Poor and Rich Kids: Here’s How They Can Get the Same Education

Lauren McAlee
When parents imagine the ideal school for their kids, many probably envision a place where children can not only master basic skills and content, but also be valued as individuals, encouraged to delve into interesting topics, and safe to take healthy risks. Many schools offer this kind of rich education. Unfortunately, they disproportionately serve children who come from privileged backgrounds.
Right now, many students receive an imbalanced education. Kids need to develop defined sets of skills like reading and writing words and solving equations; they also need to know how to apply these skills and solve problems in open-ended contexts. Curriculum reform has found a relative balance, recognizing that students need to learn defined sets of skills as well as explore open-ended contexts to succeed in the 21st century. But students living in poverty disproportionately miss out on opportunities for balanced education.
Over 30 years ago, Jean Anyon wrote Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work, observing that in sample working-class schools, “work is following the steps of a procedure,” usually “involving rote behavior and very little decision making or choice,” while in affluent and elite schools, “work is creative activity carried out independently” and “developing one’s analytical intellectual powers.”
Based on my experience working with educators and students around the country, this pattern persists.
Counterexamples such as Big Picture Learning schools, public Montessori and Expeditionary Learning schools, and schools using the Schoolwide Enrichment Model exist, but are the exception for students living in poverty, rather than the rule.
Having taught in both high- and low-poverty schools, I understand why open-ended thinking is easier to emphasize in privileged communities. Varying education and economic status of families creates a serious gap in vocabulary, reasoning, background knowledge, and social-emotional skills. Teachers in my pre-K through eighth-grade high-poverty school spend countless hours teaching students skills that affluent students already know. This leaves less school time for play, projects, and exploration.
In Teaching Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit writes that, “skills are a necessary but insufficient aspect of black and minority students’ education. Students need technical skills to open doors, but they need to be able to think critically and creatively to participate in meaningful and potentially liberating work inside those doors.”
Skating over open-ended competencies is impractical for any school as the Common Core State Standards shift learners towards deeper, more nuanced thinking. With or without Common Core, we cannot accept our current state of curriculum segregation.
So how can we fix curriculum segregation? We can do a lot, but none of it will be easy. Here are a few ideas to get started:

  1. Urgently identify, study, and share learning about the existing pockets of educators who excel in balanced education for children living in poverty.
  2. Provide more intensive school services for children who come to school with less formal knowledge, including longer school days and years, and deeper and wider school staffing. Students with more to learn need more support.
  3. Share concrete tools. Open-ended education is harder to scale than defined education, and we need to share as much as we can.
  4. Ensure teacher evaluations, especially those including unannounced observations, reward rather than punish healthy risk-taking.
  5. Measure schools’ success with metrics that include students’ ability to think in robust, open-ended contexts.

Children in my school and around the country need all hands on deck to ensure their education is rigorous, rich, and respectful of their potential.