• by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2015 •

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.Competing views of students and their families have great impact on education results. If one holds a culture-of-poverty perspective, the traits (and deficits) of students become the focus. But IDRA’s culture of possibility frame recognizes the assets of students and focuses on the responsibility of the institution. Similarly, when one looks at a poor neighborhood with an asset lens, they see the strength and potential that is there in talents, skills and funds of knowledge.

We expect schools to have grit, drive and prudence, to set high expectations for all students, and to support them to meet those expectations. And we can point to a school district that is doing just that (Bojorquez, 2014), as well as to examples within schools (Robledo Montecel, 2009).

From both a practical and pragmatic point of view, the asset-based approach does not ignore reality, but rather acknowledges the very real fullness of a community. And it yields much more positive results whether in organizing a community to help itself or in teaching the children in that community.

In order to be successful, our schools and our educators must value and nurture the gifts and strengths all children bring. And we as a nation must demonstrate that valuing by funding public schools fully and equitably and by expecting that our schools governed effectively.

Negative Bias

Old models that are deficit-based and lead to institutional failure unfortunately are getting new energy. What was known as the “culture of poverty” is now appearing under the guise of students’ lack of “grit plus talent” and their lack of the “character factor.” Poverty is seen as both inevitable and the result of a culture that perpetuates poverty for itself.

While poverty does affect families, it does not signal inherent frailties. But biased research perpetuates biased attitudes that support classist and racist claims and strategies. Dressed up in new clothes, these modes of thinking exclude the role of institutional inputs, efforts and responsibilities.

Co-opting Progressive Language

The phrases “no excuses” and “excellence for all” appear to bring in the concept of institutional accountability. Yet this language of progressive education advocates is sometimes co-opted by sinister caring-only-for-profit forces effectively because within poor neighborhoods and among people of color there is a strong reaction to the stigma and labeling of children.

Our neediest schools in the poorest neighborhoods are being shut down and evangelized with “choice” offered by charter schools, many of which are cold business enterprises. Efforts to dismantle at-risk schools succeed when those schools were set up to fail through underfunding and inequitable systems.

Rather than embracing research and speeches that implicate a perceived paucity of language in poor families, we must acknowledge institutional silence about disparate resources and needs. The true lack of stamina to be addressed is not students giving up on institutions but institutions giving up on students. The culture of poverty resides in the poverty of understanding and expectations in the institution. The work ethic that really matters is how hard schools are working for the success of all students.

Educator Accountability

So when some of those who are fighting against privatization and are immersed in defense of teachers say “It’s the poverty, stupid” or “College is not for everyone,” we must beware. Following through on such beliefs is likely to infringe the civil rights of students.

At the same time, teachers are being attacked by forces that often are hypocritical about caring for students and that may really be fueled by the goal to privatize public education. Such criticisms often are misplaced. But educators still need to be taking a clear, realistic look at their work because they do have a significant role in student success. And that role becomes much more powerful when based on the wisdom of the culture of possibility.

And by extension, this draws on the persistence of millions of families who continuously support their children through great odds and defies institutionalized low expectations.

 Contrasts of Incongruities

 All schools must have high expectations for all students, coupled with the appropriate supports to attain them. We at IDRA proclaim the culture of possibility: our schools must   have the grit, drive and the prudence to meet those possibilities.
 In our current educational debates, we face some incongruities…
 …Recommendations for teaching work ethic to those who are actually working the hardest for the lowest pay.
 …Diminishing the persistence of millions of families who continuously support their children through great odds while ignoring the institutionalized low expectations of schools.
 …Highlighting paucity of language while avoiding institutional silence about disparate resources and needs.
 …Ascribing lack of stamina to families and students while consistently giving up on those students and their families.
 …Citing the culture of poverty of families or communities while ignoring the poverty of understanding and expectations in the institution.
 …Demonizing the children of the barrio and the urban ghetto while ignoring the examples of blessed success in some schools and school districts serving those very children.
 …Attempting to teach grit, and prudence or to build character as if those qualities are inherently present in middle-class White children while refusing to adapt teaching so that   children do learn and imprudently over-assigning students of color to alternative settings for minor behavior problems.

 It doesn’t have to be this way


Duckworth, A.L. “Angela Lee Duckworth: The Key to Success? Grit,” TED Talks Education [online] (April 2013).

Gonzalez, N. & L.C; Moll, C., Amanti (Eds). Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2005).

Gorski, P. “The Myth of the ‘Culture of Poverty,’” Educational Leadership (April 2008) Vol. 65, No. 7, pp. 32-36.

Kretzmann, J.P., & J.L. McKnight. Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (Evanston, Ill.: Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, January 1, 1993).

Reeves, R.V., & J. Venator, K. Howard. The Character Factor: Measures and Impact of Drive and Prudence (Washington, D.C.: Center on Children and Families at Brookings, October 22, 2014).

Robledo Montecel, M., & C.L. Goodman (Eds). Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Robledo Montecel, M. Continuities – Lessons for the Future of Education from the IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is an IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]