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date: 24 February 2020

Educating Teachers for High-Poverty Schools

Summary and Keywords

A great deal of scholarship informs the idea that specific teacher preparation is required for working in high-poverty schools. Many teacher-education programs do not focus exclusively on poverty. However, a growing body of research emphasizes how crucial it is that teachers understand the backgrounds and communities in which young people and their families live, especially if they are to teach equitably, without bias, and with a critical understanding of historical educational disadvantage. Research on teacher education for high-poverty schools is largely associated with social-justice education and premised on two key assumptions. The first is that teachers do make a difference and should be encouraged to see themselves as agents of change. The second is that without nuanced knowledge of poverty and disadvantage, and especially its intersection with race, teachers are prepared as though all students and all communities have equal social advantage. Through targeted teacher education, social justice teachers aquire the knowledge, skills and attributes to understand what they can and cannot do. Teachers with strong communities of practice and agency can resist the idea that they can eradicate poverty on their own, but can enact teaching in ways that are equitable and respectful, culturally responsive and safe. It is increasingly possible to observe how debates propose or challenge how preservice teachers should learn about high-poverty contexts. There are also numerous models, globally, of what works in preparing teachers for high-poverty schools; however, providing evidence or proving how specialized teacher preparation affects the educational outcomes of high-poverty students is difficult.

Keywords: teacher education, poverty, disadvantage, urban education, social justice


In the design and implementation of many nations’ highly regulated initial teacher-education programs, social justice can be easily lost. Social-justice scholars argue that a central aim of teacher education should be its role in challenging inequality (Cochran-Smith, Ell, et al., 2016). Nonetheless, “despite the social justice rhetoric and multicultural content that is common in college and university teacher education programs” (Zeichner, Payne, & Brayko, 2015, p. 124), few teacher-education providers directly prepare teachers for working in high-poverty communities. In general, many teacher-education programs aim to develop a broad orientation toward social justice, but preservice teachers less often receive specific preparation to work in the poorer communities in which they will be disproportionally employed after graduation (Lazar & Reich, 2016). Riley and Solic’s (2017) teacher-education program in Philadelphia in the United States is a typical example of this in that while the overall course includes components of multicultural education with inherent principals such as the importance of diversity,

there are no courses that explicitly address transformative and social action–oriented elements of multicultural education, such as critical literacy, anti-bias education, awareness of structural racism, or social justice–based pedagogy. Nor does the college currently offer an intentional pathway through which teacher-candidates can prepare specifically for urban teaching. (p. 1)

Poverty is, in reality, impossible to separate from other historical markers of disadvantage such as race or gender; therefore, we attempt here to turn our attention to poverty or social class as significant to the preparation of teachers. This article focuses on specialized teacher-education program for high-poverty schools and outlines the social justice oriented foundations of the program and research associated with this topic.

Due to the fact that most teacher educators generally proclaim a broad commitment to social justice across all contexts, it is important first to define what we mean by teacher education for high-poverty schools. Stronge (2013) argues that “teachers—regardless of their particular assignments—are far more alike than they are different” (p. 6). Some of those who seek to identify essential qualities or competencies of a good teacher might claim that no special preparation is necessary. In this view, an effective or quality teacher can teach anywhere. Contrasting this understanding is the position that training in a challenging school prepares the best teachers of all: if a teacher can get through to those difficult students, he or she can teach anyone. However, it is rare even for these theories of quality or effective teaching to completely ignore the difference made by sociocultural context. The identified qualities of a good teacher include understanding, and critical reflection, of the historical vulnerability of students living in high-poverty contexts (Cloney, Tayler, Hattie, Cleveland, & Adams, 2016). Haberman (2010) has questioned the assumption of the good teacher, or “that we know what teaching is, that others know what it is, that we are discussing the same ‘thing’ when we use the word, and that we would all know good teaching if we saw it” (p. 82).

