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.


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.


The Illusion of Justice: Social Entrepreneurship ≠ Social Justice

by Paul C. Gorski

No, Social Entrepreneurship is not Social Justice. 
Social entrepreneurship is to social justice as "cultural competence" is to racial justice. It is an illusion of movement toward justice. In fact, it is the worst kind of illusion of movement toward justice because in most of its forms it more or less exactly replicates injustice. 
For all intents and purposes, this is Social Justice 101. The trouble with social entrepreneurship masquerading as social justice can be broken down easily. Let's take the example of micro-finance (although really any example will do). 
There’s a basic premise in economic and social justice, which is that I cannot use the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house. (I believe this comes initially from Audre Lorde in this essay.) I can’t use capitalism to undo the problems that corporate capitalism has created. Nobody with a social justice framework would argue that white supremacy is a useful tool for the abolition of racism. But this is social entrepreneurship: using the hegemonic tools of corporatocracy capitalism as a strategy for abolishing the global inequality that has resulted in large part from corporatocracy capitalism. 
There’s another basic premise in economic and social justice that calls me to distinguish between mitigating action and transforming action. Suggesting that microfinance is a tool to end poverty is like saying a soup kitchen is a way to end homelessness. It temporarily might help individual people be less poor (focus on mitigating), but it’s no threat at all to the bigger social conditions and inequalities that create and sustain the existence of poverty and, as a result, the existence of homelessness (lack of focus on transforming). Nobody with a social justice view would support the idea that we end racism by giving a few people of color the tools to overcome the racism they face or that we end sexual assault by teaching women self-defense. (Except maybe Ruby Payne.)
This is the trick of capitalism, particularly in an era of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has been, in part, a ruthless attempt to take every untouched, sacred sphere and open it to profiteers. (See good discussion of this here.) Public schools are becoming privatized all over the world. Prisons are being privatized. Public parks are being privatized. Marx wasn’t right about everything, but he was right about this: the danger of corporate capitalism is that it creates an endless search for more profit, more profit, and more profit. There isn't enough profit to be made in your own community? Then stretch that community through colonization and imperialism. Still not enough? Try to wash away the notion of "the public good" so that you can profit in spheres that once were considered part of that public good, such as public schools. 
Social entrepreneurship is, to me, what happens when we shift the profit motive into the most sacred of all public spheres: human rights and social justice. It's what happens when we replace a commitment to basic human rights and social justice with a commitment to profiting from every single thing. To me, human rights is a sacred sphere and microfinance and social entrepreneurship more generally are about opening that sphere to profit. "I will be engaged in solving the global issue of poverty (or climate change or racism or human trafficking or...) so long as I can profit in the process." 
The problem, of course, is that when we turn social justice and human rights into commodities (something that is happening in a lot of other ways, as well, but I'll save those for another post), the people and corporations creating the profit-driven illusion of wanting change actually have a financial stake in the persistence of inequality. What better way to sustain the inequality than (a) to make the most economically disadvantaged people in the world in debt to your organization, and/or (b) to mitigate, mitigate, mitigate, mitigate, mitigate injustice, and never get around to transforming injustice into justice?
I struggle to think of anything grosser. 
Let me preempt an argument that I'm sure is coming: an argument could be made that there are people who only will be interested in poverty because they see a profit interest and, even if that’s the motivation, it’s better than having no interest at all. 
I disagree. See "a" above.
Let me preempt another response that I'm sure is coming. What are my solutions? First, people who reap the rewards of global inequality must recognize that those rewards are linked directly to the oppression of people--disproportionately people of color, disproportionately indigenous communities--in their own communities and all over the world. I must hold myself and my government accountable. I must stop voting for "liberals" who are contributing to the illusion. Second, in my individual social justice work, I must challenge myself to consider how I'm distributing my time and effort. Yes, the mitigating stuff is important. Providing food to people who are in poverty so that they don't starve as we work on more transformative action is, of course, critical. The problem comes when I put all my energy into these mitigations and am unwilling to put my own privilege at risk by engaging in more transformative social justice work. 
This is my challenge to myself: Does my social justice work mitigate the impact of injustice or is it a threat to the existence of injustice? 
In the end, if I care about ending poverty or other forms of injustice, the only way to engage in ways that have the potential to eliminate the systems and structures that make the existence of injustice profitable for some people and corporations. I do this because it’s the right thing to do, without strings attached, not because I can profit even more off of the suffering of the oppressed majority. The latter, to me, is the social entrepreneurship model. 
In conclusion, I want to remind myself that nothing is absolute. I know there are wonderful social justice minded people who are tinkering with social entrepreneurship, who see it not as profit-making but as the development of successful non-profits and NGOs. And as somebody who tends to work under a structural social justice framework, I know that I often am tripping over myself, stepping toward the mitigative because of its more immediate rewards from time to time. I do my share of damage in the name of social justice. 
Still, what I see, and particularly at institutions of higher education where a lot of people seem to make a living finding any possible way to reframe the teeth out of any kind of social justice work, are attempts to squeeze "social justice" into what, in the end, are the things social justice movements were fomented to unhinge. We ask students, not to do "social justice" work, but to do "service" work (which at times is framed in terms of justice, but not usually) without helping them see the importance of addressing the issues underlying the need for the service (or, just as awfully, without taking our cues from the communities we think we're "servicing"). We encourage people to be social entrepreneurs rather than social justice activists. 
And so, to me, the creep of social entrepreneurship, and how it's being cast in some places, including my university, as the future of social justice work should be a cause for alarm for all of us who care about justice.

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.


Response to a TFA Hopeful and Ruby Payne Fan

by Paul C. Gorski

Here's a scary estimation. About 40% of the people who email me in response to my work on poverty and education are trying to convince me or themselves that "the culture of poverty" is real. 

