Can poor children learn?

by Tim Slekar

Reposted from At The Chalkface.

By now the poverty does or doesn’t matter dichotomy is really starting to get old.  Anyone that truly cares about helping children from low socio-economic environments succeed in school knows that all children(even poor ones) can learn.  It’s absolutely ridiculous when education reformers insist that those of us “resisting” are claiming that “poor kids can’t learn.”

In fact, do a GOOGLE search.  Type in “poor kids can’t learn.”  Amazing what the results show isn’t it?

http://eagnews.org/ctus-lewis-increased-accountability-unfair-because-poor-kids-cant-learn/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/natalie-ravitz/lets-stop-pretending-poor_b_774397.html

http://www.alaskapolicyforum.org/2012/05/nea-poor-kids-cant-learn/

Along with the three posts above, it is almost impossible to find anyone “resisting” education reform having said those words.  In fact the “poor kids can’t learn” bullsh!t is typically spread by faith-based reformers while decontextualizing a comment such as, “students that live in poverty come to school with challenges to learning in traditional academic settings.”

In fact, if you read all three of the above posts it is the reformer(s) that declare  ”you just said poor kids can’t learn.”  No!  That’s not what was said.  What was said was that poverty matters.  That’s it.  Not a single claim of a lack of intelligence on the part of children living in poverty.

So why bring this up now?  I mean those of us resisting education reform already are quite aware of how poverty “influences” the learning situations of children.  None of us said, “poor kids can’t learn.”  So can’t we move on? Maybe. Maybe not.

Just last week Mr. Common Core himself (David Coleman)said,

“We have to get serious with each other. It is not okay to say that since poverty matters so much we should use that as a reason to evade reform. It’s not responsible,” Coleman said.

This utterance perplexes me.  It seems as if even Mr. Coleman understands that “poverty matters.”  But what the hell does it mean to recognize that and then demand more “reform?”  Is he saying, “Look, I get it. Poverty sucks.  But we (reformers) have to keep up the pressure. We just can’t let them win! That would not be “responsible.” ?

Huh? If “poverty matters” and the current reforms aren’t working, why would we continue to bash poor kids over the heads with education reforms?  In fact isn’t that IRRESPONSIBLE?

This entire poverty vs reform discussion needs to end and I am going to try to do it now.

In June of 2011 and June of 2012, I along with students and colleagues traveled to Rwanda to work with orphan children.  We had a pretty simple job.  Use grant money to get as many orphans through a health clinic as possible and then find schools that were willing to educate the orphans.  In 2011 we were only successful at getting 200 orphans through a health clinic.  92% of the orphans tested positive for parasites and other infectious diseases.  All were treated with the proper medial attention and given medication.  However, we just didn’t have enough time to find school placements for any of the orphans.

In 2012 I went back to Rwanda.  This time we would work exclusively with a school and try to secure school placements for some of the orphan children.  While meeting with the administration of the Rwandan school we were shocked to find out that the school would not take any of the orphan children.  Admission to the school required  a guarantee that each child had a sponsor willing to pay $14 dollars a month.

Huh? But why?  Don’t you want to help these children?  Look we put them through a health clinic last year and that was the extent of our grant money.  We don’t have $14 a month for each child.  Can’t you just take them?  Don’t these orphan children deserve a chance to go to school?

That was the dialogue in my head and out loud.  The school administrators looked at us with a slightly confused look on their faces.  Again we asked why can’t you take these orphan children?  The answer, very bluntly was “sick and hungry children can’t learn.”

My colleagues and I stood speechless for moment.  At some point one of us managed to ask, “what?” as if we didn’t hear the answer the first time.  Again one of the administrators reminded us that “sick and hungry children can’t learn.”  He then went on to explain that since June of 2011 all of the children that went through the health clinic were probably “sick” again since there was no continued care.  He explained that $14 dollars a month would be used to pay for year round health care, proper nutrition, and adequate clothing.  These three things were “essentials” if children were to have a chance to succeed in school.

After the shock and more time discussing the issue, we came to understand what the Rwandan administrators were saying.  It was still hard to accept but it was hard to argue.  The Rwandan school only had limited resources.  The Rwandan administrators were only willing to use those resources with children that were properly fed, free from parasites and infectious diseases, and properly clothed.

Maybe “sick and hungry kids can’t learn” was a bit harsh.  But were they wrong?

How is it possible for a developing third world country to understand that “poverty matters?”

Someone has to say it!poor

Poor kids can learn! When they’re not hungry!

Poor kids can learn! When they’re not sick!

Poor kids can learn! When they’re properly clothed.

When education reform means that we are willing to address these three facts then sign me up.  Until then…?

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