A Community of Writing Teachers

The purposeful teaching of writing that led to and then sprang from the formation of the National Writing Project (NWP) and its affiliated sites has always emphasized the importance of a community of writers.

And while the summer institutes offered through NWP sites—where I was saved as a writing teacher and then fortunate to be a co-lead instructor for two summers years later—create over several weeks for teachers writing workshop experiences that include forming communities of writing teachers, I fear that in the high-stakes environment of most K-12 public schools and then in the departmentalized environments of higher education the existence of those communities of writing teachers are rare, if not entirely absent.

I entered full-time teaching in the fall of 1984 as a beginning teacher and want-to-be writer. On that first day, I saw my job as a public school English teacher primarily focusing on the teaching of writing.

While my students over the next 18 years would be quick to admit I had high expectations, possibly too high, for them—demanding a great deal of writing as well as significant growth as writers and thinkers—I also had high expectations for me as a writing teacher.

Every day, I feared I was doing that work less effectively than I could, and I was constantly evolving, growing, changing—notably after attending the Spartanburg Writing Project (SWP) summer institute.

Several years after I entered higher education as a teacher educator, my university moved to a first year seminar format, opening the door for professors from any discipline to teach first-year writing—but the university failed to consider that the teaching of writing is a complex skill set, not something just anyone can do because she/he has an advanced degree.

Just shy of a decade into the first year seminar commitment, then, the university has made curricular changes (including requiring one additional upper-level writing course), and I am currently a part of the first Faculty Writing Fellows (FWF) program that includes professors from English, Education, Psychology, Biology, Computer Science, Philosophy, Sociology, and History.

This year-long faculty seminar has allowed us to spend our time thinking deeply about the challenges of teaching writing at the university level.

The faculty members in this seminar have a wide range of experiences and backgrounds in teaching writing, and that diversity has significantly opened my eyes wider to the challenges of teaching writing.

Since I am working my way into the fourth decade as a teacher of writing, I have a much different perspective than early-career professors in disciplines such as psychology or computer science.

When I discuss my strategies for reading like a writer where I highlight the rhetorical and aesthetic aspects of writing, professors from philosophy or biology, for example, say “I can’t do that” or “I don’t do that.”

From these exchanges, then, we begin to discuss how professors can and do address first-year writing differently—but that those differences are not a problem because no writing teacher can accomplish everything in one writing course.

To paraphrase Thoreau, a writing teacher is not charged with doing everything, but something. As John Warner has explained, “I do my best to help students succeed for the future writing occasions they’ll confront in college and beyond, but the truth is, I cannot properly prepare them for what’s coming.”

And thus, we have begun to stress among our faculty that any one writing course is not an inoculation that will cure writing ills. In fact, we are working hard to dissuade professors of deficit views about students, grammar, writing, and such.

Just as any writer is always a writer-in-progress, all teachers of writing are writing-teachers-in-progress.

As a writer and writing teacher, I am still learning, and here are some of the lessons I have begun to see during our FWF experience:

  1. Regardless of background or level of experience, everyone teaching writing needs purposeful preparation for writing instruction.
  2. To teach writing, we must all be willing to investigate our attitudes about language as well as our own experiences as both student writers and writers in our disciplines.
  3. We should form a community of writers for our students, but our schools must provide for all teachers of writing that same ongoing community of writing teachers.
  4. Writing is a complex skill that can and should be taught at all levels of formal education with the full recognition that no one can ever be finished learning to write.
  5. Teaching writing is a discipline itself, a field rich in evidence but mostly defined by the perpetual problems of how to foster writers in hundreds of different writing situations. Each writing student is a new and unique challenge, not a flawed or incomplete student to be “fixed.”
  6. The pursuits of writing and teaching writing are greatly enhanced by equal parts passion and humility.

Finally, what has been most rewarding about the FWF experience and our community of writing teachers is that I am chomping at the bit for my fall 2016 first-year writing courses where for the 35th year, I will be doing some things differently, and I trust, better.

Confronting “Bad Journalism” in an Era of “Bad Teachers”

A couple of weeks ago, I posted Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB in order to examine the impact of ESSA on the growing “bad teachers” narrative found in political and media commentary on the state of education in the U.S.

My speculations have now been given credence, notably Stephen Sawchuk’s 50 Years of Research Show Good Teaching Matters. Now What? at his Teacher’s Beat blog for Education Week.

