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Assessment, Equity, Opinion, Policy

On Being Poor at School: Esoteric Hope?

Why does socioeconomic status fall off the practice and policy table of inclusion so readily when it is the most pervasive form of inequity?

“First get off the streets, second get a job, third finish your education so you can get a career.  So it is like steps at a time.  It is like some people have those things already and they are lucky that they have those things already handed to them and they don’t have to start at the bottom and work their way up.  They don’t understand what that is like.  Starting at the bottom is…I am slowly getting there.  I’m not there, but I am slowly getting there”

Max (pseudonym), a student who left school prior to graduation and is working to return

Parents in the 1950’s were often heard quipping to sons and daughters:

“Get a hair cut!” or “Get a real job!”

Today our parental cries sound frantic and weighty:

“Get an education!
“Look at the cost of education!”
“Watch our family income fall!”
“Mind your growing debt!”
“Keep working (at your less than adequate jobs)!”
“Get more education! Try not to despair!, Fight like hell to get more education!”

There is a larger social context to equity in education and to being poor at school these days and more and more young people are being pushed to the margins in it.  Yes, we have decades of evidence on the relationship between academic and life chances and living in a working poor or lower socio-economic status family.  Socio-economic gradients have been well mapped out in Canada and they are sticking with us.  But, it remains to be seen how growing income inequality in Canadian society will become further complicit and complicating in our embarrassing and dishonourable treatment of poor kids at school.  Are young people becoming the new underclass in Canada as the OECD suggests?  What is the experience of that marginalization?

Socio-economic gradients have been well mapped out in Canada and they are sticking with us.  But, it remains to be seen how growing income inequality in Canadian society will become further complicit and complicating in our embarrassing and dishonourable treatment of poor kids at school.  Are young people becoming the new underclass in Canada as the OECD suggests?  What is the experience of that marginalization?

We must continue to map out and assess these trends and their impacts on children and youth across the country, by region, by social class, and by cultural status.  But, we will not be able to tell how they matter for kids, families, and schools without making visible what it is like to be poor in school each day. What does being poor in school tell us about how these trends are made, how they reproduce inequity and how kids, families and educators are negotiating and fighting back?

It is at the very time that liberal arts are under siege in public education that a humanities-infused conversation is urgently required. We need to take stock of the esoteric character of being a young person by way of infusing research and practice with a space for exploring experience.  To do this requires engagement with the humanities/arts more fully in our visual or storied research and diarize the rabid trends in inequity. Why does socioeconomic status fall off the practice and policy table of inclusion so readily when it is the most pervasive form of inequity?  How do those trends in inequity feel in the “daily hassles” of impoverished youth at school?   Will some hope, direction and awe arise from the mouths of shared esoteric experience…?

I guess one of the things that I have become aware of is…the lives of quiet desperation that more of them lead, that we’re completely oblivious to. The single parent, no food, the abuse, the rape, the sexual assault, the issues with the justice system, the significant drug abuse that we’re, we miss as teachers.   But even last year [they were] in all the regular classes. And so most of them were written as you know, they didn’t do the work and they didn’t attend. Not, why were they disengaged?  And we never asked that… But now there’s still many of those kids within the school – And they survive and they – or they hide. Or they hide and they’re, they’re marginalized and they exist and they’re the ones I think who’ve had a negative…experience in grade school… 

Jody (pseudonym), an educator

Related Publications:

Kate Tilleczek’s recent book Approaching Youth Studies:  Being, Becoming, Belonging with Oxford University Press addressed these issues and a forthcoming book Youth, education and marginality: Local and global expressions (WLU Press) gathers together young people, academics and educators to address equity in education through art and research.

Related Education Canada articles:

Meet the Expert

Kate Tilleczek

Kate Tilleczek

Canada Research Chair in Young Lives in Global/Local Contexts & Director of the Young Lives Research Lab, University of Prince Edward Island

Dr. Kate Tilleczek has been teaching and studying the sociology of children and youth for two decades. She is currently a Professor of Education and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Young Lives in Global & Local Contexts. She is the founder and Scientific Director of Young Lives Research Laboratory in Canada.

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