AT a community forum on public education a few years ago, the speakers offered a hypothesis I found ridiculous:
We won’t close the achievement gap between low-income kids and their peers until we solve poverty.
This idea is repugnant to me because it ignores an essential question: How can we be committed to results for these kids, while acknowledging that they often need more support?
I believe we must move past the polemic that the community forum amplified — the notion that poor kids will never achieve academic success until there is a more equitable distribution of income.
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In fact, the opposite is true: Kids in poverty won’t break out of their economic caste without a solid educational foundation.
And as we work to help kids break out of this caste system, we need to make sure we do not say things that diminish their experiences.
We must also agree that kids who have less often need more to catch up, and keep up, with their wealthier friends. It’s something we all know and some of us, including me, have lived.
If you look at the research data on kids from poverty, I’m not supposed to be here. Dad dropped out of school in the eighth grade. My parents held jobs you did with your hands: construction, store clerk, that kind of thing.
Together they managed to eke out a living. For a while. But when you start working construction at 13, your body pretty much quits well before the official retirement age. In my father’s case, things shut down in his early 30s.
We weren’t doing all that well even when dad was working, but once he stopped, things got very difficult.
We lived without hot water, an operable bathtub or a reliable food source. We ate what we stole, bartered for or what the government was giving away. Laundry was washed in the kitchen sink with water heated on the stove and then hung in the basement. Low humidity was a rare premium in Midwestern basements in summer. You wore your clothes damp, or dirty. Those were the rules.
We were broke. Dad was broken. Mom was depressed. We went to school, but didn’t pay much attention to it. The focus was on living.
College was not an expectation in our house. In fact, it was discouraged.
What am I doing here, a first-generation college graduate, running a successful nonprofit, raising a son who will never know poverty?
I think I just got lucky. There were so many other kids in my situation who didn’t make it, who grew up like me and didn’t get lucky.
And while education played an important role in my life trajectory, it was luck — for example, having the right number of course credits to get into college — that moved me forward.
When people ask me why I’m passionate about education, why I wake up every day with my hair on fire, it’s because things aren’t that different from when I was growing up. We still rely on luck to catch some kids and lift them to their potential.
Luck is not a system. Luck doesn’t reach everyone. Luck is not enough.
Neither are platitudes or polemics.
So how do we amplify the opportunities for kids living in poverty without ignoring their circumstances?
We start by acknowledging what these kids are going through. We show respect and empathy while providing hope and inspiration.
We don’t have to tell a poor kid that poverty sucks. They know it.
What we often forget is that resilience, problem-solving and survival skills are a natural part of a low-income student’s tool kit. It’s up to us to take these assets and provide opportunities, like the best education, to help them succeed. Kids growing up like I did shouldn’t have to rely on luck. Let’s make sure they can rely on us.
Chris Korsmo is the CEO of the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit based in Seattle.