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Teacher to Parent: Schools are not a simple cure for poverty

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We know that our educational system isn’t working for kids in poverty. How can schools help kids to avoid poverty, especially if it’s a cycle?

Schools shouldn’t have to “help” cure poverty. The education they provide is supposed to BE the cure, or at least a big part of it. To say education doesn’t work for students who are already poor is like saying a cure doesn’t work on patients who have the disease.

It works. Unfortunately there exist a number of sun-sized asterisks. The biggest qualifier is that the patient has to accept the cure. Schools can’t give children the education they need to climb out of poverty if children do not engage. It doesn’t work unilaterally. Being in a garage doesn’t make you a car, and sitting in a school won’t turn a student into a scholar. Like Emerson said, “Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.”

Sadly, disadvantaged students often suffer from low motivation. A strong family background can help overcome it, but impoverished students frequently lack that as well. We can add to this a profusion of other problems that can be foisted upon these students, some of which failing schools are directly responsible for, like low-rigor classes, low-relevance curricula, crime, drugs, abuse, and malnourishment.

Would it help if there was a simple formula that always lifted people out of poverty whenever it was used? As a matter of fact, there is such a thing. It’s called the “success sequence,” and understanding it could help all kids evade the cold grip of impoverishment.

The success sequence is an almost alchemic three-step recipe for avoiding poverty: 1. Earn a high school diploma. 2. Get a full-time job. 3. Get married before having children, all in that order. In a 2017 study, scholars Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox found that only three percent of millennials who follow the formula are impoverished by the time they reach early adulthood.

The magical part about the success sequence – apart from its startling reliability – is that employing it is almost entirely in one’s own hands. Yes, you must rely on schools to provide you with access to a quality education, but even in substandard schools students can draw out a useful education if they pour their effort into it. It also depends on an economy that provides enough jobs for graduates to have one. Thankfully this has been the norm rather than the exception in America.

Essentially, then, if students want to follow the success sequence, they can. But they have to know it exists, and I suspect that children caught in the cycle of poverty have not had it demonstrated to them effectively. Schools could help by actively teaching it, not just once, but consistently over time.

The success sequence has been dismissed and even condemned because of its association with traditional middle class values. But of course the sequence wasn’t created by the middle class; the middle class was created by the sequence. As the sequence’s fashionability has fallen, so has the middle class itself: according to the Pew Research Center, America’s economic middle class has shrunk by 10 percent since 1971.

Others fault the sequence for blaming the poor for their own plight. However, the sequence isn’t meant to ascribe blame to anyone for their circumstances. It’s simply to help guide people away from the kind of quicksand that no one ever wants to fall into.

Clearly there are many reasons for poverty, not all of which just disappear with a magic formula. Schools must improve. Parents must step up. Teaching children the success sequence would not solve all of our problems, but it would help a great deal more than continuing education’s slide toward soothing the feelings of students trapped in poverty instead of empowering them to escape.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at and on Twitter @stallings_jody.

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