Here's an insight. The culture of poverty is not real. It was introduced as an idea in the early 1960s and debunked by pretty much everyone who studied poverty by the early 1970s. After that it was really only embraced by white politicians looking to justify policy initiatives that were hostile to people in poverty (and especially hostile to low-income African Americans) and by Ruby Payne. 

This morning I received an email from an eager young Teach for America (TFA) applicant. For years TFA required applicants who had made it through the first round of reviews to read my article, The Myth of the Culture of Poverty. They no longer require it, but it remains listed on a resource page that applicants are invited to explore. In that article I peel apart the foundations of Ruby Payne's culture (or "mindsets") of poverty approach and the stereotypes on which it is built. Some of those stereotypes, it turns out, are truer of wealthy people than people in poverty, like a propensity for substance abuse, which pops up a few times in Payne's books. The young man had read Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty and my article and had grown somewhat confused by my analysis of the culture of poverty idea. 

"I hope that you might have a few minutes to clear something up for me," he wrote. "I am applying for Teach for America and, for an interview, a resource page led me to your 2008 article 'The Myth of the 'Culture of Poverty.'" 

He continued, "I once read [Ruby] Payne's book A Framework for Understanding Poverty. In that, I found her explanations of Generational Poverty helpful. Is this part of what you aim to combat as you expel the myths of the Culture of Poverty?" 

He came across as quite earnest in his email. "I appreciate the positive implications of your article," he shared, "and would like to look into some of your references to learn more." 


But his next line reflected a sentiment I come across all too often in conversations about how to approach poverty and education: "I am trying to balance both outlooks." Red flag. 

When we're trying to learn about racism, we don't want a balanced perspective between a racial justice and a white supremacy view. The idea is to root out the latter with the former. When we're talking about sexual assault, we don't want to balance a feminist or womanist view with that of sexual assault apologists. So when it comes to poverty, the idea is not to "balance" Ruby Payne's deficit-laden culture of poverty view with other approaches, but instead to eliminate the oppressive view and to replace it with an equitable and just view. Of course the racial justice or womanist or economic justice view encompass a wide variety of approaches and frameworks. But the dialogue in any of these cases should never become one between the oppressive view and the just view; rather, the dialogue should be among different approaches for achieving the just view. It should not be a debate between a climate scientist and a climate change denier. It should be a discussion among climate scientists. The culture of poverty is, in essence, the white supremacy, the patriarchy, the heteronormativity, the climate change denial of poverty views.

To be clear, this is not a knock on the young man. He was reaching out, seeking a conversation, trying to hone his view. There is nothing more beautiful than that. Whereas I once would have seen his message as confirmation of the backward thinking on poverty that pervades conversations about education today, this morning I saw his message as an opportunity falling gently into my proverbial lap. 

"I appreciate you reaching out about this," I replied.

There was a time that my strategy, when responding to this kind of email, was overly-cautious. I would try to step people through an understanding too carefully. It's another way we, in education, often demonstrate low expectations for future teachers. "Meet them where they are," we say, then never quite get to the part where we move them forward from where they are. 

My approach today was more direct. High expectations. You can get this

I wrote: 
Let me be totally honest. If you found Payne’s work helpful and you intend to go into low-income schools through TFA, I would implore you to spend more time learning about poverty. That article actually was written to dispel the myths that Payne has pushed through her work, which is based on a set of assumptions that were rejected in the 1970s by people who study poverty. The underlying myth is that people are in poverty because of some culture or mindset problem in poor communities that is passed from generation to generation. That, in short, is complete nonsense.  
My forebears were coalminers who worked 12 hour shifts in coal mines for generations. Was it supposed laziness or lack of concern about education that kept them poor? Or was it something else? 
You also should know that people who study poverty (Payne doesn’t—she makes her living as a consultant and never has actually studied poverty) have analyzed her work and found that it is full of factual errors. So if what she wrote in that book rang true for you (as it does for a lot of readers), it’s really just evidence that you probably went into the book with misunderstandings and that Payne confirmed your misunderstandings. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. In the US we are socialized to misunderstand poverty—we’re socialized to understand it the way Payne explains it. That protects the interests of the wealthy, who don’t want you wondering whether poverty actually exists because opportunity and access are distributed unequally [to their benefit].
For a quick example of this, think about what you’re about to do. You’ll go through TFA, get 5 weeks of training, then be placed in a high-poverty school. Do you think any parent in a wealthy community, somebody with the economic sway to demand something different, would allow her or his child to be taught by somebody with 5 weeks of teacher training? Would policymakers allow that to happen? In the wealthiest schools and districts in the US a majority of teachers have graduate degrees in education. 
The point, from an educational view, is that the economic achievement gap exists because low-income people have been cheated out of access to some of the most basic things to which other people have access: preventive healthcare, living wage jobs, paid leave, nutritious food, and, in the education world, experienced teachers, well-funded schools, well-resourced schools, higher-order pedagogies… So you should ask yourself why Payne doesn’t even mention these things in her book. And if you really want to challenge yourself then you should ask yourself why you read Payne's book and didn’t wonder why she didn’t mention any of these things… 
I know some of you are wondering why I didn't take TFA on more explicitly in my conversation with this young man. Maybe I should have. But I worry about being too prescriptive in how I respond to young people about these things. Here's a different window to look through, I imagine myself saying. I also worried that being more explicit about my TFA concerns would render the rest of the message less visible to somebody who is already well into the application process. 

I walked away from my computer still feeling some concern, but also feeling grateful that the young man had the courage to ask some questions. And I felt satisfied that I did some effective and not overly-cautious nudging. I shared this sentiment at the end of my message:

"Best of luck to you with whatever you choose to do in the future. The fact that you’re asking these questions makes me excited for you."

I assume others of you are wondering whether I was too direct, whether I failed to meet this young man "where he is." 

