the interests of society in general. He is anxious for the formation of good citizens to support the State, and directs education in such channels as he thinks will produce these. … he is not interested in the actual work of schools, in the children as persons, but in the producing of a certain type of character to serve certain subsequent ends.” (“Modern Educational Reform,” Selected Works,
Similarly, in 1971, the historian and social scientist, Michael Katz, proposed that earlier educational reform movements could not be separated from the socio-economic context in which they arose: “the central aim of the movement was to establish more efficient mechanisms of social control, and its chief legacy was the principle that ‘education was something the better part of the community did to the others to make them orderly, moral, and tractable.’” (Class, bureacracy, and schools. New York: Praeger, 1971, ix-x) 

These criticisms, consistent through the years, mirror the unjust systems around them. The painful truth is that the obstacles to education that Holly detailed are not by accident; they serve the interests of those who hold wealth and power, while we’ve inherited a long history of cultural attitudes and ideas that assure us that the poor at fault. Two very different spokespersons from two very different times can serve as examples of how our society has managed to find ways to blame the poor while avoiding accountability for the rich. 

In 1806, Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish merchant and magistrate, wrote, 
“Poverty is that state and condition in society where the individual has no surplus labour in store, … . Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilization. It is the lot of man. It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.” ( )
For Colquhoun, poverty was not a necessary evil, but simply necessary. It is no accident that his work focused, not on alleviating the injustices that created differentiating wealth, but on “Improving moral Habits,” producing “Sobriety and Industry,” and reducing “moral and penal Offences.” He went on to outline elements that would later appear in ‘culture of poverty’ paradigms - a list of circumstances of “Remediable Indigence requiring Props to raise it to a State of Poverty” - things like illness, injury, or unexpected crises, that elicit compassion and charity - and “Culpable Causes of Indigence” - things like “Vicious and immoral habits,” “systematic idleness,” and “want of frugal habits,” that elicit fear, shame, and callousness. In this way, the powerful could blame the poor for their state while congratulating themselves for their moral superiority and generous philanthropy. “The great desideratum,” Colquhoun wrote, “is to prop up poverty by judicious arrangements at those critical periods when it is in danger of descending into indigence.” That is, the goal is to keep the mass of people in a position of being exploited by the rich without crushing them either to point of death or rebellion. This position is the historic context for the criticisms levied by Voltarine de Cleyre against education systems that “propped up poverty.” 

The game plan has not varied much in two hundred years. In February 2014, Springfield invited Ruby Payne to speak in what was advertised as “an outstanding opportunity ... to better understand the impact of poverty on students, families and our community; as well as effective ways to address poverty issues.” The local newspaper described the buzz around her visit as “intense interest” demonstrated by full capacity events. In Payne’s framework, the poor remain poor because a ‘culture of poverty’ keeps them from succeeding. It is no accident that her work focuses, not on alleviating the injustices that perpetuate unequal access to education, but on teaching the poor to think and act like the rich. In her words, “Students from generational poverty need direct teaching to build cognitive structures necessary for learning. The relationships that will motivate them need to be established. The hidden rules must be taught so they can choose the appropriate responses if they desire. Students from poverty are no less capable or intelligent. They simply have not been mediated in the strategies or hidden rules that contribute to success in school and at work.” (

If this sounds like a reasonable line of thinking to you, don’t be surprised. This is exactly how we’ve been trained to think about the world. But Payne’s framework is just an elaborate combination of victim-blaming and what Paulo Freire called ‘false charity.’ In “A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne’s Claims about Poverty,” Randy Bomer, Joel Dworin, Laura May, and Peggy Semingson concluded that Payne - 
“does not connect the misfortunes of the poor to the fortunes of the middle class and wealthy by examining policies regarding housing, segregation, taxation, or public expenditures. She does not analyze the degree to which wealthy and middle-class families proactively structure advantage for their children at the expense of the children of the less fortunate. At no time does she suggest that the hundreds of thousands of educators she addresses might attempt to advocate for the basic needs of the children they teach. Poor children do not only have trouble in school; they are likely to live in substandard housing, eat an inadequate diet, wear threadbare clothes, lack health insurance, and have chronic health and dental problems. ... [T]o discuss poverty among caring people obligates one to challenge others to do something about poverty itself—to give, to volunteer, to speak out, to hold politicians accountable—in short, to change a system that perpetuates poverty. Furthermore, nowhere in Payne’s work is there a suggestion that students might be taught to think about social class and poverty. There is no hint that people ought to be taught to question the structures that oppress them and others like them systematically.” (,etal,Miseducating.pdf )
For centuries, those with wealth and power have been telling us that the difference between them and us is that they know those rules and make better decisions. It is a tantalizing vision and an easy way out. We want to think the world is fair and just and that we all have equal opportunity. But it’s a lie, a convenient one for the rich and a devastating one for the poor, that hides the realities of oppressive systems and cultures. To move forward, we need policies that address systemic injustice, and we need students who have been “taught to question the structures that oppress them and others like them systematically.” And for that, we need teachers and administrators who will passionately do the same. 

Some Ways Forward (Holly) 

Fortunately, there are educators who are doing this essential work, and a good start to explore how is Paul Gorski’s Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap. At the core are four commitments: 
“1. choose a resilience view, rather than a deficit view, of poor and working class families, focusing on student and family assets; 2. engage in persistent family outreach efforts; 3. build trusting relationships with students; and 4. ensure that opportunities for family involvement are accessible to poor and working class families.” (133). 
These principles reorient policies and practices around the voices, experiences, and insights of children and families impacted by systemic injustice. Because, as Gorski puts it, “...every practical strategy in the world...will not work if we treat poor and working class youth or their families, even in the most implicit ways, as though they are broken or some lesser ‘other.’” (132). 
 “ … aside from advocating in any way we can for the social change necessary to alleviate the very existence of poverty, the most important thing any of us can do in the name of educational equity is to draw on the expertise of people within poor and working class communities - to partner with them in order to identify and implement community-specific strategies for educational equity … .” (118) 
 At a policy level, this means opposing redistricting plans that keep schools racially and economically segregated, providing translation services, supporting fair wage campaigns, providing universal healthcare and affordable housing, and standing with communities against environmental racism (153-154). But structures and cultures cannot be separated, and after centuries of blaming and dehumanizing the poor, we also have work to do at the cultural level. 
“… if I have spent my life believing, however quietly, that poor people are poor because of their deficiencies...then my task is not to hide these assumptions, but to rid myself of them. There are a variety of ways to do this, but spending time in low-income communities and reading about the sorts of social and educational inequalities faced by poor and working class youth are good places to start” (135). 
This is something educators should do, but it is also something all of us need to do - always learning, unmasking our privileges and prejudices, and dismantling oppression as we learn about and act in solidarity with those who suffer. If we want education to be truly accessible to all, we must also educate ourselves, and agitate for true and lasting change.