Educating the Other America: Top Experts Tackle Poverty, Literacy, and Achievement in Our Schools
reviewed by Catherine Compton-Lilly - April 30, 2009
Title: Educating the Other America: Top Experts Tackle Poverty, Literacy, and Achievement in Our Schools
Author(s): Susan Neuman (Ed.)
Publisher: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, Baltimore
ISBN: 1557669066, Pages: 384, Year: 2008
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Susan Neumans recent edited book, Educating the Other America: Top Experts Tackle Poverty, Literacy, and Achievement in Our Schools (2008), places poverty at the center of discussions about education in America. As Neuman argues, increases in Americas poverty rates are virtually indisputable (p. xxiii) affecting nearly every aspect of childrens lives (p. xxiii). The book reports on a two-day conference held at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor during Fall 2007 that brought together researchers and educators who focus on poverty research, instructional design, technology, and intervention in their work. The conference was supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting System and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
Following an introduction written by Susan Neuman, the books seventeen chapters are presented in three sections dedicated to poverty and its consequences, how instruction can make a difference, and how technology can make a difference. In her introduction, Neuman identifies the lack of materials and resources to support literacy, the absence of supports for oral language development, and a general lack of human capital within the families of poor children as affecting the school progress of children. She argues that, by identifying the multiple pathways by which poverty may influence children, professionals will be better able to intervene effectively (p. 6). Thus society and schooling are presented as providing ameliorative experiences for children to counteract the influence of poverty rather than the more logical and ultimately causal strategy of alleviating poverty.
Issues related to poverty, race and schooling are raised in Section One, which contains some of the most provocative and informative chapters in the book. Chapter authors argue that that child poverty rates for African American and Hispanic children exceed poverty rates for white children. Corcoran clearly delineates the relationships that exist among race, poverty, and socioeconomic mobility stating that, even when African American children are raised in similar economic conditions as white children, they are less likely than whites to be upwardly mobile (p. 48). These chapters argue that race plays a critical role in the economic and educational disparities. In Chapter 3, McLoyd and Purtell identify specific ways poverty affects childrens school achievement. They cite the differential effects of temporary and persistent poverty for families, the increased detrimental effect poverty has on children during the first five years of life, and the effects of environment factors such as lead poisoning, prenatal care and infant health care. These researchers conclude that raising the incomes of poor families is likely to enhance childrens early cognitive functioning, school readiness, and academic achievement (p. 66) and that significant progress in closing the achievement gap is likely to require gains toward income equality combined with improvements in the living conditions, nutritional status, and health care of the poor (p. 68). Despite the clear connections that are made between poverty and school achievement, conversations about the pernicious effects of poverty and the need to address poverty in American end in Section One.
Section 2 opens with issues related to instruction including the importance of bilingual educational experiences for ELL students and helping African American students expand their existing linguistic competencies. However, other chapters in this section contradict the strength-based perspectives presented in the first two chapters. [Instructional] Recommendations in the chapters that follow argue for instructional design models that include scripted lessons (p. 205) and prescribed sets of books and materials (p. 220). While some of the learning mechanisms presented in these chapters are unquestionably valuable (e.g., prompting students to read strategically, providing cognitive scaffolds, engaging students physically with texts, promoting the use of imagery to support understanding), these chapters call for the identification and implementation of universal designs that promise to promote learning for all children and specifically for children in poverty. These universalizing claims treat all children in poverty the same when, as described in earlier sections of the book, children in poverty are clearly not a homogenous group.
The third section of the book focuses on technology. These chapters present an overview of fascinating research that examines the ways children interact with existing technology (e.g., Living Books and other computer programs, curriculum-based television programs). While these chapters are full of interesting insights about the ways children interact with various technologies, the possibilities they offer to children of poverty are based on a highly problematic premise - they propose to create cost-effective technology to replace excellent teaching. Not only is this a premise that has not yet been realized with existing technologies and is not substantiated through research (What Works Clearinghouse, 2009), but the underlying argument is that technologies can replace excellent teaching for impoverished low-performing children - a premise that would be untenable in most middle and upper-class communities.
While the book espouses an egalitarian and socially conscious critique of poverty, the language of the book often belies the attitudes of some chapter authors. Deficit language about children and families is clearly articulated. For example, in the introduction, Neuman writes that poor children are deprived of the language, background knowledge, and the conventions they need to understand what is being said by their teachers (p. 5). Perhaps educators and researchers should be asking how they can help teachers to know their students better and thus adjust their language to students needs and abilities. In Chapter 13, Bus and her colleagues state that children from impoverished backgrounds are often deprived of shared book reading (p. 263). Clear deficit assumptions are evident in these statements and the possibility that families may bring other strengths that teachers could privilege is negated. As researchers (Baugh, 1999; Delpit, 1995; Purcell-Gates, 1995; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988) have successfully argued, all children bring language and literacy experiences to school and it is teachers who must meet the needs of their students.
As educators read the book, they will find themselves negotiating the slippery slopes of educational discourse recognizing the social inequities that affect the lives of too many families while simultaneously serving and respecting children and families. Herein lies the danger. As researchers document differences in the literacy practices that operate in poor and diverse homes and communities, they are tempted and often successful in identifying empirical relationships between particular literacy practices and school success. Inevitably, these findings privilege the practices of middle and upper income families while failing to recognize the contributions made by families in poverty and to use these insights to create instructional programs that meet the needs of poor and diverse children. The quest to identify universalist methods that are cost effective will never recognize the strengths of families. In addition, as an educator who taught in high poverty, inner-city schools for almost 20 years, I cannot agree that decreasing the achievement gap or even eliminating the gap would be enough. Poverty is ethically and morally reprehensible. As a society we need to ensure that all children are provided with healthy and stimulating living environments, not only so that they can learn, but also so that they can thrive.
Baugh, J. (1999). Out of the mouths of slaves: African American language and educational malpractice. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.
Purcell-Gates, V. (1995). Other people's words: The cycle of low literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Taylor, D., & Dorsey-Gaines, C. (1988). Growing up literate: Learning from inner-city families. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
What Works Clearinghouse (2009) Retrieved April, 8, 2009, from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/reports/topic.aspx?tid=01