Sawchuk’s post confirmed for me that the “bad teachers” drumbeat will continue so I posted a comment, one that expressed my frustration and linked to my post above:

Please let’s stop the bad journalism on teacher quality.

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/01/21/addressing-teacher-quality-post-nclb/

Please let’s stop treating Education Next as a credible publication.

First, we must note that the impact of teacher quality is dwarfed by out-of-school factors (http://www.shankerinstitute.org/blog/teachers-matter-so-do-words):

“But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).”

However, that assessment is relative conservative when compared to Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage by Donald Hirsch (JRF, 2007) (https://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/default/files/jrf/migrated/files/2123.pdf):

“Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.”

Sawchuk himself replied:

This is the kind of comment that makes me crazy. I very explicitly wrote that of the IN-SCHOOL FACTORS affecting achievement, teacher quality seems to matter most. Both Coleman in his study, and Goldhaber in other publications (and me in my own reporting elsewhere) have noted that out-of-school factors account for more of the overall variance in scores. You prepare teachers, Paul — so it seems really strange to argue that we shouldn’t care about what our teachers can and do do to affect learning.

And this prompted two more comments from me:

You are aware of the horribly skewed public and political view of teacher quality, and the brief nod to “in-school” does not identify how small teacher quality is related to measurable student outcomes (less than unexplained/error).

But please identify where I have in my post or any of my work ever taken this position: “so it seems really strange to argue that we shouldn’t care about what our teachers can and do do to affect learning.”

Erodes your credibility further, after treating Education Next as credible, to discredit me with a false characterization of my position.

And (which directly quotes from my own blog calling for addressing teacher quality with vulnerable students):

From my blog post linked (to refute your mischaracterization):

So the caveat for focusing on teacher quality must include that as long as we use measurable data for determining student achievement and teacher quality, failing to address out-of-school factors likely guarantees we’ll see little change in measures such as test scores.

Nonetheless, we must address teacher experience and qualifications/expertise at high-poverty, majority-minority schools; however, without social reform that alleviates the burdens of poverty on the lives of students and their families, we are unlikely to see the sorts of changes in data that would justify any in-school only reforms.

Also, the teacher quality debate often fails to make clear at the outset just how we are designating “good” or “bad” teachers (as well as “good” and “bad” schools). We must make sure that we are not using labels of quality as markers for those out-of-school factors. In other words, we tend to say schools and teachers are “good” when the student population is affluent, and both are “bad” when the student population is high poverty.

All of which resulted in Sawchuk adding:

And moreover, I encourage you try to engage constructively on the blog, rather than beginning with personal attacks.

Here, although Sawchuk has posted again, addressing how to couch teacher impact as an in-school factor, I want to highlight what I think is a very important distinction, one at the root of bad education journalism.

First, I believe Sawchuk is in fact a very good education journalist, and although I do not know him personally, I am confident he is also a good person with good intentions.

I also want to note that I have been confronting for some time now “bad journalism,” but I have never once accused anyone of being a “bad journalist”—attacking the person.

Yet, one of the most prominent aspects of “bad journalism” has in fact been a relentless and often careless narrative about “bad teachers” (the people, the professionals) and not “bad teaching.”

So, as I have argued before, the problem at the core of bad education journalism is ironically that many journalists covering education are good journalists—taking the “objective” pose and refusing to evaluate the credibility of the “both sides” approach to journalism.

For me to confront “bad journalism” (the act and not the people) for demonizing people and a profession, “bad teachers,” is my own effort not to make the same mistake I am challenging.

Sawchuk’s recent blog post, then, I am certain feeds into the “bad teacher” narrative; I also cannot believe he doesn’t realize that.

I think as well it is telling that he had my blog post link, but chose to make a fairly nasty and provably inaccurate swipe at my intentions—to discredit me and not address my argument (thus, personal); and then when was given ample evidence, chose again not to address his actions, but instead accused me , a second time, of something I did not do.

My blog and most of my public work is searchable online. I have been confronting “bad journalism,” but I have not attacked “bad journalists.”

Virtually every mainstream journalist, however, has run with the “bad teacher” narrative.

I am struck by that important distinction, and regret that journalists covering education believe that they have the right to criticize teachers (often without any background in teaching), but are offended when their own journalism is exposed for failing to provide credible investigations of much needed reforms in pubic education as well as our broader society.