Consequently, it is usually acknowledged that the context or environment in which one teaches—in the case of this discussion, a high-poverty school—makes a considerable difference to what one is reflecting on and the critical knowledge needed for this reflection. As Korthagen (2004) writes

We should not forget . . . that a “good teacher” will not always show “good teaching”: although someone may have excellent competencies, the right beliefs, and an inspirational self and mission, the level of the environment may put serious limits on the teacher’s behaviour. (p. 87)

Korthagen writes of limitations, but what he and others really mean is that context matters. Teaching in a high-poverty school is not the same as teaching in a middle-class or private school. It is not the same in terms of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that may be required, and it is a different environment in which to teach. Preservice teachers need to be prepared for the reality: conditions may be harder, support may be lacking, and the relationships a teacher will need to develop with principals, peers, students, and students’ families are different as well. Scholars such as Simon and Moore-Johnson (2015) argue that it is the poor working conditions, framed within the context of salary, professional status, and the remoteness of geographic location, more than the students, that often account for high levels of teacher attrition in high-poverty, historically underserved schools. It makes sense, then, that any teacher-education program that aims to prepare teachers to teach all students, including those from poor backgrounds, must address a diverse range of concepts that future teachers might need to know, do, and believe and the diverse realities they may encounter in their work.

Defining High-Poverty Schools Across Geographical Contexts

Selecting the right language for disadvantage or poverty is complex. There are a range of reasons for debates about which terminology to use, some having to do with geopolitical differences, and some having to do with concerns about stereotypes, deficit language, and changing discourses. One issue is that high-poverty schools can look different from nation to nation. In US research, the term “urban education” is used, but this translates less well in places such as Australia and Canada, where poverty is also deeply associated with rural or remote locations with often the poorest first-nations students. It also risks obscuring the visibility of rural poverty in the United States. Even so, as Kincheloe (2010) pointed out, “the use of the term urban itself has become in many quarters a signifier for poverty” (p. 1), and the context-specific term “urban education” has come to seem synonymous with a broad amalgam that includes poverty, racialized practices, and cultural diversity. However, understanding the specificity of terms such as “urban education” is important because taking a global perspective on teacher education and poverty reminds us that teachers need to understand the local context in which they work (Crosby & Brockmeier, 2016).

Understanding this specificity of the US context is important for other reasons as well. Researchers seeking to understand how teachers need to be prepared for working in high-poverty schools should also be aware of how socioeconomic status cannot be separated from discussions of race in research coming from the United States. No discussion of poverty can properly take place without a theorizing of race and racism. More visibly than in other nations, in the United States, it is very difficult to differentiate social class or poverty from race because, as Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) argue in a pivotal paper, “we are less clear as to which factor—race or class—is causal” (p. 51). Theories of intersectionality make it clear that race, social class, and gender are interrelated. Howard and Rodriguez-Scheel (2016) argue that such “intersectionality is rarely examined and, as a result, opportunities for seeing the various layers of oppression at work are often overlooked and under-theorized” (p. 53).

In other nations, however, there is more research on social class as a factor of inequality in its own right. For instance, Hall and Jones (2013) in the United Kingdom write about “the fundamentally important role that social class plays in terms of shaping early professional experiences in teaching” (p. 426), without any mention of race at all. Reay (2001) discusses White middle-class teacher identity in the UK and draws on Bourdieu to explain the cultural capital of teachers. US scholars more commonly use critical race theory with their predominantly White, middle-class preservice teachers (Collins, 2016). Recently, however, some attention has also been given to teachers who are not from this more privileged background, to try to capture their experience as well. For example, Mello (2004) and Lampert, Burnett, and Lebhers (2016) explore the aspirations and experiences of working-class teachers. Cho (2010) examines counterstories of teacher-candidates from immigrant backgrounds, and Haberman (2017) suggests that mature-age students may be suitable for teaching in urban communities in particular ways.

