Inviting Eric Jensen into a More Critical Conversation about Poverty and Education

by Paul C. Gorski

A few days ago I posted on Facebook part of an email I had received from the publisher of a new book written by Eric Jensen about poverty and education. I had responded that I'm probably not the right person to write the review because I have been critical of Jensen's work in the past and its lack of a critical orientation or even an acknowledgement of the structural conditions that actually cause educational outcome disparities. 
Me leading a workshop for educators on economic justice, poverty,
and teaching.

To the publisher's credit, the editor responded by sending me an electronic copy of the manuscript and encouraged me to send feedback, anyway, to help her think about Jensen's next book about poverty and education. (I found this odd because he's written at least three books on teaching students in poverty in the past six or seven years and they're already talking about his fourth. I wonder if he's trying to take the sort of flood-the-market approach Ruby Payne has taken with all of her books, most of which say the same inaccurate nonsense.) 

By way of an update, below I share the email I sent to the editor after reading the manuscript. I tried my hardest to share an honest assessment and also to demonstrate an openness for continued conversation. But in the message I also share hints of some of my biggest concerns about a lot of the "diversity" work on the school PD circuit these days. (I discuss similar concerns in this guest blog.)

I often wonder, when I see people delivering fluffy, uncritical gibberish for "diversity" PD, how often they actually have a more critical orientation, but hide it because they know it's more lucrative to hide it. I'm not saying that's what Jensen does, but I do think it's very common, and in my view it's the worst possible kind of exploitation.

As frustrated as I get reading Jensen--not just because of my own work related to poverty and education, but also because of the poverty in my own family's history and my sense of urgency to get at the roots of injustice--the best case scenario, perhaps, is for somebody like Jensen, who is just below Payne in popularity as somebody talking about these issues with school folks in the US, to finally take a stand and be more explicit, to refuse to simplify, to demonstrate high expectations for educators, just as he encourages educators to show high expectations for their students.


Dear XYZ,

Thank you for sending along the manuscript.

I found the book to be well-written and engaging. Still, it is full of dangerous over-simplifications and a continued hesitance to acknowledge the biggest reasons educational outcome disparities persist. I find it odd that he cites scholarship so selectively, completely ignoring the more structural or critically-oriented scholarship. Generally when people do that sort of thing they do it because it’s easier to market oneself by avoiding forcing educators into the more uncomfortable conversations that are required in order to make substantial progress on these issues. I believe the author has heard this feedback from a lot of sources, and it’s frustrating to see that he’s still taking the easy and marketable route. It would be wonderful to see somebody with his public profile and his reach to say what needs to be said: there is no way to eliminate socioeconomic-based outcome disparities without addressing bigger-level issues like wealth inequality, the scarcity of living wage jobs, and so on. He doesn’t have to argue that fourth grade teachers need to suddenly stop teaching and take on that work, but it is impossible for schools to really move forward if they don’t understand how those barriers impact students’ educational experiences. In some of his work he gets very close to saying that. He acknowledges, for instance, that low-income students might not have access to the most healthy food or the most consistent healthcare. But he always stops short of saying that those are the reasons the outcome disparities exist and those things can't be erased by simplistic shifts in mindset or pedagogy.

What I also find odd is that with all the talk of student and teacher mindsets there’s nothing that nudges them toward an equity mindset—toward recognizing and responding to the biases and inequities that plague our schools. He might find some of the writing I’ve done on “equity literacy” helpful in that regard. Again, I understand that it’s much safer, and it leads to a lot more invites to do workshops, when those issues are sidestepped and everyone thinks, Oh, this is just about changes in mindset and simple shifts in pedagogy. But that’s why I’m so often brought in after schools have already invested a lot of money in the author or in Ruby Payne when they realize, Oops, we can’t just train teachers who have gross prejudices about low-income students on some simple shifts—we actually have to eliminate their biases and the inequities. Again, like most of his work, the author gets close to doing that in a couple places in this book, but in the end, as with the rest of his work, he seems to simply refuse to name what needs to be named. 

If he ever decides to do that, I’ll become a champion of his work. As long as he refuses to name the economic injustice, the awful biases, the unequal distribution of access and opportunity, then my belief is that he is letting educators and educational institutions off the hook, which is another way of saying he’s demonstrating low expectations for professional educators, assuming they can’t be engaged in more sophisticated ways. 

What he’s doing here is akin to suggesting we can reform the criminal justice system without ever saying the word “racism.” Not possible. 

There’s a way to do what he’s attempting to do while also naming and taking a stand on these bigger issues. I do it in my own work. It would be revolutionary for somebody with his reach to do the same. He appears to be choosing not to do so, which means that virtually anybody in the education world who is doing actual economic justice work will continue to see him as a barrier and not an ally, as most of them see him now. 

Please send him my respects for writing a book that is very accessible and even in places fun to read. Please also let him know that I wish he would use those skills to push a little harder, to not give folks such an easy route, and that if he ever wants to talk about how we might work together on such a vision, I’m here and happy to talk.



Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at gorski@edchange.org.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to leave your comments here in the spirit of LeHa Mogo.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.