Nonetheless, I am sorry Sawchuk read my post as a personal attack, and I regret that his option to respond to that misinterpretation has been to misrepresent my own intentions and public positions on the complicated ways we must address teacher quality.

See Also

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

On Professionalism and Good Intentions: More on Education and Journalism

Coda

Last night, I watched a segment on the CBS Evening News covering the Zika outbreak in Florida.

What struck me about the coverage is that the report included Dr. Walter Tabachnick, an expert on infectious diseases, and in a follow up story, the reporter is a doctor, Dr. Jon LaPook. That second story also uses a doctor and researcher, experts on transfusions, as the primary sources.

I must emphasize that no business leader or CEO, no think tank leader, and no members of Doctors for America were included in the coverage.

Beware Educational Alphabet: ADHD, RSD, ASD, OSD, EAA

What do a medical diagnosis and education reform have in common?

Two things: (1) complex matters reduced to a few letters, and (2) failing children.

First, consider ADHD. Below are some readings to help interrogate how this diagnosis has many significant problems, misdiagnosis and over-diagnosis among them, some of which are related to the high-stakes accountability movement in education:

Next, a growing list of alphabet (toxic) soup is assaulting our schools and students under the umbrella of “state takeover” approaches, targeting mostly high-poverty and racial minority schools.

RSD, ASD, OSD, and EAA—among others—have gained political momentum built on propaganda and not results. Below is a reader addressing the failures of state takeover plans for schools:

Finally, misdiagnosing and over-diagnosing ADHD along with partisan-political state takeovers of schools are targeting and hurting vulnerable populations of students—students who need the most support to overcome the obstacles of their lives not of their own making.

How to Become a “Good Teacher”

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

For a very long time in the U.S., the conventional wisdom has been that good schools were the key to just about everything—each child’s future, the nation’s economic survival, you name it.

More recently, that fantasy has narrowed to good teachers as the the “most important thing [fill in the blank].” And as I have examined, moving legislatively from NCLB to ESSA is unlikely to change that mantra, as delusional as it is.

So, if you began reading this in hopes of my analyzing why or why not to use VAM or any other myriad of teacher evaluation instruments, I must gently recommend your time may be better spent reading a volume of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings fantasies, or take a stab an Ursula K. Le Guin.

Instead, this is a story, a true story about yesterday morning, a true story about yesterday morning and every year leading up to that during my 30-plus-years teaching career.

There is a powerful symbiotic relationship between being a teacher and a writer. Having just blogged about turning 55—using Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven” to help me wrestle with aging—my mind was primed for attending the 2016 South Carolina Council of Teachers of English annual conference with three of my four students currently certifying to teach high school English.

This was the first professional conference and presentation for the three candidates, and it was a bit of a homecoming for me since I have been a career-long educator in SC, but haven’t attended this conference—packed with friends, colleagues, and former students—in several years.

I have always enjoyed students, my students, and I have always rejected the “don’t be friends wit your students” mandate as shallow and dehumanizing. (What the hell is there about friendship that is a negative characteristic? I have to ask, musing as well that people who make such bold claims must have really lousy friendships.)

If any student of mine offers friendship, I am always deeply honored by the gesture. It ranks equal to their respect for me as a person and appreciation of my credibility as a teacher.

So the conference was also a wonderful few days for the four of us to weave together informal teacher talk with just being four English nerds, and people. They also gave me opportunities to confront the tension all students and young people feel around teachers and adults: Whether or not they can be their authentic selves without risking judgment.

Don’t worry; I am vividly aware of how fortunate I am that this is my profession.

When Saturday morning rolled around and the presentation loomed at 10:45 AM, my students and I had ample time because of the structure of the day to set up our technology and for them to practice and prepare for an hour before the presentation.

They were each excited and nervous in their own ways (for one practice run, I was asked to leave the room). When game time rolled around, we had a solid crowd drift in—many friendly faces of my career included.

I offered a brief framing of the presentations—designed around the problem that being an English major does not necessarily prepare someone to teach writing—and then each of my three pre-service teachers shared her 10-minute talk, supported by a PowerPoint that I scrolled through in support.

And then it happened.

I felt the urge to cry well up in me, my chest, my eyes. I had already been overwhelmed by recognizing that in the room were four former students of mine as well as my three current students presenting.

