Becoming a Threat to Inequity: 12 Principles on Poverty and Educational Equity

I have spent the better part of 15 years working with schools and school districts in the U.S. and Canada, supporting them in their efforts to create and sustain more equitable learning environments for students in poverty. My goal is to help every educator with whom I work to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to become a threat to the existence of educational inequity.

After 15 years I have learned that, despite popular belief, the most formidable barrier to educational justice is not a lack of practical strategies or even a lack of people who want to see all students perform to their fullest capabilities. Instead the biggest barrier is ideological. It is reflected by a lack of understanding or, in some cases, a lack of will on the parts of educational leaders to understand with sufficient depth why educational disparities exist so that they can develop policy and practice that threaten the persistence of those disparities.

As a result, the most challenging aspect of my commitment to cultivating educators who are threats to educational inequities is in helping them, first, to understand the problems they are trying to solve with enough complexity that they start to become that threat. When it comes to matters of poverty, that means letting go of deficit views of families in poverty, the mythical "culture of poverty" idea, the paternalistic "grit" obsession, and other mindlessly simplistic (and, of course, inaccurate) notions and presumptions about poverty and educational outcome disparities.

Even harder for some well-intended educators to bear, it means acknowledging an opportunity gap that calls into question our and our institutions' culpability in perpetuating the achievement gap we say we want to destroy. What is it about my institution's policy and practice that deepens inequities, sometimes even in the name of creating more equity? It also means acknowledging that without significant societal changes such as greater levels of income and wealth equality, more equitable access to high-quality healthcare, and wider access to affordable housing and affordable childcare, we ultimately cannot eliminate the opportunity gap that perpetuates the achievement gap.

As educators, at the very least, even if those societal issues are outside our spheres of influence, we must understand them well enough to develop school- and even classroom-level policy and practice that are responsive to them. The willingness to do this is largely a matter of understanding and a matter of will. If I have a deficit view, believing that people in poverty are in poverty because of they are lazy and don't care about education (despite the fact that neither of these claims holds up to scrutiny), then it will not occur to me to consider these bigger societal conditions.

Another way of thinking of this is that, when it comes to educational equity, the most formidable barrier is conceptual, about understanding and being willing to understand, and not practical, in nature. And that makes it an infinitely more difficult nut to crack.

The cracking begins with a commitment to embrace some basic principles related to the nature of socioeconomic educational disparities. If we are going to become threats to the existence of inequity, then we need, first of all, to work on the necessary ideological shifts. After all, ideology drives how we interpret what we see, from student behaviors to testing data. Our interpretations inform the kinds of solutions for creating more equitable schools we are capable of imagining. What we are capable of imagining determines what we do in practice and how we frame policy.

If I embrace the ideological stance, however erroneous it might be, that on average youth in poverty don't do as well in school as their wealthier peers because their families don't value education, I set myself up to misinterpret all sorts of things. I might misinterpret disparate levels of in-school family involvement as "those families don't care" because it doesn't even occur to me to consider the barriers that families in poverty face. If I'm unable or unwilling to consider those barriers I might not realize that the greatest roadblocks for low-income students are the symptoms poverty, itself, and misguided educational policy and practice developed through a misunderstanding of poverty. Whether it's due to an inability or lack of will to understand these conditions, I render more or less useless when it comes to equity if that is where I'm stuck.

So we need to start asking ourselves new questions. What if every working age adult had access to a living wage job? What if every student had access to high-quality healthcare? What if school policy was constructed in ways that take the unequal distribution of these basic rights into account and not in ways that punish families in poverty for the ramifications of the unequal distribution of basic rights?

Again, understanding drives practice and policy. This is why the first step toward equity is to bolster our equity literacy. When we understand the nature of the problems we are trying to solve more deeply we prepare ourselves to become more serious threats to the existence of educational inequities.

