• by Laurie Posner, M.P.A. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2015 •

Laurie PosnerToday, low-income students make up a “new majority” of all children attending public schools in the United States. Between 1989 and 2013, the population of children attending the nation’s public schools increased from 32 percent to 51 percent (Suitts, 2015). Yet, while student demographics have changed, deficit views about low-income children and families, in large part, have not. And these perspectives define education policy and practice.

In February, through the IDRA Opportunity Matters Roundtable Series,* we examined these issues with guest speaker, Dr. Paul C. Gorski, via webinar and in the interview that follows. Dr. Gorski is associate professor in New Century College and a research fellow in the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, George Mason University. His most recent book, which he references in the interview, is Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap.

How did you become involved in working on educational equity and closing opportunity gaps?

I cared about social justice concerns most of my life, but it wasn’t until college that I started to find outlets for my social justice spirit. I had fantastic mentors – Bob Covert, Charlene Green, Allen Saunders, and others. They were doing racial justice and other kinds of justice work in local public schools. They were gracious enough to mentor me, and I found the perfect outlet for my social justice energy. The most important thing I learned from them was to question the popular narrative. That helps to explain why I talk about opportunity gaps instead of achievement gaps.

Why do you feel that this work is particularly important now?

It’s always important. But it does feel particularly important these days, in part because of bigger societal conditions, like the growing wealth and income gaps.

How do you define the most significant opportunity gaps impacting low-income students in this country? What are the biggest barriers to closing them?

There are not enough living-wage jobs for all working-age adults. Some families can’t afford healthcare. I know that we, as educators, sometimes avoid talking about that stuff because it feels like it’s outside our spheres of influence. But those are the things that have the biggest impact on students. If we want to understand low-income students, we need to start by understanding those enormous barriers.

The biggest barrier to closing the opportunity gap is the tendency to think that we fix the gap by fixing the most marginalized families rather than by fixing the things that marginalize the most marginalized families. Unfortunately, the deficit view of low-income students and students of color and immigrants and other students remains pervasive. If we don’t change that, we never will be capable of imagining solutions to the opportunity gap.

What is an equity literacy approach?

The equity literacy approach is a comprehensive framework for preparing teachers and students to see the world through an equity lens. Speaking specifically about teachers, the idea is that creating an equitable classroom environment for all of my students requires a set of knowledge and skills that often are not taught in teacher education programs or even in diversity in-service sessions. This means recognizing biases and inequities, including those that are very subtle, and knowing how to respond to and redress biases and inequities in our classrooms and schools.

What are the origins of this concept?

My brilliant colleague and friend, Katy Swalwell, and I had unknowingly both been writing short articles for Teaching Tolerance that were based around the same basic idea. She was focusing on how students need equity literacy, and I was focusing the need for teachers to have what I was calling at the time equity proficiency. In fact, I initially titled an article, “The Insufficiency of Cultural Proficiency.”

My basic argument was that the obsession over the abstract notion of “culture” in conversations about poverty and education was more or less ensuring that we weren’t going to make much progress when it came to equity. Knowing this or that about Mexican American culture, I was arguing, was not the same as understanding how so many Mexican American families experience racism and other inequities in and out of our schools.

The “culture of poverty” framework had become the most popular way we, in education, were talking about poverty as well, and it continues to have devastating consequences, suggesting that what we need to do is fix the people in poverty rather than fixing the inequities experienced by people in poverty. So in writing about different contexts, Katy and I were making the same argument: We need to put equity at the center of the conversation about diversity. Cultural competence isn’t enough. Cross-cultural relationships are not enough. The culture of poverty and cultural literacy are disasters.

We have been developing equity literacy as an approach that borrows some of the positive aspects of existing culture-centered frameworks, like culturally responsive teaching, but explicitly uses equity as the centerpiece.

How do perceptions about students in poverty and the “culture of poverty” affect schools, teaching and education systems?

When it comes to our ability to provide safe, engaging, equitable learning environments for students whose families are in poverty, the “culture of poverty” approach has done tremendous damage. It is the opposite of equity literacy by pointing to the cultures of low-income families as “the problem.” I just don’t see how somebody can believe all of the stereotypes embedded in the “culture of poverty” view and still have the highest possible expectations for students in poverty.

More generally, it’s completely made up. There is no such thing as a “culture” of poverty or “mindset” of poverty. People in poverty are infinitely diverse. They don’t share a single, predictable set of values and behaviors. That idea was debunked by social scientists in the 1970s.

For educators who want to incorporate elements of an equity literacy approach, what’s a good starting point?

I’ll suggest two starting points. The first one is to reflect on our own perspectives. Here’s what I learned preparing to write my book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: If I believe that educational outcome disparities across race or class exist because of deficiencies in low-income families or families of color rather than gaps in access and opportunity, then I cannot be an equitable educator for those families. It is impossible to hold that view and have high expectations of marginalized students simultaneously. I know it’s hard to hear, but 75 percent of our ability to create equitable learning environments is about perspective.

On a more practical note, we can start by reviewing our classroom materials for even the most subtle bias. Low-income students and students of color see biased reflections of themselves constantly, and if we’re not able to see and address those images when they pop up in our classrooms, then we’re piling on the inequity. But again, this is why the first step is about perspective, about view. If I don’t understand these inequities and biases and how they work, or if I have them myself, I’m not very likely going to be able to recognize and address them.

What gives you hope?

Glad you asked this. What gives me hope is thinking about teachers – about people who, despite all the ways they’re being disempowered in the public education system today, show up to work, care about students, and are desperate to do whatever it takes to help every single person who comes through their classroom doors. Teachers are my heroes.


Gorski,  P.C. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, August 2013).

IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity: Equity Hub. http://www.idra.org/equity-assistance-center/equity-hub/

Scott, B. “The Role of School Governance Efficacy in Building an Equity Context for School Reform,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2009).

Suitts, S., P. Barba, K. Dunn. A New Majority Research Bulletin: Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools (Atlanta, Ga.: Southern Education Foundation, January 2015).

Paul Gorski is an associate professor in New Century College and a research fellow in the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, George Mason University, whose scholarly work in education centers on anti-poverty activism and social justice in education. He is also the founder of EdChange, a team of passionate and established educators, dedicated to equity, diversity, multiculturalism, and social justice.

Laurie Posner, M.P.A., is a senior education associate at IDRA and director of IDRA’s Civic Engagement Department. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at laurie.posner@idra.org.

*The IDRA Opportunity Matters Roundtable Series, launched in fall of 2014, provides a forum for examining and fostering dialogue around key issues that impact educational equity and excellence. Get details at http://www.idra.org/resource-center/opportunity-matters/.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 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.]