But it hadn’t quite risen to my consciousness until that moment—a moment in which these three students of mine were stunning, smarter and more professional that I could have ever mustered when I was their ages or even 10 years older, and my former students in the audience were eagerly engaged, contributing wonderfully in the discussion at the end.

It was then I had my closing comments, anchored by a simple realization: “If you want to be seen as a good teacher,” I said to the audience, “then just have good students,” as I motioned to the three presenters and the the four former students in the audience.

If you think this is cheesy or self-deprecating, I don’t want to be rude, but you probably haven’t taught—or if you have taught, maybe you shouldn’t.

After the presentation, a former student who is now a teacher educator herself lingered talking to my current students, praising them and the work I do (she is vividly aware of the challenges of both being a K-12 teacher—since she was an outstanding ELA teacher herself—and being a teacher educator).

And as I listened, I knew even more clearly than I have always felt that I am not just every year of teaching I have ever taught, but I am every student I have ever taught.

I am left with a paradox—one that powerfully refutes the simplistic calls for “good teachers” and the relentless pursuit of quantifying “good teachers”: If you want to know if I am a good teacher, spend some time with my students, but then don’t be eager to give me too much credit for how wonderful they are.

We did all this wonderful together.

[Reposted at The Answer Sheet]

 

Underneath the Years that Make You

I turned eleven yesterday for the fifth time.

It was a hectic day filled with my glorious duties as a caregiver for my granddaughter intermixed with teaching an afternoon seminar for eight wonderful pre-service college seniors. I forced myself to ride the bicycle trainer an hour late in the day, despite a lingering headache and being very hungry.

I also forced myself to meet good friends at a local tap house for a few beers and tacos—but immediately regretted that decision when I discovered the place was packed because of a formal event being held there. Despite my great urge to flee, I found a bit of solitude in a side room, where two friends were also avoiding the crowd. The wait staff kindly served me without my having to fight through the crowd.

Mostly, I was distracted throughout the day by the hectic, but also the incredible kindness of friends virtual and real. Distracted from my urge to wallow in my aging, the decrepitude that is growing older.

Yesterday morning, however, I thought of Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven,” a bittersweet and powerful story of Rachel’s really awful day at school on her eleventh birthday.

The opening paragraph, I think, can be applied to any birthday, at any age:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

I turned eleven yesterday for the fifth time. But nothing special came with that arbitrary counting off of our brief and precious time on this mortal coil.

“What they never tell you” still haunts me.

The years that make you still “rattle inside [you] like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box.”

At fifty-five, I feel the increasing tension between my diminishing physical self and my (for now) ever increasing intellectual self. Yes, I have more in my brain than ever—more books, more poems, more songs, more films, more art, more people, more conversations, more questions, and much more desire.

There was a time in the first couple elevens when my body was dragging my mind, but that has flipped because my softening and spreading middle, my aching back, my leaden legs are conspiring against my mind and what some people would call my soul.

My soul still soars, and my heart still races with joy because I can recognize the wonderful better than ever.

However, my soaring heart is always temporary because I have yet been able to slay the anxiety that denies me the moment again and again.

Like Rachel in “Eleven,” I find myself always in the hostile classroom and seemingly constantly under the gaze of Mrs. Price.

Like Rachel, I too burst into tears often—in anger, yes, but very often when my soul and heart soar. I cry listening to songs and thinking of the ones I love, I cry watching films, I cry reading books.

As hard as the world is, I consider myself lucky for feeling that world so vividly (although in those moments, I may claim something entirely different).

Unlike Rachel, I am not idealizing being older:

I’m eleven today. I’m eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one, but I wish I was one hundred and two. I wish I was anything but eleven, because I want today to be far away already, far away like a runaway balloon, like a tiny o in the sky, so tiny tiny you have to close your eyes to see it.

But I can no longer idealize being young either because being young is so goddam hard as well, so unfair. Being young is the relentless tyranny of “[b]ecause she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

And I sure as hell do not want to return to that.

Just as I am bound and determined not to be the agent of that tyranny.

I am a father, a grandfather, and a teacher—gifted the lives of young people.

Young people have for many of my eleven years made me want to be a better person, have distracted me from my own demons. The young laugh quickly and become far too excited about things older people find trivial.

Isn’t that wonderful? I think so.

I turned eleven yesterday for the fifth time. I am not happy about that, and I am frightened by the inevitable diminishing of body and mind.

I am there, underneath the years that make me.

I am a zombie.

I am a vampire.