Poverty presents itself differently in different contexts, so the terminology we use to talk about the topic matters. Language that takes into account the complexities of poverty provides “a discursive space for teachers to make a difference” (Burnett & Lampert, 2016, p. 76). In addition, there are ongoing debates about using terms such as “disadvantage,” which seems to some like we are talking about “other peoples’ children” (Delpit, 2006). While most scholars agree that some children are undoubtedly systemically disadvantaged by mainstream school systems, many schools and people who themselves live in high-poverty neighborhoods reject the term “disadvantaged” because of the deficit stereotypes the word conjures (Gorski, 2011; Thompson, McNicholl, & Menter, 2016). To call people “disadvantaged” ignores their funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) or community knowledges (Yosso, 2005). Many scholars feel that to focus on lack and disadvantage, rather than strengths, positions preservice teachers to enter classrooms in compensatory ways (Haddix, 2015).

Thompson et al. (2016) ask:

What are the implications for children who live in poverty if stereotypical views abound within the teaching profession about them, their families and their communities? How should ITE [initial teacher education] programs intervene to ensure that such views are challenged? And does the experience of working in schools change previously entrenched views? (p. 13)

In their review of 500 studies on teacher education published in English-language, peer-reviewed journals between 2000 and 2012, Cochran-Smith and Villegas (2016) discuss the fact that “many teacher candidates have lived relatively privileged lives as members of dominant social groups” (p. 17).

Therefore, they often begin formal teacher preparation believing that the difficulties students from socially marginalized groups experience in schools stem from the students’ lack of academic skills and motivation to learn and/or from dysfunctional families and community life, while overlooking the major role that inequalities in society and schools play in the construction of academic failure.

(Cochran-Smith & Villegas, 2016, p. 17)

If teachers are not prepared to critique all of these descriptors, they enter the classroom with beliefs that affect how they perceive their students and their students’ families; ultimately, these beliefs have concrete impacts on their students’ academic and social outcomes. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ladwig and McPherson (2017) have argued that there exists a relationship between what teachers think and how they teach.

Some scholars and school leaders prefer to speak of “hard-to-staff schools” (Achinstein, Ogawa, Sexton, & Freitas, 2010; Barnett, 2004), which focuses on the school rather than the child, reflecting the global reality that it is harder to attract, retain, and support teachers in these often underresourced schools.

Why Teachers Need Knowledge of Poverty

One aim of social-justice programs is to shift how teacher education has historically reproduced a profoundly unequal education system that is seen to contribute to an achievement gap (Carey, 2013; Kumashiro, 2012). Sleeter (2008, p. 1949) has pointed out that many studies have consistently found that most White teacher-candidates in the United States bring deficit-oriented stereotypes and very little cross-cultural background, knowledge, and experience. More recently, Sleeter, Montecinos, and Jiménez (2016) argued that the overwhelming presence of Whiteness pervades teacher education in many nations, including the United States and Chile.

If the complexities of teaching in more disadvantaged contexts are not addressed, there is a risk that teacher education will

  • reproduce social inequalities;

  • provide the workforce with teachers who have not been challenged to examine their own biases, middle-class identities, or even their repertoire of practices; and

  • omit critical discussions with preservice teachers of the structural inequalities that lead to poverty.

When teacher-education programs themselves emphasize “compensatory education” (Beatty, 2012) or take on a position of deficit (i.e., that poor or disadvantaged students need fixing to overcome their weaknesses), they produce teachers who take this with them into their classrooms.

No matter the approach, among teacher educators who make social justice their concern, there are a myriad of reasons that initial teacher education should take special responsibility for preparing teachers for high-poverty schools. One such reason is civic responsibility (Kincheloe, 2010). Sanger and Osguthorpe (2011) see teacher education as moral work: teacher educators have a responsibility for preparing teachers “so that they can recognize, interpret, analyze, evaluate, plan, and enact the moral work they engage in everyday in a way that is not only effective and responsible, but meaningful and fulfilling” (p. 573).

One rationale for a focus on poverty in teacher education is that by giving preservice teachers a better understanding, and desire for, teaching in poor neighborhoods, we can provide prepared and effective teachers for the schools that need them most. This position is founded on the belief that poorer schools should not have less access to the best graduating teachers. Without preparation during teacher education, we may consciously or unconsciously engage in what Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff (2002) call “teacher sorting”: on graduation, most high-achieving teachers (with debate about how to identify these) are quickly employed by middle-class or private schools. This trend highlights a matter of distribution because many high-poverty schools report difficulties in recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, and in these schools, more teachers teach outside of the fields they were trained for. Without intervention during teacher education, some teachers in particular discipline areas, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, may never consider working in the schools that need them most.