He wrote back not 30 minutes later: "I am pleased to have a new (and more hopeful, to be honest) perspective." An invitation, perhaps, to continue nudging on poverty, on TFA, on educational justice.

Not a bad morning.

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.


Stretching Intersectionality to Include Animal Liberation

by Paul C. Gorski

Most of my activism, including my teaching and writing, has focused intently on racial and economic justice. However, as I have written previously (see "The Animal Rights Awakening of a Social Justice Activist" for the short version or "Consumerism as Racial and Economic Injustice" for the longer, thicker version) more recently I have begun to see interconnections between human exploitations, non-human animal exploitations, and environmental exploitations. In other words, I have begun to see how the oppression and liberation of non-human animals and the degradation of the natural world more broadly are related to the oppression and liberation of humans. 

If "intersectionality" speaks to the ways in which human identities--race, socioeconomic status, gender, and sexual orientation, for example--intersect and inform each other, I've come to believe that there is a sort of meta-intersectionality. I use the term meta-intersectionality to refer to the interconnecting roots of human, non-human animal, and environmental exploitation and liberation.

This semester, because I have the coolest job in the world, I'm teaching a class called Animal Rights and Ecofeminism that explores these intersections.

I know that for some of the people who are accustomed to reading my books or essays on racial and economic justice the notion of animal liberation presents a bit of a challenge, even if they can get behind other social justice movements. So I want to share a short excerpt from one of the readings I'm using in my class--an essay that provided me with a new angle on intersectionality, racial justice, gender justice, and animal liberation. The essay was written by Tashee Meadows and appears in A. Breeze Harper's groundbreaking book, Sistah Vegan, in which women of color write about their relationships with veganism through a sort of meta-intersectional lens. If you're struggling to find fantastic narrative intersectionality, I dare you to check out this book.

In her chapter Meadows talks about her realization that animals actually resist their exploitation, and how that's a critical point of connection for her as somebody who has experienced and resisted oppression. She wrote:

They resist. At the stockyard, bewildered calves try to turn around and run away, only to be beaten and prodded in the face, anus, and anywhere in-between. The pigs who don't get off the trucks are dragged and thrown off. Those who resist being confined to small metal cages are hit in the head with pieces of wood, metal piping, electric prods, and anything else that the workers can get their hands on. Chickens fight for their lives as they are shackled in the killing plant before having their throats cut. These beings resist at every point of their captivity and torture. They surrender only to the force used against them.
She starts the next paragraph, "We, too, should resist."

Meadows reminds us that all sentient beings, including non-human animals (and I use "non-human" because the notion of "animal" as separate from "human" is, itself, a social construction), who are being oppressed know they are being oppressed. All sentient beings resist torture, confinement, and other forms of oppression; their resistance is evidence of their awareness. All sentient beings recognize when they are being tortured and confined. All sentient beings feel pain and research is increasingly showing that all sentient beings--yes, even fish--experience anxiety, distress, and physical pain in ways that are very similar to how humans experience anxiety, distress, and physical pain. 

So when I used to eat meat, that meant that a sentient being experienced a lifetime of conditions that guaranteed anxiety, distress, and physical pain so that I could eat what I wanted to eat. As an activist, as somebody who always looks for ways to resist, this excerpt gave me a different window for considering animal liberation through a meta-intersectional view of social justice that incorporates human justice, non-human animal justice, and environmental justice as intimately linked movements.

There are myriad reasons, I know, that people choose not to make those connections. There is the "eating meat is cultural" explanation, although virtually nobody in the world, other than people who do not live near vegetation that can be cultivated for food, ate meat every day, much less at every meal, just three or four generations ago. So if that's culture, it's new culture and a real win for meat, poultry, and seafood industries, which generally are among the biggest human, non-human animal, and environmental exploiters globally. 

Then there's the affordable protein argument, which has been debunked in several recent studies. (See an interesting conversation about this here, on the Vegans of Color blog.) What is true is that all food is more expensive for people in many low-income communities and that healthy food is less accessible in those communities because people in them often do not have access to the types of stores that middle class and wealthier people shop in order to save money, like Trader Joe's. This is another intersecting social justice issue too rarely incorporated into conversations about racism and poverty. The result is that the most cost-effective, most easily-available proteins in high-poverty communities are meat proteins. The beauty of a meta-intersectional perspective is that we can look at this problem in its deepest complexities, recognizing how violence is distributed across multiple spheres. 

Still, I wonder whether, for some--not all, but some--of us folks in the social justice world, the uneasiness about conversations regarding animal liberation and environmental justice, even when it's filtered through a racial and economic justice lens, is an issue of self-perception and entitlement. I want to perceive myself as doing good, not doing harm. I want to perceive myself as anti-oppressive, not oppressive. But, like other people who are oppressive and don't want to imagine themselves as oppressive, it is easier to minimize the conversation or reject it outright than to engage and consider the ways we perpetuate oppression.

I am reminded of when I keynoted about consumerism and racism at the White Privilege Conference and afterward overheard a couple people who are very well-respected in the social justice world dismissing my discussion about inhumane (oppressive to humans, non-human animals, and the environment) clothing companies by saying things like, "What are we supposed to do, make our own clothes?" The root of a comment like this is precisely the same as the root of comments I often hear from students who are new to conversations about issues like racism and sexism. 

In a conversation about misogynistic jokes I might here a male student say, "What are you saying, that I can never tell any more jokes?" In a conversation about racism an occasional white student will say, in effect, "It's like I can never say anything because whatever I say will be interpreted as racist." These are classic responses by which people in a privileged class try to reposition themselves as victims, as people who are being forced to "give up" something to which they're entitled. What does it mean to feel entitled, paraphrasing Jennifer Hickman, to behaving in ways that deny living creatures their vital needs, such as lives without unnecessary pain, to satisfy my trivial needs if I have other options?

