In education, is poverty destiny?

Filling the pail

Periodically, someone will appear and claim that educational outcomes are not largely due to the quality of teaching. Instead,home circumstances, particularly poverty, play a massive role.

I understand where this reaction comes from. The No Child Left Behind act in the U.S. seemed to have been based upon the premise that if you provide strong enough carrots and sticks then teachers will somehow figure out how to eliminate educational disadvantage – the ‘motivate the teachers’ hypothesis.

This approach doesn’t work and socioeconomic reasons are part of the explanation. The other factor is that teacher simply don’t know the best approaches for mitigating disadvantage. It’s not what they are taught at college.

And I use the word ‘mitigate’ deliberately. Neither extreme of this argument represents a rational position. Clearly, teaching cannot eliminate disadvantages caused by social background. Teachers cannot fix poor nutrition or a chaotic family life. Yet teaching does…

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