The Pedagogy of Poverty

Might it be that classrooms in poverty pockets have characteristics that reflect the character of poverty itself?

This article is an excerpt from the upcoming book A Predicament of Innocents, from People’s Press.

Alfie Kohn recently elaborated in Education Week on Martin Haberman’s description of the “pedagogy of poverty” from an article for Kappan written in 1991. Kohn pointed out that the testing driving No Child Left Behind is making it worse. “Haberman described a tightly controlled routine in which teachers dispense, and then test students on, factual information; assign seatwork; and punish noncompliance.” He quotes Natalie Hopkinson: “In the name of reform …education—for those ‘failing’ urban kids, anyway—is about learning the rules and following directions. Not critical thinking. Not creativity. It’s about how to correctly eliminate three out of four bubbles.”

Kohn notes that “those who demand that we ‘close the achievement gap’ generally focus only on results, which in practice refers only to test scores. High-quality instruction is defined as whatever raises those scores.” He quotes Haberman, “the overly directive mind-numbing … anti-intellectual acts that pass for teaching” in urban schools “not only remain the coin of the realm but have become the gold standard.”

Kohn adds:

Not only is the teaching scripted, with students required to answer fact- based questions on command, but a system of almost militaristic behavior control is common, with public humiliation for noncompliance and an array of rewards for obedience that calls to mind the token economy programs developed in prisons and psychiatric hospitals.

Deborah Meier points out that the very idea of “school” has radically different meanings for middle-class kids, who are “expected to have opinions,” and poor kids, who are expected to do what they’re told. Schools for the well-off are about inquiry and choices; schools for the poor are about drills and compliance. The two types of institutions “barely have any connection with each other,” she says.

Kohn then quotes Linda Darling-Hammond: “The most counterproductive [teaching] approaches [are] enforced most rigidly in the schools serving the most disadvantaged students.” Kohn adds this zinger: “The rich get richer, while the poor get worksheets.” This pedagogy of poverty is not just what teachers do and students expect, but what parents and the community involved assume teaching to be in their schools. It is likely a central fixture in the phenomenon of poverty.

The article Haberman wrote in 1991 describes the relationships in the classroom as being responsible for schools’ part in the emergence of poverty. He writes:

Students in urban schools overwhelmingly do accept the pedagogy of poverty, and they do work at it! Indeed, any teacher who believes that he or she can take on an urban teaching assignment and ignore the pedagogy of poverty will be quickly crushed by the students themselves. Examples abound of inexperienced teachers who seek to involve students in genuine learning activities and are met with apathy or bedlam, while older hands who announce, “Take out your dictionaries and start to copy the words that begin with h” are rewarded with compliance or silence …

But below this facade of control is another, more powerful level on which students actually control, manage, and shape the behavior of their teachers. Students reward teachers by complying. They punish by resisting. In this way students mislead teachers into believing that some things “work” while others do not. By this dynamic, urban children and youth effectively negate the values promoted in their teachers’ teacher education and undermine the nonauthoritarian predispositions that led teachers to enter the field. And yet, most teachers are not particularly sensitive to being manipulated by students. They believe they are in control and are responding to “student needs,” when, in fact, they are more like hostages responding to students’ overt or tacit threat of noncompliance and, ultimately, disruption.

It cannot be emphasized enough that, in the real world, urban teachers are never defined as incompetent because their “deprived,” “disadvantaged,” “abused,” “low income” students are not learning. Instead, urban teachers are castigated because they cannot elicit compliance. Once schools made teacher competence synonymous with student control, it was inevitable that students would sense who was really in charge.

The students’ stake in maintaining the pedagogy of poverty is of the strongest possible kind: it absolves them of responsibility for learning and puts the burden on the teachers, who must be accountable for making them learn.

Kohn and Haberman seem to be scolding the schools for not stopping the pedagogy of poverty, as if fixing schools would fix society. I know community organizers who say, “Look, getting them off the streets and into classrooms, learning to obey and work hard, is a significant first step; don’t deny us that first step. And by the way, as long as you who rule our society make social/economic advancement equal to test scores, you have to acknowledge that our test scores did indeed get better. Don’t be so arrogant as to tell us what we ‘ought’ to do; leave us alone to heal ourselves in our own ways.”

I say no, no, we can’t just leave you alone. We need to tell each other some stories and start a conversation based upon them.

“Schools in the ghetto become schools of the ghetto.” —CHARLES M. PAYNE

“For some, not learning was a strategy that made it possible for them to function on the margins of society
instead of falling into madness or total despair.”



About George Stranahan

George Stranahan, an educator of 56 years, demands in his new collection of photographs and reflections that we take a look at the dismal state of our education system and pursue a more hopeful future. In Predicament of Innocents, George seeks to identify the problems that exist in education today and explore ways in which we might turn the tides so that schools can effectively educate their students as opposed to just taking them through the motions of learning.


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