I recognize, of course, that I am a white heterosexual middle class man in the US, and that I have what might be called the "luxury" of looking beyond the relatively meager forms of oppression I experience personally--that my attempt to connect these oppressions could be considered, in and of itself, a symptom of my "privilege." I recognize, as well, that part of the privilege is, in fact, having a wide array of options, being able to afford to take any of many non-conforming routes, being able to walk to farmers markets and large grocery stores rather than only having access to a corner store. 

Meta-intersectionality graphic by Paul Gorski.
It is notable, though, that the leading voices around the world making these connections are women of color. I'm betting that the fact that women of color are leading the charge, connecting animal liberation with racial, gender, and other forms of liberation, also is one of the primary reasons that this sort of meta-intersectionality has not been taken more seriously in broader activist and scholarly circles.

I do realize that some people reading this will dismiss it as purely a post about veganism, because that's another way conversations about animal liberation are sidestepped or minimized. The vegan movement itself often is seen as a privileged white person's movement. However that's an historical misunderstanding. 

Vegan culture in the US, like the animal liberation movement, does include a fair amount of self-congratulatory white people who, in all their white liberalism, opt out of addressing issues like racism and poverty. But the veganism-anti-oppression movement in the US was not fomented by and currently is not driven by white liberals. Rather, it is an outcome or result of other intersecting movements including womanism and ecowomanism. We should take care not to confuse the propensity of well-meaning white people to elbow their ways to the front of the room, making sure they're the ones who end up with the press and adulation, with the reality of where the true roots of these movements lie. 

The most radical, anti-racist, anti-poverty, anti-all-forms-of-exploitation parts of the vegan community in the US and globally, and the most important voices theoretically and on the ground when it comes to the relationships between animal liberation, racial justice, and gender justice in particular, are almost entirely, as far as I can tell, those of women of color.

In the end, though, this is not about veganism. It's about the elimination of violence and colonization in all of its interlocking forms. It's about liberation from consumer-capitalist systems--from destroying our health and souls and communities in order to make the wealthiest people and corporations wealthier. It's about doing the least harm and the most good in every possible way. When it comes to animals, that means, whenever possible, that I must resist all of the systems that exploit them, even if those systems once served my trivial needs to eat, seek entertainment, or clothe myself in ways that create suffering for other sentient beings. That, in essence, is ecowomanism.

I haven't stopped doing racial and economic justice work in order to do animal liberation work, as should be clear to anybody who looks through my Facebook posts or browses the LeHa MoGo blog. Rather, I deepen all of my work across justice issues when I recognize and respond to these intersections. It's not an evasion, but a deepening.

As a closing thought, I want to offer this: if imagining or relating purely to the exploitation of non-human animals isn't enough, consider that the same industries and corporations that make (mostly white male) wealthy people wealthier through the oppression of animals also are very skilled at oppressing the most marginalized human communities. I'll give you one guess as to where the grossest, most disease-ridden, most chemical-filled products of industrialized farming end up. From the labor point of view, the workers on industrialized farms disproportionately are low-income men of color, and they have among the most dangerous, disease-inducing jobs available to anyone, anywhere. And, of course, industrialized farming has been named by some scientists as the leading cause of climate change in the world--more so even than transportation.

Here, then, is the meta-intersectionality, and why fighting for the liberation of non-human animals also means fighting for the liberation of oppressed humans: Who faces the most immediate brunt of this environmental impact?

I'll give you a hint. It's not wealthy white people.

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.


Payne, Jensen, and a New Window on Poverty and Education: A Conversation Among Equity Advocates

by Paul C. Gorski

Is Eric Jensen more or less Ruby Payne on steroids?

Over the past decade or so, the education world has been overloaded with new and contradicting frameworks for talking about poverty, equity, and educational outcomes. Perhaps the most dominant voices coming out of the deluge belong to Ruby Payne, the author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty and more or less last remaining purveyor of the "culture of poverty" myth, and Eric Jensen, the author of Teaching with Poverty in Mind who draws heavily on brain research. 

Several days ago Lisa Cooley, an advocate for educational equity and school board member based in Jackson, Maine, posted the following question on a couple of Facebook pages:
Does anyone here have experience with this book? 
Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do about It by Eric Jensen
Familiar with the book, I responded, sharing my concerns. Then I spent much of the rest of the day responding to people's responses to my concerns. 

Below I share a good chunk of the conversation, with Lisa Cooley's permission. What you see below is posted in a similar form on her Blog, The Minds of Kids

