Review: Paul Gorski's 'Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty' echoes need for change

June 17, 2019

In “Bottom Half Teens,” author John Wiley calls on the community to stand up and demand a new approach when it comes to preparing non-college bound students for life after high school. He argues that continuing to push low-performing students through the system in the same way we always have sets them on a path to a lifetime of poverty.

He’s not the only one who has called for a change in how we educate young people who struggle in the traditional school setting.

In his 2013 book, “Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap,” author Paul C. Gorski also argues for a change in approach. Where Wiley focuses on a community approach – business leaders and parents, as well as educators, need to step up – Gorski focuses on the classroom and the role educators can play when working with students whose families are living in poverty.

Gorski, an associate professor of integrative studies at George Mason University, is the founder of EdChange, accessible at www.EdChange.org. He zeroes in on low-income students and calls out the myth that opportunities are equal if only a student puts forth effort.

Like Wiley, Gorski laments a lack of public conversation about class and money and how that affects education and opportunity. “Conversations about poverty among educators often seem to focus, not on poverty (what causes it, how it represses some of our students), but rather on simple, pragmatic strategies that are based more on stereotypes than on evidence-informed practice,” Gorski writes.

“Another reason people in general and educators in particular might struggle with conversations about class is that many of us were raised to believe that the United States and its schools represent a meritocracy, wherein people achieve what they achieve based soley on their merit, so that all achievement is deserved rather than rendered,” he writes.

That, of course, is not true. There are success stories, and we all love success stories. “The trouble is, because the media loves rags-to-riches stories, we, the audience, are led to believe that they are more common than they actually are,” Gorski writes.

Gorski goes on to encourage educators to nurture learning environments that are more equitable, understanding the challenges that come with poverty and proceeding accordingly.

Educators need to move past many of the stereotypes we have about poor families when it comes to education, Gorski writes. He said he put many of those stereotypes to the test, including the idea that poor people do not value education.

“Our notions of family involvement are limited in scope, focused only on in-school involvement – the kind of involvement that requires parents and guardians to visit their children’s schools or classrooms,” Gorski writes. Those visits are important, but for families drowning in poverty, there may be all sorts of barriers that keep them from visiting school. That doesn’t mean there isn’t engagement at home or interest in education.

Don’t be so quick to write them off or draw negative conclusions, he writes.

The challenge is to work with families in poverty, not work on families in poverty, he writes. That’s a good lesson for educators as well as those outside of the schools. Gorski’s book is a worth a read for all of us.

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