Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Seventeen: The Failure of Micro School Reformism to Address Children’s Poverty

This is a continuation of a series of posts on summaries of articles, mainly on education.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The attached article for the ESJ Ning is prefaced by the following:

Hello everyone,

Attached is another article for the ESJ Ning. I prefaced it with the following:

Bernie Froese-Germain, author of the editorial “Make Child Poverty History? Yes We Can,” argues that there is not an either-or view of child poverty. There are many actions that can be taken in schools to address child poverty without eliminating child poverty altogether.

Froese-Germain then outlines some measures that can be taken in schools to address child poverty without directly attacking child poverty.

This view is typical of many social reformers. Social reformers view the world in terms of the possibility of changing some things while leaving other things intact.

Interestingly enough, the editor refers to a research project on urban poverty and Canadian schools by Ben Levin and Jane Gaskell. I was a research assistant to Ben Levin on that project and eventually withdrew because I judged that such research in fact would not lead to questioning basic causes of poverty and would have minimal impact in addressing the issue of poverty as such and its impact in schools. In fact, I attended a conference in Toronto with Ben Levin, and several academics and school bureaucrats were there as well. My general impression then, as now, is that it was a group of reformers who would never really attack poverty in Canada.

When reading this article, then, I was quite sceptical of its suggestions. Indeed, Froese-Germain relies on another reformist professor—Professor Fiessa, of OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), who argues against the “either-or” viewpoint. The either-or viewpoint is supposedly that either only conditions within the school or conditions outside the school matter; Professor Fiessa undoubtedly considers his viewpoint to be superior to such dichotomous views.

I support one of these views, namely, that conditions outside the school should be the focus of our efforts rather than a focus of what transpires within the school walls. In the first place, suggestions about what to do in schools for the children of poorer parents, without sufficient power from the poor themselves, is merely band aid methods. For instance, I have serious doubts about the contention in the article that early intervention to help children of low-income parents results in “success” (as defined by the current school system, of course) of such children. What probably happens is that such “interventions” become substitutes for addressing the issue of why the parents receive a low income in the first place. The issue of poverty and eliminating it then becomes swept under the rug and never addressed through a frontal assault on it. The “interventions” within school walls in the 1970s in Winnipeg, for instance, have not changed substantially the situation of poverty in inner-city schools in the twenty-first century. Why is that?

In the second place, the author of the article is too optimistic about the ease with which poverty can be eliminated—given the capitalist nature of the economic structure. The economic crisis of 2008 has undoubtedly limited the possibility of eliminating poverty. For example, despite efforts to eliminate child poverty in Ireland, the level of poverty increased from 2008 to 2009 in that country, from 4.2 percent to 5.5 percent (which is still quite low when compared to Canada). Given the economic difficulties that the Irish working class have faced since then, the probability is that the level of poverty has increased even more—while CEOs and other high-end managers receive millions and even billions of dollars, pounds or other currency.

In the third place, of course, something can be done within school walls, but what is done goes around in circles since the issue of poverty takes second place. If poverty did not take second place, then teachers would have to organize, struggle and fight for the abolition of the conditions which tend to reproduce poverty among children. Neither the author, nor Professor Fiessa, on whom he partly relies, refers to the need to engage in struggle and power politics if poverty inside and outside schools is really going to be addressed.

In the fourth place, Professor Fiessa, like so many others, assumes that the general structure of schools is rational and that changes are to be effected that fit within that general structure (Professor Fiessa and the author show no evidence indicating that they question the standard of success as defined by school bureaucrats. Those who do not work for an employer are often stigmatized and treated as second-class citizens. So too in all likelihood are their children.)

Those who wish to focus on changes in school relations would have to show how such changes actually lead to better lives for the poor—without assuming that success is defined in terms of doing well in the present school structure (as so many middle-class researchers do). The implicit assumption of many researchers is that the modern school system constitutes the standard and that supports are to be provided so that the poor can compete on the same level as other children and adolescents of the middle and upper classes. There is little criticism of the standard itself. In other words, reformist teachers really do not critically engage with their environment. They merely want to reproduce the status quo, but they want to make the playing field of competition more equitable and just. Does not critical thinking demand that we question the assumption that the modern school system constitutes the standard for defining educational success?

What is required, then, is a simultaneous focus on poverty and struggle to eliminate it, on the one hand, and a critical approach to the definition of what constitutes school success on the other.

Equity and social justice demands that we do so, does it not? Or are those who are concerned with equity and social justice issues more concerned with the micro issues in school and classroom that will never address the impact of poverty—and class—on children’s life and results in schools?

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