Here, first, is my initial response to her question about Jensen's book. Note that I was pounding this out off the cuff on Facebook, so it might come across a little drafty. I also have added some clarifying phrases to the original text, all of which are in [brackets].
Eric Jensen more or less is Ruby Payne on steroids. He uses a narrowly focused approach to brain research to make claims that fail to take into account the same contextual and social conditions Ruby Payne doesn't take into account in her work. Just to give you a snapshot, here is something Jensen wrote in an article in Ed Leadership: 
"We know, for example, that the poor and middle classes have many overlapping values, including valuing education and the importance of hard work (Gorski, 2008). But if poor people were exactly the same cognitively, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally as those from the middle class, then the exact same teaching provided to both middle-class students and students from poverty would bring the exact same results." (Note that he cites me in this passage.) 
His argument is very Payne-esque, making big statements based on a little sliver of knowledge, completely ignoring structural inequity both in and out of schools. First, he misapplied my argument, which was that there are structural barriers that cause class-based outcome inequalities. (He speaks to some of these in his article, like a lack of access to healthy foods, but then fails to say, hey, maybe if we provided low-income kids with healthier foods [or provided their parents with a living wage so they could serve their children healthier foods], that would help.) 
Then he takes an even bigger step ignoring structural barriers. It frightens me that anybody who works with youth wouldn't be able to pick up on this pretty quickly. Take two students, one who has lived a life in poverty and one who has been given every material advantage. Even if the student whose family is in poverty has the same innate cognitive and intellectual potential as the wealthy student, why would we expect "the exact same results"? 
The lower-income student is more likely to have parents who work multiple jobs and evening jobs, giving them less time to help with homework. They're less likely to have access to nutritious food. They're less likely to have access to tutors and other "shadow education." They're less likely to have stable housing or high-quality health care, particularly preventive health care. Inside school, they're more likely to have had the least experienced teachers. They are more likely to be in schools that are grossly under-resourced. They on average will be in schools with larger class sizes, less engaging pedagogies, and with little or no physical education, recess, the arts, and school nurses. [These, ultimately, are the conditions that most clearly underlie educational outcome disparities.]
So, the very notion underlying Jensen's work is 100% wrong. In fact, it's deficit ideology. It ignores the need to address structural conditions--very, very basic structural conditions. The brain research Jensen cites is notable in that it describes what can be the impacts of poverty [such as the inability to afford healthy food and how that might affect brain development]. So then we need to decide, are we going to focus our energy on mitigating those impacts through a deficit lens that sees low-income students' brains as the problem [in other words, see poverty as the symptom], or are we going to eliminate the conditions of inequality that creates the impacts? If I'm a teacher, why not focus on creating an equitable learning environment and responding to the unequal distribution of opportunity within my sphere of influence (at the very least) rather than locating the "problem" in the brains of low-income kids?
I think his model allows people to hold onto their deficit views by claiming they're engaging with a scientific explanation, which makes the framework very, very dangerous.
Alejandra Estrada-Burt, an assistant principal at a school in suburban Minneapolis, who also was familiar with Jensen's work, shared her considerably more favorable view on Jensen
I understand why Gorski is critiquing Jensen's work but having read his books and listening to Jensen present a few times: I would say that his overall message to teachers is no excuses...students from poverty can perform at high levels when they are presented with high levels of cognitively engaging materials. In one presentation he cites research on what would happen if you removed the bottom 10 percent of low performing teachers in U.S. The visual graph showed quite a substantial jump in academic proficiency. Look Jensen's an easy guy to critique ...gets paid thousands of dollars to keynote, lives in Hawaii, etc. The cynic in me would also argue that he is the package that delivers a message that will be received by most teachers (please read in between the lines)....the reality is that there is no silver bullet to save schools...just like weight loss ...schools and teachers have to put in the work of collectively raising the bar for themselves and for their students.
My Response to Alejandra, in which I'm explaining, more or less, that, yes, we have to raise our own bar as educators and that begins with not buying into simplistic explanations for complex conditions:
Yes, that could be [Jensen's] overall intended message, but it's still grounded in a deficit framework, so it doesn't deal with the biggest ideological barrier. 
And really, it's not so much about him or about Payne as individuals. It's about how we, in education, continue to have unsophisticated conversations about equity and justice issues. If we were willing to have more sophisticated conversations about [poverty], Payne wouldn't be dominating the conversation because people would recognize her work as inaccurate and damaging [as demonstrated here, here, and here, among other places].  
And by the way, even though I didn't address the "no excuses" message in Jensen's work, I think that message has done a lot of damage in public education because it's meant to divert attention from the structural barriers that Jensen ignores. Saying that low-income kids don't perform in school as well as their wealthier [peers] because they have crappy healthcare, unstable housing, and fewer material resources is not an excuse. It's a reality. And it's a reality that won't disappear if we cut the 10% of lowest-performing teachers (which is basically still a deficit ideology approach [only directed at teachers rather than low-income families]).
Lisa Cooley chimed back in, honing in on the "no excuses" message:
I have difficulty with this statement, "I would say that his overall message to teachers is no excuses ... students from poverty can perform at high levels levels when they are presented with high levels of cognitively engaging materials."

So what do you do with that no-excuses policy? Teach kids the same stuff...giving special attention to those "struggling learners" who are, usually, poor? That's what we do in my district. But "struggling learner" is just a euphemism for "dumb kids," isn't it?

Teach kids from a strengths-based pedagogy; teach them the causes of poverty and the results. Create a democratic school structure where all voices are equal.
Alejandra Estrada-Burt responded, sort of capturing a middle ground for her view, Lisa's view, and my view:
That is the problem with most educational speakers and theoretical conversations: ... it does not break it down enough for teachers to answer your question, Lisa Cooley...teachers want to know how that plays out in their individual classroom with their students....in theory most educators can accept reframing the conversation from a strength based model...but teachers want support on what they should be doing different. Eric Jensen is one of a few speakers that actually models for teachers strategies and highlights areas where they can better support students in their classroom. I appreciate that he moves beyond the typical sit and get presentations. Jensen is only one perspective but I do believe he helps teachers move along a continuum of a broader understanding toward a more Gorski understanding....but I agree that Jensen does so without calling out the white elephants....
Kenneth Varner, who grew up in poverty, later became a public school teacher, and currently teaches at Louisiana State University, challenged everyone participating in the conversation thread to retain a critical view, describing why he does, in fact, take more personal offense at Payne, Jensen, and others who use a deficit view toward people in poverty:
For those of us who grew up in poverty, and I am squarely in that camp. Not only did our teachers ignore the systemic and structural barriers that Paul C. Gorski so aptly points out, but they did so against a backdrop that saw us not as having less resources but being less worthy. When I taught in the same district I went to school in was the first time I saw how it played out, behind closed doors, the way colleagues, and I only saw it briefly because once I challenged them they simply stopped, talked about children and families. If you don't see yourself and the humanity in those you teach, even recognizing the systemic barriers will do little good because you will have already set yourself up as being different (better) than those you serve. Unlike Paul I am willing to say that I find Jensen and Payne sickening and problematic as humans; that they exploit poverty for their own significant financial gain AND fail to [consider] the systemic ways in which poverty operates and how they actively contribute to the exacerbation of punitive teaching lumped on to children historically underrepresented...
I then responded to Alejandra Estrada-Burt's previous point, referencing Kenneth Varner's post, explaining how gathering a lot of practical strategies, and putting them into practice through a larger understanding of poverty that remains full of bias and misunderstanding leaves us, more or less, at bias and misunderstanding: 
Payne and Jensen both talk about practical applications, which is part of their draw. But part of their draw, in my opinion, also is in talking about those practical applications through a framework that doesn't feel threatening--a simplistic framework that doesn't challenge the existing biases of the audience. Now this is where I would separate Payne and Jensen. In Payne's case, the practical strategies are based on misinformation. One study found dozens of factual errors in her work, such as how she describes "language registers" in a way that is completely at odds with decades of linguistics scholarship, or her statement that low-income people don't value education, which I have refuted in my own scholarship

