Empowering Children Through Effective Education

HOPE For Children in Poverty is a dynamic new book edited by Ronald J. Sider and Heidi Unruh with a foreword by Marian Wright Edelman. Many concerned educators, including Jonathan Kozel, present the message. Each writer presents ideas and solutions for solving problems that exist for children in poverty who are at risk of never reaching their full potential. This is America's silent tragedy. Following is one chapter from HOPE For Children in Poverty by authors Vicky Dill and Delia Stafford.

Section III: Special Concerns of Children in Poverty Delia Stafford and Vicky Dill

We Face an Enormous and Crucial Task

The large numbers of children affected by poverty feel overwhelming: fifteen million children live in poverty in our country. 1 That figure is probably low. We are failing these millions of children miserably: as of June 2006, seven thousand children in our nation drop out of school every day, predicting a life of poverty for 2,555,000 additional youth and families each year. 2 In response to the size and the significance of the need, our nation must resolve: No more will we ignore our children -- our nation's most precious resource -- who are needy! No more will we stand by as children lack food, clothes, a decent environment, health care, or someone to assist with homework! No more should children go to schools in this country where termites infest walls, windows leak, bathrooms don't work, and the building feels like a jail.

Righteous indignation is not, however, what we see in America today, but rather apathy. Most of the time, Christian believers are content in their faith. They are good people who believe they are on the right track in their lives. They may never see the third world coming to their back door, but their grandchildren and great grandchildren may live to see an entirely different and bleaker picture if we continue to sit back and live with the status quo.

Accepting the status quo will bring America to its knees. And while starting on our knees is an appropriate beginning, sincere Americans must make an intense examination of what needs to be done to stop the decline of our country's educational system, and act! The next decade must see a radical transformation of the ways we instruct our youth. Graduating every student with an excellent education is the solution, and effective teachers and principals are the key to achieving this goal.

The challenges facing children in poverty are varied and daunting. Barriers to a quality education include lack of resources in the home to provide the basic necessities of clothes, food, shelter, and health care, let alone such comparative luxuries as electronic connectivity, reading materials, tutoring, and a stable environment to support learning. When children hit the front door of the school building, further disadvantages accumulate. Under-resourced schools lack adequate space, computer equipment, and other educational materials. Poor children tend to get the nation's weakest, lowest paid, and newest teachers. Facilities are overcrowded and in shameful disrepair. Further, poor parents do not have the capacity to advocate for their children in the school system in the same way that middle class parents can. Parents frequently work two or three part-time jobs; they may be uncomfortable dealing with bureaucracy and confronting educational authorities. High mobility and language barriers compound these challenges.

There is hope in this seemingly unpromising terrain. We have the potential to help each child graduate and gain access to the fullness of the American dream.

Schools Must Empower Children in Poverty — It Is Their Job

Schools are the only institution in this nation at which attendance is compulsory — whether charter schools, private schools, public schools, or other institutions of learning. For most children in poverty, public school is the only choice because other alternatives are difficult to find or impossible to afford.

While other community-based organizations can support learning, their participation is voluntary. Children are not forced to attend the YMCA, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, or church. This non-negotiable characteristic of the educational system implies that educational institutions have a separate and special mission to "first do no harm." Further, when schools isolate or track children in poverty, fail to provide them with a quality education, and rob them of options for college preparation, they become barriers to equal access to the American dream. Yet the mandatory character of the educational system also represents great opportunity for children who lack other avenues of social advancement.

The Critical Role of Educators

People of faith will generally agree that it is not conscionable for this nation to allow seven thousand children per day to find school so irrelevant, difficult to navigate, or impersonal that they drop out. The smaller learning communities movement, school-to-work programs, and innovations like middle college high school have indeed made a difference in many young lives.3 Yet large national movements are not the only response available to those whose faith calls them to pursue justice for all. There are local initiatives which can be handled one school board, one superintendent, and one PTA at a time that may make an even more dramatic difference in the lives of our poorest citizens.

One researcher who has continued to bring the plight of children in poverty to the forefront is Dr. Martin Haberman, Distinguished Professor of Education Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. In order to understand the power of the proposed strategies, one must understand the role of school in the lives of children and youth in poverty. In his book, Star Teachers: the Ideology and Best Practice of Effective Teachers of Diverse Children and Youth in Poverty, Dr. Haberman notes:

For children in poverty being successful in school is a matter of life and death. For those without a high school diploma, the likelihood of ever having a decent job -- one with adequate health insurance and some form of retirement account -- is extremely remote. Being a drop-out or a push-out dooms people to dead-end jobs, living in unsafe neighborhoods, and never being able to fully provide adequate health care for themselves and their families. It also means that those who are miseducated never develop the individual potentialities that would give their lives greater meaning and society the benefit of their participation and productivity.4

How can we find teachers and principals who agree that school for children in poverty is a matter of life and death? How can we ensure that the leaders of every school see it as their job to identify staff for whom education is a mission?