I am all the me‘s that have come before today and none of the me‘s yet to come.

See Also

52 (hurtling)

55 in third person: a space odyssey

Edu-Journalists Know Only Two Stories (And They Are Both Wrong)

This post is mainly a public service because it has become stunningly clear that trying to engage journalists and the media covering education in order to prompt change is falling on willfully deaf ears.

My public service is to save you, dear reader, time. If you see or view a story in the media covering education, you can expect only two frames: (1) If the coverage is about public schools, the message is CRISIS!, but (2) if the coverage is about someone (anyone) without expertise or experience in education, the message will be breathless awe at their courage to finally be dragging that miracle to life that the horrible public school system has been unable to do lo these many years.

Sal Khan? Wow:

As we’ve reported, students anywhere now can get free SAT test prep both online and in person at some Boys & Girls Clubs of America. The move may help level the playing field by improving test prep for less-affluent students to get them ready for the newly revamped SAT, which remains a pillar of college admissions despite the growth in 2015 in “test optional” schools.

It’s part of what Khan Academy calls its core duty to help provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.”

Teach For America? No way!:

In Teach For America lingo, that would be called a hook, a compelling way to think about a concept so that it’ll stick in students’ minds….

Those concerns are reflective of the new tack toward preparation taken by TFA’s Dallas-Fort Worth region, which is trying to move away from teacher-directed instruction in favor of techniques that focus more on students drawing conclusions on their own.

And rather than giving its new corps members a crash course on lesson planning, typically the first step in the TFA’s summer training, the Dallas region supplied its recruits with 700 ready-made lessons, focusing instead on giving candidates feedback on the finer points of carrying off a lesson well.

But what about that pesky skill reading that no one has really figured out—or possibly has never even tried to figure out?

Don’t fret! Buy psychologist Daniel Willingham’s new book!

Or (thank goodness another book to buy!):

About five years ago, the chief executive officer of the Uncommon Schools charter network offered up a lofty charge during a routine staff meeting: “Figure out” reading instruction.

OK, since I said at the outset I was planning to save you time, I’ll stop here, but rest assured, I could do this for hours because the list of (wow!) edu-saviors with almost no or often no experience or expertise in education who are heralded by the media as if the field doesn’t already exist but (again, thank goodness!) these innovative types are here to save the day is almost endless itself: Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin [1], and those already noted above.

Search those names and the pattern is the same: Fair-and-balanced edu-journalists open with breathless amazement at brave Edu-Genuis X and then later notes the person or the program has “received some criticism” (without nary a nod toward whether or not Edu-Genius X is credible, without nary a nod toward whether or not the criticism is credible—because, hey, that’s not a journalist’s job, right?).

We are left then with two related but wrong edu-journalist approaches to education reporting: public education is (and always has been) in crisis; therefore, the only people we can count on to save us is someone (anyone) outside of education.

However, the real story is much more complicated.

Much needs to be reformed in public schooling in the U.S.—much that has been historical failures.

But those problems are more about the structural wall of bureaucracy that has always existed and is even thicker today between the rich and powerful research and expertise in education as a field and practice, and the ability of teachers to implement their profession.

“A brief consideration,” LaBrant wrote in 1947, “will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

LaBrant’s claim remains today, and has been documented specifically about how middle and high school students are bing taught writing. Applebee and Langer discovered:

Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English….[W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face. (pp. 15-17)

Applebee and Langer emphasize that the negative consequences of high-stakes testing distinguish this study from their earlier work and that accountability has essentially stymied the influence of writing research, professional organizations, and teacher professionalism.

In other words, teachers today know more about teaching writing and have a more robust research base on what works in teaching writing but are unable to implement that knowledge base because of the accountability bureaucracy that has supplanted teacher professionalism.

Also damning is that this negative dynamic is even more pronounced for our most vulnerable students:

By far the greatest difference between the high poverty and lower poverty schools we studied stemmed from the importance that teachers placed and administrators placed on high-stakes tests that students faced. In the higher poverty schools, fully 83% of teachers across subject areas reported state exams were important in shaping curriculum and instruction, compared with 64% of their colleagues in lower poverty schools. (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 149)

And their is a truly ugly irony to this mess: Political leadership and edu-preneurs (remember, buy the book and program!) are chanting “college and career ready” while pushing mainstream education that guarantees students lack the rich and complex behaviors that would serve them well in higher education, their careers, and (god forbid) their lives. As noted above (and writing as someone who teaches first-year writing at the university level), students are being denied writing instruction they need and deserve because of accountability (except for privileged students at private schools that are not shackled by the mandates of politicians who send their children to those private schools).