Jensen does draw on scholarship, although my reading of his work suggests that he applies it quite narrowly, as is the case in the overall "brain research" obsession in education today. Still, he does provide some research-based strategies. But here's the problem that remains, and it goes back to Kenneth Varner's comment above. The problem is the lack of attention to the structural stuff, which doesn't have to be the very central message, but does need to be part of the central framework, in my view. 

My experience working with teachers--and understand that often I'm the one districts bring in to clean up the bias-laced messes left by Payne and others--is that, without the structural view, many apply the most practical, hands-on strategies discussed by Payne and Jensen within a classroom context that is still full of class bias and misunderstanding. 

I'm not talking about bad, aggressively discriminatory teachers here--I'm talking about very well-intentioned teachers who, in the end, still think that poor people are poor because of their own deficiencies (which also remains the dominant view in the US, so it's not unique to teachers, but it is something they probably should not have if they have gone through a decent teacher ed program) and that the way to improve educational outcomes is to fix those deficiencies. 

They go through the [Payne or] Jensen workshop and still are talking about how badly low-income people parent or how they wish low-income people would care more about school. When I wrote Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, one of my goals was to demonstrate that teachers could enthusiastically have a broader and deeper and more complex conversation. [I believed] that, if [the conversation was] couched in a way that wasn't blaming them and that recognized the challenges they faced in their work (and that recognized that teachers, themselves, are targets of a deficit view--blamed, as they are, for all kinds of things that are not really in their control, by among other things the "no excuses" bit), teachers would be very willing to talk about the bigger structural issues. 

That's because I simply don't believe it's possible to create real change in even a little context [like a classroom or school] without understanding the bigger conditions. How can I create equitable opportunities for family engagement if I don't realize how the lack of living wage work impacts low-income students and their families? 

If I believe they're not showing up because they don't care, if that's my interpretation, then what are the strategies I'm going to be able to imagine for addressing such problems? So having a few practical strategies within a bigger misunderstanding is problematic. It's also inefficient. But most importantly it's oppressive. [Note that this really is a criticism of Payne's view, not Jensen's. He does challenge some of Payne's stereotypes in his own work.]

In the case of Payne, I think she knows full well she's being oppressive. She's read the responses to her work. She knows by now it's junk. In the case of Jensen, he's applying his narrow bit of expertise to a problem and people are interpreting it as the way to address the problem [rather than one angle on the problem,  as Alejandra described it], either because they don't understand that the problem is much bigger than a lack of practical strategies and the explanation is much bigger than brain stuff or because it's easier to model a few strategies than to create more substantive and equitable change. [I'd like to add here that referring to Jensen's "narrow bit of expertise" is not meant to be a criticism. We all have narrow bits of expertise. Again, it's not about his framework, but about the way it's applied as though it's the single path toward solving an endlessly complex set of problems.]

Well, I'm not settling for that. Teachers are capable of doing something more than adding a few strategies to their pedagogies, and it starts with ideological shifts. When the ideology shifts, the practice shifts to be in line with the ideology. That's what I see in schools. And that's where Payne is a complete disaster and Jensen is, at best, underdeveloped. 

The quote I shared earlier [see very top of thread] from his work demonstrates his own lack of understanding. Why would I want somebody who doesn't understand something so fundamental about poverty and how it works training teachers on how to work with students in poverty? 

I will add--and I talk about this in my book--that [David] Berliner and some of the other people writing solely about structural stuff and wagging their fingers at people who are doing anything focused more on teaching practice also should be more careful, in my view. To me, it's a both/and, not an either/or, which is why I have ended almost everything I've ever written about these issues with a list of strategies. [As I argue in Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, it is important to provide teachers with practical strategies as we work together toward the larger change, but even those practical strategies will not work if we don't apply them with a deep understanding of the structural conditions Berliner has described so clearly in his work.]

One other quick thing, and refer again to some of Paul Thomas's [writing] on this... The other dangerous ideological frame around this conversation is the GRIT stuff, which argues, more or less, that rather than tearing down the barriers of inequity, we should help marginalized youth develop the resiliency and grit to overcome those barriers. That is the worst of deficit ideology. [This approach is roughly akin to saying that we can end sexual assault by teaching women self-defense.]
I actually don't think drawing on brain research is problematic. I just think we need to draw on a wide swath of research and couch things in a structural understanding. Kind of makes me think of [pieces] that Gloria Ladson-Billings and Lisa Delpit have written about helping African American youth strengthen their abilities to navigate racist spaces. The reason they're talking about helping African American youth but are not doing deficit ideology is that they couch their discussions of this in a bigger context of recognizing and addressing structural racism. They're saying, “Until we get this bigger structural racism thing worked out, we better help kids navigate it so they don't get swallowed up, but we also better not come up with these strategies in ways that ignore the existence of structural racism, or they're sure to be swallowed up eventually.”
Lisa Cooley worried that couching even the conversation about practical responses in a structural view might come across as "attacking" teachers:
Paul C. Gorski, I think you are asking people -- teachers, administrators, etc. -- to think more deeply than they might have under the influence of Payne or Jensen. And it may be difficult under the current circumstances of the attack on teachers. As evidenced by the rise of the Badass Teachers Association, teachers are circling the wagons, and with good reason -- the attacks come from every direction. Now, I understand that your approach is NOT in any sense an attack on teachers, but they have to cope with so many trends and fads and practices that are downright antithetical to everything they know about learning -- so they might consider this new approach, while worthwhile, yet another thing they are required to do.

