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Schools and Poverty

by Jean Anyon - 2012

A commentary on the special issue.

How much can schools do to eradicate poverty?  This question undergirds the important articles in this special edition of Teachers College Record. Early beliefs—from the mid-19th century to perhaps the late 1970s—were strong that education could change the world and would constitute the “great equalizer,” in Horace Mann’s words. This belief in education’s power motivated my own entry into teaching in the mid-1960s: Caring teachers would change the world for the minority poor, one student at a time. Over the decades, this belief has faded as poverty has grown despite the spread of education and a more highly educated population.

What has persisted, however, is the deficit thinking that informed the early compensatory education programs that the articles in this issue describe. Such beliefs are more subtle, and expressed obliquely, but they still inform education policy aimed at the urban poor—from local zero-tolerance discipline and metal detectors on school doors (which assume all students are thugs) to the high-stakes standardized testing mandated by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top (which assume that test prep is enough of a curriculum for the urban poor). In addition, as Beatty remarks in her introductory piece, the focus of much reform today on instilling middle-class social capital in working-class and poor students smacks of deficit thinking: “Discourse similar to that of compensatory education in the 1960s has returned.  Talk about disparities in ‘cultural capital’ sounds quite similar to the notion of ‘cultural deprivation,’ for instance.”1

I agree. In the articles, I revisited Martin Deutsch’s Institute for Developmental Studies, the origins of the Perry preschool project, and Bereiter and Englemann’s “direct instruction” of the 1960s—all compensatory education programs designed by white researchers. The descriptions took me back to the late 1960s, when I was teaching elementary school in low-income black neighborhoods in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York; Philadelphia; and Washington, DC. I was given DISTAR workbooks to use to teach reading, based on Bereiter and Englemann’s version of simplistic standard English. The students and I both hated it. One child asked me, after we had been using the materials for a few weeks, “When are we going to learn to read?” I put DISTAR on the shelf and stocked my classroom tables with books from the library.

In DISTAR, and in the compensatory education programs in general, black children were viewed as suspiciously empty of language, skills, and culture. The deficits their families were thought to manifest were wide and deep. The goal was to teach them (and in some programs, their parents) to speak standard English. In my own classrooms of the period, I struggled mainly with how to remedy their economic deprivation with new clothes and extra food. Indeed, I thought the language my students used was inventive and lovely. I had my students write poems and stories in their own language. We would appreciate the music of their voices. Then, we would talk about the differences between what they wrote and the way I spoke, as I was from a different culture—the white middle class. We would do some translations of their talk and mine, back and forth. In this way, language patterns were seen as different, not good or bad. Discussion of the need for them to learn standard English to function in a white world came naturally out of our activities, not as an imposition.

One contemporary version of the early deficit-based projects lives today, in programs like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, where children and their parents are schooled in middle-class language, attitudes, and behavior. The assumption is that such “cultural capital” will provide upward mobility. What is not taken into account by the Children’s Zone project is the fact that without funds for college completion (and often even then), and without decent jobs available, no amount of standard English and middle-class parenting behavior is going to pay the bills of poor folks, let alone propel them into the middle class.

What this powerful collection of articles does is remind us that although the times have changed, some attitudes have not. The focus on the deficit thinking behind early education policy sharpens our assessment of contemporary efforts. I thank the authors for that.


1. Barbara Beatty, introduction to “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 6, 2012, p. 1-3
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16696, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 8:59:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Jean Anyon
    City University of New York
    E-mail Author
    JEAN ANYON, professor of education policy, doctoral program in urban education, Graduate Center, City University of New York, is the author of Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform; Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement, and other publications on urban education and inequality.
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