Social-justice advocates see teacher education as having a responsibility for preparing teachers who are agents of change (Lalvani, Broderick, Fine, Jacobowitz, & Michelli, 2015). These teachers also need to resist the current neoliberal pressures to test more, collect more data, teach under poor conditions, report more, and adhere to teacher standards that devalue relationships and quantify and ignore their daily work in ways that make it impossible, especially for teachers in high-poverty schools, to do what they know is right (Berliner, 2013). Social-justice educators argue that teachers need to feel empowered to “teach against the grain” (Cochran-Smith, 1991; Zeichner et al., 2015, p. 130) and should be empowered to resist or respond to the staff room talk they may encounter in high-poverty schools, which is often deficit focused. These teachers should also be braced to encounter the low regard for teachers in high-poverty schools (Darling-Hammond, 2006). Additionally, well-prepared teachers are less likely to experience the discomfort and vulnerability that can affect new teachers when they begin their careers in high-poverty schools (Cutri & Whiting., 2015).

A somewhat different perspective is offered by Gorski (2016), who calls for “equity literacy,” which is “first and foremost an ideological endeavour” (p. 379). This type of literacy equips preservice teachers with a structural ideology of poverty and economic injustice, for example, discussing ideas such as how students in poverty are often “cheated within their schools out of similar levels of access to experienced teachers, higher order pedagogies, affirming school cultures, arts education, co-curricular programmes, and other resources and opportunities their wealthier peers may take for granted” (Gorski, 2016, p. 383). Gorski’s advice is to introduce teachers to structural inequalities, rather than focusing on how they can help individual students. This advice follows criticisms of the quality teacher discourses, which emphasize how one effective teacher can make a difference. In contrast, quality teaching discourses are more cautious to recognize systemic and economic disadvantage as the cause of the achievement gap.

The relatively small number of teacher-education programs with a specific social-justice focus generally emphasize ways to “teach diverse students, believe in the capabilities of urban students, and understand the out-of-school factors that can influence teaching” (McKinney, Haberman, Stafford-Johnson, & Robinson, 2008, p. 71). Such programs commonly include elements of culturally responsive teaching and help teachers to understand diverse students through targeted professional or field experience and practicum or service learning (Akiba, 2011).

In the following sections, some of the specific elements of teacher preparation for high-poverty schools are discussed in more detail.

Selection of Teacher Candidates

Generally, most educators agree that all preservice teachers need some social-justice preparation, and, ideally, all would graduate with a well-grounded understanding of poverty and disadvantage. However, some scholarship discusses which teacher-candidates are most suitable for teaching in high-poverty schools. In their study of more than 1,000 teachers in a large urban US district, Ronfeldt, Kwok, and Reininger (2016) found that teacher education commonly used one of two approaches to identify students for specialized programs: either (a) recruit individuals who already report strong preferences to work in underserved schools or (b) design preservice preparation to increase preferences. Some programs focus on attracting high-achieving preservice teachers. Others look for willing volunteers. And some carefully select preservice teachers from diverse backgrounds or those who can demonstrate their social-justice principles through previous experiences or volunteer work.

Some of the dialog about selecting the most appropriate candidates is related to the literature on teacher disposition. Haberman (1995) identified 14 teacher dispositions of a “star” teacher suitable for teaching in high-poverty schools, such as persistence, high expectations for urban poor students, personal responsibility for student learning, and independence. Boggess (2017) writes about two main areas: character dispositions (e.g., accountability and perseverance) and activist dispositions (e.g., motivation for social justice).