Now, I think there are requirements, and there are requirements, and yours is in quite a different category from, say, the Common Core Standards. But it does require that an entire school staff think more deeply about their place in kids' lives, and how they can adjust the culture of a school to do right be all kids.
My experience, though, belied her concern. In my experience all over the U.S. (and all over the world, really), teachers have been appreciative of the more complex conversation. I describe this below, along with the approach I take to make sure the conversation isn't framed in ways that blame teachers:
I work with schools all over the country and I get very, very little resistance because my approach begins with an acknowledgement of the challenge educators are up against. Remember, part of my structural message is that teachers, too, are targets of a deficit view. Even as there are some teachers who point the blame at "uncaring parents," a lot of people in the U.S. are being socialized to blame teachers for educational outcomes. 
In the end, my experience has been that educators appreciate being engaged on a deeper level than they are with [Ruby] Payne['s framework]. My message is not "it's teachers' fault." My message is that, with some basic shifts in ideology, teachers can be even better advocates for their students. My message is that some of those nasty ed reform initiatives are harming teachers, students (and particularly already-marginalized students), and families--that the people who feel disempowered by what's happening in education today should be careful not to participate in that divide-and-conquer game of blaming each other but instead learn to understand the contextual stuff that makes all of them targets [of a deficit "blaming the victim" view]. In the end, teachers' interests are very much aligned with the interests of their most disenfranchised students. In one of the Powerpoints I use, my first slide is a photo of my Appalachian grandma who grew up in poverty. The title is "How I know 'the poor' are not 'the problem'". The very next slide is a photo of me with Mr. Hill, the teacher who made me care about these issues. The title is "How I know teachers are an important part of the solution." It's about framing.
This is where the conversation continued onto a different thread, again introduced by Lisa Cooley. She asked me in a public post to describe the "messes" that Ruby Payne leaves behind--messes I'm often invited to come into schools and help resolve after Payne has been there, sometimes for several years. 

I responded, explaining how very committed and very well-intended educators can be thrown off-track by professional development that is grounded in deficit views:
Mostly it's just a confirmation of deficit views, but it comes through as teachers speaking very confidently about poverty, not realizing how misinformed they've been by Payne. It's all the basic stereotypes. They don't care about education. They speak in informal register. They struggle to communicate effectively. It's all about what [the teachers] need to understand about what's broken in low-income families, although they'd never use the word "broken" because that would be too explicitly biased. 

Go back to the example of family involvement. I've worked with schools where, based on Payne's message, the primary strategy for increasing family involvement was to find ways to convince low-income families they should care more about their children's education. 

Well, we know based on about 45 years of research that low-income families have the exact same attitudes about the importance of education as their wealthier peers [see references to some of that research in this article]--that that's not why they show up in lower numbers to family engagement [activities] hosted at schools. So now they're using strategies that are actually further alienating low-income families rather than asking themselves whether the family engagement opportunities they provide are scheduled in ways that make sense for families who can't afford childcare, who don't have transportation, who don't have paid leave and are more likely to be working evening jobs, who experience schools as hostile. 
It's not mean-spirited usually. It's very well-intended--enthusiastic, even. Most see themselves as real advocates. [I will add here that most want to be strong advocates. This is precisely why I prefer to do most of my equity work in schools, because I can start with that assumption.] So my approach is having them look through a different window, from a different angle, incorporating a more structural view so that they can imagine more sensible solutions. The mess is the more deeply embedded stereotypes (which Payne has confirmed for them) and the practices and policies and initiatives developed through those stereotypes. 

Then I'm coming in and saying, "Oops--this isn't going to work unless we're willing to change the way we think about poverty." And despite what people might assume, my experience has been that, as long as I engage educators in a respectful process of digging through the muck--a process that does not blame educators, a process that wraps back around to classroom practice eventually--I get very, very little resistance. 

And I don't candy-coat. I say up-front, "If you believe that people in poverty are in poverty because people in poverty are deficient, you cannot be an effective educator for low-income students." That's my first message. My second message is that this is 90% ideological, and part of our shift has to be [moving away from] thinking that every educational problem is 90% practical.
A little later in this thread, another participant interjected a bit of deficit ideology, suggesting that the primary issue is whether parents value education. This is the popular view, the fall-back view, the impulsive view, in my experience. It's exactly what deficit ideology socializes us to do: to immediately hone in on what must be wrong in marginalized families. This is the Ruby Payne view and can be the result of the Eric Jensen view if that view is not couched carefully in a deeper understanding of poverty than he demonstrates in the quote at the very top of the thread. 

I responded:
The issue is not who values education. Virtually everybody values education, and we have research going back to the mid-70s that makes that very clear. The issue is who has access to equitable educational opportunity. [This is an issue that Payne ignores completely and that Jensen largely ignores.] And this is what I've been saying about ideology, why it's so important. If I start by believing that poverty is actually a symptom of deficiencies in people or communities [which is Payne's "culture of poverty" view and could be how Jensen is interpreted if it's not couched in a more structural understanding], I am very likely to interpret the symptoms of unequal opportunity--low-income parents showing up to school-based opportunities for family engagement at lower rates than their wealthier peers, for example--as evidence supporting my deficit view. And it's wrong. In every single way it's wrong. 