We need teachers and principals who think of themselves as airplane pilots. You would not want to get on an airplane with a pilot who says, "I'm very good at flying. I fly this jumbo jet every day. I'm very good at taking off as well. I have that maneuver down pat. Now sometimes, I have trouble landing. I land 90% of the airplanes I fly. But, you know, win some, lose some!"

You'd get off that airplane right away! Yet children have no alternative — except dropping out. The law requires all children to attend school, whatever the condition of their school building. We schedule them into classrooms, regardless of whether the person standing at the front of the class recognizes the vital nature of their job, particularly with students in poverty. Some teachers and principals do indeed see their job as this fundamental, and set high standards by insisting that all students master basic skills, do well on tests, and graduate. Certainly this is a beginning. However, if this is all they do, our scandalous drop-out rates will continue to climb. "Star" teachers and principals see it as their central job to motivate and engage students and to make them lifelong learners, problem-solvers, and contributors to society. The vision of educators as enablers of social justice is the cornerstone of each school that truly saves children in poverty. It is the rationale for doing whatever it takes to ensure that each child has full opportunity. It is not enough to close the achievement gap on minimum skills tests so that state departments of education can track improvements on paper. What is needed is a pervasive and shared educational ideology that can make the school the hub of the neighborhood -- a place where all youth and their parents are equally welcomed and served. and where the interests of the entire community are promoted.

What Beliefs Serve Children and Youth in Poverty?

The word "beliefs" here refers to people's core values and attitudes on which they base behaviors. Star teachers and administrators gather their beliefs from a variety of sources — upbringing, faith, philosophy, and life experiences. Regardless of the source, star teachers share certain unshakeable beliefs about their mission to serve children in poverty. In Dr. Haberman's observations and interviews with successful teachers, the same practices and principles repeatedly arose. These core beliefs predict who will succeed in the classroom with under-resourced youth.

Persistence. The first core belief is that teachers must be endlessly persistent.5 Star teachers will not say, "Some get it; some just don't." They will search repeatedly, using every tool in a very large toolkit, to find a way to help each child learn. The belief that it is the teacher's job to keep trying until they are successful is widely accepted in the research:

Teacher persistence helps foster effective teaching. Specifically, teacher persistence may promote high expectations for students, the development of teaching skills, teachers' reflectiveness, responsiveness to diversity, teaching efficacy, effective responses to setbacks, and successful use of reformed teaching methods.6

When teachers do not believe this is the heart and soul of their job, they blame the students for lack of attention, motivation, or capability. What is, in essence, the teacher's lack of persistence becomes a failure on the students' report cards.

Acceptance of high failure and dropout rates reveals a paradigm of teaching as a sorting machine, not a supporting environment. The only way to ensure the success of every child is to try endlessly until the magic works.

Protecting Students' Learning: Who is the Stakeholder? The second crucial belief centers on preserving learning for students at all costs. Star teachers foster relevant and engaging education by discovering what is "hot" for students as well as what is important for their future, and they explore these subjects via meaningful methods. Star teachers' classrooms often look different from those of teachers who employ more traditional methods and create primarily teacher-directed environments, such as by lining students up in rows, or confusing quiet for learning. When relevant forms of instruction clash with the bureaucracy, a star will always opt for the real stakeholder in the organization: the student.

Around Thanksgiving, a teacher brought a turkey into her urban children's classroom. None of the children had seen a live turkey before, and the excitement was palpable. The word spread, and soon some other teachers asked if their children could come see it in its little pen. Groups of happy children filed in and out of this star's motivating classroom. But when a few jealous teachers started raising safety concerns, the principal (clearly not a "star") told the teacher to take the turkey home. Although the star teacher managed to bargain one more day out of the principal, the excitement, relevance, and potential lessons of the real-world object were agitated right out of the classroom. The ability to advocate, gently negotiate, and hang on to whatever works with students while they are clearly achieving is a star ideology; in its absence, school becomes irrelevant and students drop out.7

Putting Theory into Practice. Successful teachers are lifelong learners of more effective and relevant ways to teach. Continuous educator improvement entails bridging theory (what teachers learn from other experts) to practice (how they will apply this in the classroom). Too often, teachers are reluctant to try something new or different; they have their first year of teaching thirty years in a row. Star teachers, on the other hand, use multiple sources of feedback -- such as test scores, attendance, student conversations, and peer review -- to gauge their success in motivating and helping students achieve. They align their own development to their students' needs and seek appropriate ways to apply their new learning. This constant back and forth between theory and practice enables good teachers to keep on growing and changing. In low-income districts, star teachers need extra creativity, determination and insight to adapt teaching strategies for the challenging realities, and minimal resources, of their context.

