The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”

Aldous Huxley, The Olive Tree (1936)

While working on a piece for The Conversation US rejecting the increased focus on teaching struggling students (mostly poor, black, Latino/a, special needs students as well as English language learners) “grit,” I came across yet another report on poor students disproportionately being assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers (including Teach for America candidates) and the inequitable as well as negative consequences of underfunded and poorly maintained school facilities.

Children in the U.S. are increasingly the victims of inequitable social, economic, and educational circumstances not of their making, and mostly ignored by those with power in the country.

Too few educators and academics, I think, are enraged about that inequity; too few are moved to action even if they are enraged.

And that is a large part of the reason I was drawn to the work of Paul Gorski several years ago as I began to compile the growing counter-arguments against the popular but deeply flawed poverty “framework” and concurrent book and workshop being sold by Ruby Payne [1] to schools across the U.S.

Gorski is passionate, measured, and informed about race, class, and gender inequity; he is also a dedicated soldier in taking action against that inequity.

Associate professor at George Mason University and founder of EdChange, an organization dedicated to social justice and educational equity, Gorski has written an incredibly accessible, powerful, and relatively brief alternative to the many careless “culture of poverty” books, workshops, and programs: Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (Teachers College Press, 2013).

As an educator and academic with a working-class background rooted in rural poverty, I recognize in Gorski a shared journey that informs out world-view as well as our belief in advocacy.

Gorski offers several stories of his own working-class and impoverished family while he seeks always to offer readers a compassionate, compelling, and practical journey that asks each of us to confront our biases in order “to take a stand when one of our students is being shortchanged—not standing in front of or standing in place of, but standing next to, standing with low-income students and families” (p. 155).

Gorski’s Equity Literacy Approach: Rejecting “Culture and Mind-Set of Poverty” Frameworks

While Gorski’s book examines specifically issues related to social class and education—and remains mostly concerned with in-school practices—while speaking to a teacher audience, this work is suitable for all sorts of people navigating inequity of many kinds, inside and outside of school.

Gorski frames his discussion around Equity Literacy, defined “as the skills and dispositions that enable us to recognize, respond to, and redress conditions that deny some students access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by their peers and, in doing so, sustain equitable learning environments for all students and families” (p. 19). He outlines the ten principles of Equity Literacy and uses these principles to anchor the remaining chapters of the book.

After detailing Equity Literacy, Gorski continues his discussion by helping readers rethink and understand class and poverty before working through the following: (1) rejecting popular “culture of poverty” claims and other stereotyping of social class, (2) recognizing the out-of-school influences on teaching and learning, (3) reframing the achievement gap as the opportunity gap, (4) debunking popular but flawed approaches to teaching impoverished students, (5) detailing effective practices for students in poverty, (6) advocating for working with (and not on) impoverished families, and (7) calling for teacher advocacy beyond the classroom.

Several important themes run through this volume that should resonate with teachers faced with the significant and complex challenges of working with children and families living in poverty.

Broadly and throughout the book, Gorski asks readers to reconsider our faith in the U.S. being a meritocracy: “[M]eritocracy assumes a level playing field that…simply does not exist. Context counts” (p. 17). And this also challenges our trust in the power of the work ethic, about which he argues, “Working hard is no guarantee, especially not when, on top of your poverty, you’re denied equal educational opportunities” (p. 17).

Next, readers must step back from assumptions about class characteristics and then also reconsider stereotypes about people in poverty specifically. Gorski cautions that no social class is easily reduced to a set of qualities, and that we continue in the U.S. to demonize people in poverty by “blaming the victim” despite “most of what poor people have in common has nothing to do with their culture or dispositions [laziness]. Instead, it has to do with what they experience, such as the bias and lack of access to basic needs” (p. 26).

Here, Gorski warns, is why “culture of poverty” approaches fail—both as stereotyping of people in poverty (and thus not supported by the abundance of research in social class and poverty) and misguided for seeking ways to “fix” the people in poverty instead of poverty and its corrosive consequences directly (see p. 109):

In other words, to use an education example, we deny people in poverty access to equal educational opportunity, access to healthcare, and even access to air unspoiled by environmental hazards. We do this for generations and then, when some low-income youth don’t do well on standardized tests or drop out of school or seem disengaged in class, we forget about these inequities and blame it on their “culture.” (p. 54)

Once we can reject stereotypes about poverty and people in poverty—specifically by refusing the deficit perspective (see p. 111)—we can recognize that children and families in poverty “demonstrat[e] impressive resilience” (p. 60).

Differences among people in identifiable social classes, such as behaviors, are “marker[s] of access and opportunity” (p. 80) but not inherent character differences in those people (see also Mullainathan and Shafir below).

Despite Gorski’s primary focus on how we can better serve impoverished populations through formal education, he stresses “[w]e never will realize educational equity in any full sense until we address bigger economic justice concerns” (p. 118).

That admitted, the discussion warns readers about “missionary zeal,” the desire to impose on children and families in poverty instead of asking how we can use our relative privilege in their service. It is here that Gorski calls on our “humility” (p. 135).

However, Gorski does recognize that current efforts to reform education—often accompanied by claims of “closing the achievement gap”—work in the service of doing just the opposite, further oppressing impoverished and other marginalized students—for example, targeting those students for mostly test-prep.

Faculty and Individual Commitments to Students in Poverty

Ultimately, Gorski’s book is an anti-dote to the “culture of poverty” workshop approach to addressing high-poverty student populations, an approach that is neither supported by the evidence nor effective for specific schools or individual students.

Despite the popularity of poverty simulations and workshops, we must admit, as Kincheloe (2005) explains:

Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive [emphasis added]. (p. 2)

And as Gorski has written elsewhere, good intentions are not enough if those with good intentions are not well informed.

As faculties and individual teachers confronted with the considerable challenge of teaching students living in poverty, then, we are tasked with first confronting ourselves, and then, taking the time and care to look carefully and listen intently to the specific communities and students we serve so we can, as noted above, “[stand] next to, [stand] with.”

High-poverty students are cheated out of the education they deserve when their school day is reduced to worksheets and workbooks. Educators who believe they can reach and teach students in poverty through workbooks and workshops are equally as destined to failure.

It, then, remains not enough to have good intentions. As Gorski urges, “The good news is, we can stand up….We can listen” (p. 156).


[1] The framework and workshops marketed by Payne are completely lacking in credibility; in fact, her claims about people in poverty are themselves classist and racist stereotypes. See a significant body of scholarship debunking her work.

See Also

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our LivesSendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

The Payne of Addressing Race and Poverty in Public Education: Utopian Accountability and Deficit Assumptions of Middle-Class America, P. L. Thomas

How School Taught Me I Was Poor, Jeff Sapp

The “Word Gap”: A Reader

Journal of Educational ControversyVolume 4, Number 1 (2009) The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty: Rethinking Poverty and Education

Journal of Educational ControversyVolume 9, Number 1 (2014) Challenging the Deficit Model and the Pathologizing of Children: Envisioning Alternative Models