Sure there are individual people who might not value education in whatever way, but those people are not [according to 45 years of research] concentrated in low-income communities (or in communities of color, which also is a common assumption). This works in other ways, too. A low-income student consistently doesn't do her homework. How do I interpret it? A low-income student falls asleep in class. How do I interpret it? Do I consider that they might not have computers or access to a library? Do I consider they are more likely to be caring for younger siblings? Do I consider they are more likely to be working [even if they are underage] to help support the family? Do I consider they might be homeless or have had the lights cut off? If I have the deficit view, I'm not likely even to be curious about these things. [If I have a narrow "brain research" view, do I just attribute this to how the brain is affected by poverty and try to mitigate those effects? Do I think to reconsider school policy and practice with equity in mind or just with poverty in mind?]

If I have the structural view, even though I might not be able to change these [conditions] for the student, I at least will not start with the assumption that the student is irresponsible and that the parents don't value education. I won't respond in a way that further alienates my most marginalized students. And I can come up with strategies that at least take the reality of the situation into account rather than strategies that begin with faulty assumptions. Ideology = practicality.
A few new thoughts to pull all of this together.

First, the fact that so many educators feel drawn to and even defensive of Ruby Payne's framework is, itself, evidence of the fact that even among the equity advocates in education today we are facing a problem that is most immediately ideological and only secondarily practical. It's important to remember that her framework is built on a set of assumptions that comes from the culture of poverty hypothesis introduced in the 1950s by Oscar Lewis and rejected by the early 1970s after a slew of social scientists more or less concluded that there was no evidence that low-income people shared a predictable, common set of values and behaviors. It should be remembered, as well, that reviews of her work have found dozens and dozens of factual errors. No math teacher would endorse a math textbook that insisted that 3 + 5 = 12. No teacher should endorse a book about poverty that equally wrongfully attributes stereotyped values to people in poverty when we have decades of research that demonstrate that some of those stereotypes [such as a penchant for substance abuse] actually are truer of wealthy people than they are of people in poverty. 

Secondly, I do believe there is value to incorporating brain research into a more robust understanding of poverty and learning. However, part of that robust understanding--one that Jensen either does not have or is not comfortable incorporating into his work--must be big-level structural and contextual awareness. Even if we, as individual educators, are not able to transform those big-level inequities, or even if we don't see it as part of our individual spheres of influence, even the smallest strategy or initiative for creating a more equitable learning environment should be based on a deep understanding of poverty and how it impacts students. Otherwise, we end up with strategies that are designed to fix nonexistent problems or that could even cause more alienation, as in attempts to increase family involvement by trying to convince people who already care deeply about their children's education that they should start caring about their children's education.

Thirdly, despite the fact that people always warn me that teachers do not want to talk about these more structural things or, worse, that they're incapable of doing so, my experience has been that a vast majority of teachers are thrilled to have access to any conversation that will help them work more effectively with their most marginalized students. The trick is to ensure, in doing so, that we're not facilitating a blame game between teachers and low-income families, but instead disrupting that blame game. 

Finally--and this is one of those messages that some people find difficult to digest initially--experience has taught me that our biggest barrier when it comes to us as educators helping to create the change required to ensure more equitable educational opportunity for low-income students is the way that we, in education, tend to see problems as fundamentally practical, solvable with the next best instructional framework or bit of curricula or assessment paradigm. The trouble is that we tend to implement these strategies and initiatives without changing the biased ideologies that have helped sustain the problems we're trying to solve. The first ideological shift is from a deficit view (or a grit view, which is a kind of deficit view) to a structural view. Again, even if I, as an individual educator, can't change the structural stuff, I will not be the most effective educator I can be for low-income students if I don't understand the realities they're facing and how those realities are impacting the structure and practice of education. Looking through the lens of race, a racially biased teacher, however well-intentioned, is not going to be more effective as a teacher if she incorporates a few practical strategies for helping students of color learn unless she also is willing to become more racially just in her own thinking. Ideology, beliefs, world view drive every aspect of practice.

Finally, finally, finally, I know some people are going to respond, "So, what do we do?" (This is the first sign of (1) somebody who wants to sidestep the ideological shift or (2)  somebody who, like many teachers, feels a sense of urgency to do something right now because she has a large group of young people sitting in front of her and doesn't have the luxury to wait until the ideological revolution sets in.) So, I'll say, first of all, that the most practical shift is the ideological shift, because it drives the practical shifts. Secondly, I'll point you to this article, in which I talk about some instructional strategies that are grounded in research. In my book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, I include three chapters stepping through research-based strategies. Still, we should keep in mind that David Berliner is exactly right: the only real path toward the elimination of class-based educational outcome disparities is the elimination of poverty. I know that sounds big and impossible. But it's the reality and pretending that it's not the reality feeds the deficit view that is pointed today at both low-income families and teachers. 

So I say this not to discourage us, as educators, from doing what we can do in our classrooms and schools, but instead as a reminder that even what we do in our classrooms and schools must be informed by the larger realities of poverty. In the end, those practical strategies mean nary a whit if we are not committed to the bigger work--at least the bigger work within our own spheres of influence. I believe a vast majority of teachers and school administrators are committed to that bigger work. That's what I have seen in my work with schools. 

The challenge is finding the most efficient, informed path to take us there. In my view, Payne takes us in the opposite direction. Jensen can be part of taking us in the right direction if supported by a more structural view. Our challenge is to hold ourselves accountable for striving toward the deeper understandings, even when those understandings--especially when those understandings--toss us into cognitive dissonance and intimidate us with their complexities.


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.