With this in mind I propose 12 equity literacy principles for educators of students whose families are experiencing poverty. These principles are drawn from my experience observing in and working with schools as well as more formal research on poverty and education. They are the types of base-level understandings necessary to become a threat to educational inequities.

I have witnessed the greatest amounts of progress toward equity when I have worked with schools where educators have embraced these principles while also collaborating authentically with low-income students and families. Educators in the schools that make the most progress, in my experience, think of their relationships with economically disadvantaged families, not in terms of allyship, advocacy, or partnership, but rather in terms of solidarity in a struggle for equity.

I call these the 12 Principles of Equity Literacy. Although here I describe them in relation to students in poverty, they can be applied as well to race, gender, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, or any other sort of identity around which students and families are marginalized.

1. People in poverty are the experts of their own experiences. Initiatives for addressing educational inequities experienced by people in poverty must be developed in equal collaboration with people in poverty, informed by their expertise.

2. The right to equitable educational opportunity is universal. An individual’s socioeconomic status should not determine the amount or nature of educational opportunity allocated to her.

3. Poverty is intersectional in nature, interacting in inextricable ways with racism, sexism, linguicism, xenophobia, environmental injustice, and a wide variety of other forms of inequity and injustice. Conversations about poverty in which racial or other inequities are intentionally or unintentionally masked are, by definition, incomplete, inaccurate, inadequate, and inequitable.

4. People in poverty are diverse. There is no culture of poverty. There is no set of strategies that will work for all people in poverty.

5. What we believe about people in poverty determines how we teach, interact with, and advocate (or fail to advocate) for people in poverty. If we are unwilling to shift our understandings of poverty, we are incapable of eliminating class-based inequities.

6. We cannot understand the relationship between poverty and education without first understanding the structural barriers experienced both in and out of schools by economically marginalized students and families. Even if, given the constraints of our own spheres of influence, we cannot completely eliminate all of those barriers, a failure to understand them ensures our inabilities to craft policy and practice that are, at the very least, responsive to them.

7. Test scores are inadequate measures of equity. By basing our conversations about equity on test scores we hide from view the conditions that underlie test score disparities and comply with the interests of a neoliberal school reform movement bent on hiding those conditions from view.

8. Educational outcome disparities across socioeconomic status are the result of the unequal distribution of access and opportunity, not the result of deficiencies in the “cultures” of economically disadvantaged families. Equity, then, requires a redistribution of access and opportunity both in and out of schools. If there is no redistribution, there is no progress toward equity.

9. Equitable educators adopt a structural rather than a deficit view of educational outcome disparities. By doing so we equip ourselves with the necessary knowledge to understand how access and opportunity should be redistributed equitably.

10. Strategies for creating and sustaining equitable schools must be based on evidence for what works. Sometimes when frameworks or ideas “sound right” they sound right because they reflect our existing misunderstandings. The popularity of the “culture of poverty” framework, for example, reflects how it aligns with the implicit biases of the educators who embrace it. We must be willing to do the necessary work to identify and use strategies that have been proven effective even if they contradict the common sense of our biases.

11. Simplistic instructional strategies that tiptoe around bigger inequities are no threat to those inequities. This is especially true when those strategies involve the denial of access to engaging, enriching, higher-order pedagogies and curricular opportunities in favor of un-engaging rote instruction or lessons on test-taking skills. It also is especially true when the strategies involve the denial of access to a well-rounded educational experience, such as through the elimination of art and music programs, physical education and recess, and other key aspects of a liberal education.

12. Because inequity is characterized by disparities in the distribution of access and opportunity, there is no path to educational equity that does not involve a redistribution of access and opportunity. Because there is no equity without the redistribution of access and opportunity, initiatives that do not involve the redistribution of access and opportunity are not equity initiatives. Understanding this, we must have the will to create policy and practice that aids in this redistribution even in the face of criticism and complaint from people who are accustomed to having an unfair share of access and opportunity. The will to persist toward equity in the face of this criticism and complaint is, in the end, the heart of equity work.

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.