The War that Must Be Won...
Dean Carolyn M. Shields
The Third Annual College of Education conference on the Impact of Poverty on Education was held February 6 to 8, 2014. Despite the snowstorm, overall more than 400 people attended one or more sessions to consider the staggering statistics and to reflect on what can be done to open more doors of opportunity to those in poverty. The issue is critical. We know that poor and homeless children suffer worse physical and mental health and, in fact, are seven times more likely to drop out of school, than their more advantaged peers. This results in fewer life opportunities for success and, often, a huge toll on society as a whole. The war on poverty must be won and we, educators at all levels, must be in the forefront.
One in four children in the United States lives in poverty; in Detroit, one in two lives below the poverty line and 5,000 of them are homeless—either due to generational or situational poverty. Both are beyond their control. Children do not choose to be poor, but they suffer the consequences, the shame, and often the trauma of poverty.
Over the two and half day event keynote speakers told stories. We learned of a mother huddled with her children under blankets in a shop doorway in Chicago, struggling to help them with their homework. A “welfare” child, whose teachers and principals told her parents they were only baby-sitting her because she could never amount to anything, became a teacher. A young immigrant boy, languishing in a class for learning disabled children because his English was limited, is now studying for his master’s degree and working such a high level job that, on business trips he enjoys expensive private suites. A Wayne State faculty member came to this country with her single mother, speaking no English, and overcame being homeless to reach her goals.
But we also heard that these stories with successful results are too often the exception. Each of these people became successful because, at some time in their lives, they encountered a supportive and caring adult who acted as an advocate. This should not be the luck of the draw. All children deserve a caring adult and excellent teachers who understand their situation, ensure they are welcome and included in all learning activities, and never, ever send the message that they are unworthy or unwelcome.
Keynote speakers and break-out presenters alike talked about strategies for supporting impoverished children. These included eliminating deficit thinking—i.e., blaming the children or their parents, thinking they don’t care, and placing the responsibility for school failure on the children and families, despite the trauma with which they are often dealing. This, one speaker said, is the single most important factor in the academic achievement of impoverished children. All must be held to high expectations. All must be given assignments they can do regardless of the financial state of their family or whether their parents have time and energy and resources to help them. Teachers must never assume that what a child has had an opportunity to learn reflects all he is capable of learning. In fact, one strong message from the conference was to hold all children to high standards and support their efforts to attain them.
A large number of community groups participated in the conference, and at noon on Thursday were given the opportunity to “chair” tables where they had an opportunity to explain their work, and, in some cases, to encourage participation. As a result of these informal conversations, new relationships and commitments were forged; and at least one professor has determined to take her classes to participate in the work of the agency she learned about.
The final message many participants took away from the conference was that we need to work with the impoverished people in our neighborhoods, and not simply for them. This is not a missionary endeavor, but one that requires us to develop empathy and understanding, to act as advocates and even revolutionaries where possible, to ensure changes in education as well as in public policy.
Next year’s conference will pick up on these themes and extend them in an attempt to encourage researchers, teachers, policymakers, and community members to join forces to win this war on poverty. Please mark your calendars now for March 26 and 27, 2015 for the fourth annual College of Education poverty conference. It will take all of us to address this critical issue in our nation!
[Carolyn Shields, Ph.D., is professor and Dean of the Wayne State University College of Education.]