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Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap

reviewed by Jennifer Seelig & Linn Posey-Maddox - August 27, 2014

coverTitle: Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap
Author(s): Paul C. Gorski
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807754579, Pages: 216, Year: 2013
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In his newest book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, author Paul Gorski provides a practical and engaging guide for educators seeking to create equitable learning environments for low-income students. Drawing from decades of educational research demonstrating disparities in educational resources and access, Gorski advocates for instructional and relational strategies that can be enacted by educators within their own classrooms and school communities to address and counter these educational inequities. At the heart of his position is a strong conviction that educators and other school workers can mitigate these injustices through deep and purposeful reflection about their own beliefs and biases and the use of instructional practices that promote respect.

Pushing back against the pervasive culture of poverty ideology often used to explain the life situations and academic outcomes of low-income students and families, Gorski meticulously outlines the inequities that youth in poverty regularly experience in and outside of schools. While the culture of poverty argument is based upon a deficit perspective that correlates the educational struggles of low-income students with assumed familial or cultural deficiencies, the author emphasizes a resiliency perspective that foregrounds societal inequities and the struggles faced by economically disadvantaged families. Like Carter and Welner (2013), he argues that “achievement gaps” should instead be thought of as opportunity gaps, shifting the focus from individuals and cultures to the structures that limit students’ opportunities for educational success. Gorski examines multiple arenas in which opportunity gaps are quite clear, such as early childhood education, school funding, instructional technologies, teacher certification and experience, and school support services (e.g., counselors and nurses). In addition to these gaps in access, he also discusses the ways in which societal beliefs in meritocracy, stereotypes of the poor, and socialization practices in schools undermine the academic achievement and life chances of students in poverty.

After a detailed analysis of societal and educational inequities, Gorski introduces successful instructional strategies for improving the learning experiences and outcomes of low-income students. While emphasizing that these data-driven strategies are not a blueprint for success and must be contextualized in their application, Gorski’s perhaps most insightful contribution in Chapter Eight lies in his assertion (informed by empirical research) that inquiry-driven, dialogic pedagogies are equally as effective for low-income students as they are for their wealthier peers. The research-based evidence he draws upon illustrates that cooperative, collaborative, and interactive pedagogies are equally beneficial for various income groups, strongly supporting his larger argument that the culture of poverty approach does not explain the differences in educational attainment between socioeconomic groups.

In Chapter Nine Gorski argues that we should reframe educational inequities as part and parcel of the opportunity gap, and that addressing these disparities requires additional interpersonal strategies for engaging impoverished students and their families. In calling attention to both of these approaches to educational justice, the author stitches together the larger social and economic factors of structural poverty and educational inequities with the lived experiences of families in poverty. Gorski strongly emphasizes approaches and solutions that individual practitioners can employ in their own “spheres of influence,” which require educators to build meaningful, sustained, and trusting relationships with parents and students and work to transform alienating and inequitable educational practices. In Chapter Ten, Gorski discusses opportunities for educators to widen their sphere of influence to include collective advocacy work aimed at improving educational opportunities and outcomes for youth and families in poverty.

Given the book’s intended audience and goals, there were a few important concepts that could have been more explicitly illustrated in the text. Early on the author introduces his Equity Literacy Framework (ELF) as a holistic approach to working with students in poverty. What Gorski adds through this framework and the book is an action-oriented set of principles that not only recognize societal wrongs, but seek to redress them through the creation of equitable educational environments. Chapter Two is entirely devoted to explaining the central tenets of the Equity Literacy Framework; however, the ten equity principles, educator commitments, four literacy abilities, and associated skills and dispositions the author outlines become somewhat intangible as the text progresses.  Similarly, while Gorski provides various statistics in Chapter Three to illustrate how poverty intersects with other identities and forms of discrimination, the separation of sections by race, gender, religion, and disability limits the reader’s ability to fully grasp the concept of intersectionality. Although Gorski provides resources for further reading, the use of classroom vignettes or extended examples would be helpful to illustrate the heterogeneity of low-income students’ experiences and practical applications of the Equity Literacy Framework. Overall, however, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty is a readable text and a valuable resource for students, educators and school leaders seeking to foster high-quality educational experiences for all students.


Carter, P.L. and Welner, K.G. (2013). Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do to give every child an even chance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 27, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17661, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 4:06:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Seelig
    University of Wisconsin
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER SEELIG is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her research interests focus on the impact of educational policies in rural communities and the role of rural schools in the promotion of social justice.
  • Linn Posey-Maddox
    University of Wisconsin
    E-mail Author
    LINN POSEY-MADDOX is an assistant professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her research is focused on urban and suburban education with an emphasis on race, class, and educational inequality. Drawing from sociological perspectives, she has a particular concern with understanding race and class relations in schools and communities impacted by demographic change. She is the author of When Middle-Class Parents Choose Urban Schools: Class, Race, and the Challenge of Equity in Public Education (University of Chicago Press, 2014).
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