Approach to At-risk Students. Star teachers will not label students, but will be quick to understand that, amidst many factors that cause students to be at risk for school failure and dropping out (such as chaotic home lives, poor nutrition and health care, violence in the neighborhood), school itself can put students at even more risk. This occurs when schools sort students into "gifted" (typically middle or upper class) and "special needs" (typically lower class) students; when school staff systemically fail to inspire lower-class students to achieve; and when students in poverty are forced into the most run-down schools with the least experienced teachers.

Star teachers view excellent schooling for children in poverty as a social justice issue. Equal and excellent education for all means access to high status jobs for those from poverty backgrounds. Graduates from high school and college have options beyond menial jobs, military service, or jail. Ironically, says Dr. Haberman, "For diverse students in poverty the agreed-upon goal of the larger society is to educate them to be happy, compliant losers rather than antisocial ones".8 The current dysfunctional system diverts quality teachers, principals, facilities, and other resources from those whom we tacitly already consider to be the hopeless "losers."

Professional vs. Personal Orientation. Have you ever heard of a child -- perhaps your own child -- who came home from school and said, "My teacher doesn't like me"? When a teacher's personal feelings toward the learner are transparent, the relationship between the student and the teacher pre-empts learning. Star teachers' relationships with students are professional. Regardless of whether or not they like the child, they will persist in trying to help that student learn. If I only teach the students who meet with my approval, how can I teach the gang-banger or the drug-runner? Will I give up on the teenager who is raising a child? Stars build a trust with learners that is independent of students' behaviors or foibles.

Burnout: The Care and Feeding of the Bureaucracy. Particularly in districts where the poorest children live, school bureaucracies can wear teachers down. It's not the work; it's the time-consuming bureaucratic processes and interruptions that cause stars to become exhausted. Bureaucracies rank personnel in terms of salary and prestige from high (in a central office with a large paycheck, far away from children) to low (working with children, with a small paycheck and miserable benefits).9 Stars opt to accept these disadvantages and relish being with children despite the challenges. They also recognize that these challenges can lead to burnout, and they network with one another to keep children at the center. The antidote to burnout is working together. Maintaining a supportive network, learning from one another, and achieving milestones with children help star teachers avoid high staff turnover.

Fallibility. Everyone makes mistakes, even stars. The key is whether the mistake is allowed to fester and violate the student's trust. Many people still carry the sting of words spoken by a teacher in their childhood that wounded deeply. When a teacher or principal offends a student and then breaks trust by failing to admit to a mistake, learning goes out the window. Adults who cover up, blame someone else, or manufacture excuses cannot model responsibility and conflict resolution. Star teachers and principals realize that breaking trust kills achievement, and that the only way to rebuild relational bridges is to apologize.

In summary, all of the beliefs of star teachers are inter-related. These core values, attitudes, and beliefs form a seamless ideological profile. Most principals can easily identify their star teachers because they build trusting relationships with their students that result in outstanding achievement, motivation, and higher levels of college attendance and graduation.

Policy Implications for Improving the Schooling of Children in Poverty

Identifying the right people to teach is the front door to creating an equitable educational system, especially for students who lack other opportunities for social advancement. Lasting reform at any level cannot take root unless we find ways to recruit, select, train, and support teachers who can build relationships of trust with students. Being "highly qualified" in the sense of having a teaching certificate, a doctorate, or decades of experience is no guarantee that a teacher can be a star. The seemingly simple but potent step of interviewing designed to identify potential star teachers can make a vital difference for children at risk. Moreover, follow-up is needed to ensure that teachers implement relevant, rigorous, and engaging instruction.

No national policies need be changed for this action step; no prestigious boards need be convened. School by school if need be, caring people can advocate selection that takes into account applicants' core beliefs related to teaching. Of course, greater investment of resources can help tremendously. But without star teachers at the front of the class, successful instruction is unlikely, regardless of resources. Ultimately, "star" selection is the first and most important step to meet the educational needs of children and youth in poverty.

Ms. Delia Stafford is President & CEO of The Haberman Educational Foundation Dr. Vicky Dill is Director of the Central Texas Alliance for Leadership Development at the University of Texas at Austin and Senior Researcher at the Haberman Foundation (see www.habermanfoundation.org).


1. www.npc.umich.edu, retrieved 06.23.06. See also www.edweek.org/rc/, retrieved 15 July, 2006.

2. www.usatoday.com/news/education/2006-06-20-dropout-rates_x.htm, retrieved 24 June 2000.

3. www.earlycolleges.org/Library.html#ataglance, retrieved 15 July 2006.

4. Martin Haberman, Star Teachers: the Ideology and Best Practice of Effective Teachers of Diverse Children and Youth in Poverty (Northeast Magic Press, 2005), 98.

5. Ibid, 131.

6. www.usca.edu/essays/vol32002/wheatley.pdf, retrieved 23 June 2006.

7. Haberman, p. 139.

8. Haberman, p. 164.

9. Haberman, p. 178.

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