So, I know this isn’t the stuff of breathless awe and fair-and-balanced journalism, but the reality is that we are failing the profession of education, the research of the field of education, public education as a great democratic experiment, our children, and our country. But the solution to that huge set of problems is to tear down the bureaucratic wall of accountability and rebuild public schools with the leadership of educators.

[1] See this excellent examination of KIPP and the clueless media coverage of education “hot shot” experiments by know-nothing edu-preneurs:

For Russo to ignore the uneven outcomes of KIPP schools as a possible reason for their recent lack of attention is odd, but not surprising as reform cheerleaders are often blind to any objective evidence that does not support their narrative.

 

Understanding Poverty, Racism, and Privilege Again for the First Time

Once again, predictably, when my South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability was published at The State, comments included convoluted arguments demonizing people who are poor while discounting racism because “I was poor but I worked hard and succeeded” (this last claim invariably comes from a white person who is oblivious to the example proving the power of white privilege even against the weight of poverty).

Recently, as well, Teaching Tolerance confronted Ruby Payne’s poverty industry that speaks to and perpetuates stereotypes about poverty, race, and privilege (see here for research discrediting Payne’s work).

My public work addressing poverty, race, and education consistently reinforces that political leaders, the media, and much of the public in the U.S. suffer corrosive and inaccurate views of poverty, race, and privilege—stereotypes that are incredibly powerful.

When I argue about the need to address poverty directly, many respond by claiming anyone can succeed if she/he simply works hard enough. When I argue about the need to address racism, many concede poverty is burdensome, but add that racism no longer exists—again, people of color simply fail to take advantage of the opportunities all people have in the U.S.

Despite the great potential of social media and online publications with commentary (a way to democratize whose voices matter), those open forums allow anyone to respond un-vetted and perpetuate one of the great failures of public debate—arguing a single example proves or disproves a generalization: One black person excelled means there is no racism; “I was poor but” proves everyone has an equal opportunity.

Evidence appears ineffective against stereotypes—the illogical and irrational—but I invite you to step away from your assumptions and understand poverty, racism, and privilege again for the first time.

Focusing on poverty, the most enduring myths include some of the following (see the reader below for ample evidence disproving each):

  • Adults and children living in poverty somehow deserve that condition because they do not work hard enough, lacking the “grit” that successful people have.
  • The impoverished struggle because of their inferior literacy skills, often referred to as the “word gap.”
  • The culture of poverty is the result of a number of qualities among the poor, and thus, it is up to the poor themselves to break that cycle.
  • Poverty is a sham because of a number of common sense observations: the impoverished often seem to be obese and many people in poverty still own things (TVs, cars, cell phones).
  • The poor are prone to criminal behavior and substance abuse.

Research, however, refutes and discredits all of these.

One of the most powerful ways to reject false narratives about the poor is to consider that in the U.S., the cheapest foods are high in fat and processed sugar; and thus, it is a matter of practicality that the poor tend toward obesity.

Good health and safety are more expensive—shopping at Whole Foods or purchasing a car with added safety features—and thus both are accessed more easily by privilege.

Yet, we are a people stuck in false narratives about meritocracy and rugged individualism.

To understand poverty, racism, and privilege, however, systemic dynamics such as slack and scarcity must be examined. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much examine the research base that shows the same person behaves differently under slack and scarcity.

Privilege begets privilege because slack allows a great deal of room for failure, and poverty begets poverty because the margins are so tight that irrational behavior seems rational.

But, again, these dynamics are the result of the conditions and not inherent qualities in individuals.

Below I offer a reader because the facts about poverty, racism, and privilege are dramatically different than the false narratives we live with in the U.S. For even good people with good intentions, the myths are hard to set aside.

A Reader: Understanding Poverty, Racism, and Privilege Again for the First Time

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne’s Claims about Poverty, Bomer, et al.

Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children, Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas

Savage Unrealities, Paul C. Gorski

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty, Paul C. Gorski

Problematizing Payne and Understanding Poverty: An Analysis with Data from the 2000 Census, Jennifer C. Ng and John L. Rury [pdf]

The Culture of Poverty Reloaded