Practicum and Professional Experience

In general, teacher-education programs for high-poverty schools include some combination of theory, practical guidance, and practicum experience; however, some programs are increasingly offered in online teaching modules (Cho, Convertino, & Khourey-Bowers, 2015). The exposure to poverty that appears to make the most difference includes programs with some combination of university-based theory and classroom practice; this could be in the form of volunteer work, service learning and/or practicum placement, internship, or clinical practice (McKinney et al., 2008), or preservice teaching that leads to what Whipp and Geronime (2017) call “urban commitment.” The amount and the quality of time that preservice teachers spend in high-poverty settings directly relates to deepening understandings of the impact of poverty and disadvantage on children’s lives, especially when combined with coursework that helps teachers to reflect on what they experience. This combination of coursework and professional practice appears to make a significant difference both to teacher-candidates’ commitment and their knowledge of poverty contexts. Carefully designed courses emphasize teachers’ “efforts to collaborate with fellow colleagues, lead diverse students, believe in the capabilities of urban students, and understand the out-of-school factors that can influence teaching” (McKinney et al., 2008, p. 71). In addition, as referred to earlier, it is widely acknowledged that most teachers, in the United States and elsewhere, come from White, middle-class backgrounds very different from their students (e.g., Akiba, 2011; Cochran-Smith & Villegas, 2016; Crozier, 2015). Haberman (1995) argues that preservice teachers need to have field experiences in a range of schools to “establish rapport with low-income children of diverse ethnic backgrounds” (p. 778) as well as to prevent culture shock when they assume teaching positions and see for themselves the lack of resources available in some schools or observe homeless or hungry children for the first time. This culture shock may include cultural discomfort, recognition that they are different from their students, and—particularly for high-achieving teachers who are used to succeeding at everything—the discovery that they cannot make a difference in every child’s life (Chubbuck, 2008).

However, many scholars caution that simply placing preservice teachers in high-poverty schools is not enough. In fact, placing a burned-out, ineffective, unreflective, or biased teacher can do more harm than good, and deficit and prejudice can instead be reinforced. In fact, Anderson and Stillman (2013, p. 4) identify the potential for such experiences in badly structured and supported situations to perpetuate stereotypes and confirm, rather than interrupt, deficit thinking.

Thus mentoring is seen as a significant element in the success of preparing teachers for high-poverty schools. Support from school leadership—that is, a committed, socially just principal—makes a significant difference to what a new teacher learns in the school (Moore-Johnston et al., 2014), as does good mentoring from the university, from supervising teachers, and, ideally but less commonly, from the local community (Duckworth & Maxwell, 2015).

With recent attention on the well-being of teachers, some scholars suggest that teacher education should include some focus on resilience and self-care. Working with vulnerable students can be difficult and emotionally exhausting. Bibby, Lupton, and Raffo (2017) argue that in disadvantaged areas “affective elements may need to be a bigger part of teacher training and continuing professional development” (p. 122).

Whiteness, Middle-Class Privilege, and Self-Reflection

Even the most suitable teachers for high-poverty schools must engage in constant, lifelong, critical reflection. A wealth of scholarship exists—too much to include here—on the need for teachers to understand their own cultural positions, including their conscious and unconscious biases. However, various specific ways are suggested to support preservice teachers in becoming more critically reflective. For instance, Ball’s (2016) model of generative change and dialogic engagement uses writing as

a pedagogical tool that can be used in teacher education programs to assist those enrolled in gauging their effectiveness in affecting conceptual growth, depth of understanding, and change in teachers’ attitudes and perceptions about the students in their classrooms in relation to issues of race, language, and socio-economic status. (p. 131)

Crawford-Garrett, Anderson, Grayson, and Suter (2015) report the benefits of action research as a way to transform preservice teachers by engaging them in research projects. Frederick, Cave, and Perencevich (2010) sum up the intent of this reflection, which proposes to

help teacher candidates think about their own positions and to move them toward culturally responsive competencies . . . to question their own assumptions and the stereotypes that they bring into the classroom . . . to take ownership of schooling and education and talk about how they can make a difference in their schooling context. (p. 321)

Critical reflection goes beyond merely journaling but ideally involves a merging of theory, practice, and reflection in a way that leads preservice teachers to truly engage with theory and to reflect deeply on what they see, do, and believe.

Goodwin et al.’s (2014) study of 293 teacher educators found that practicing teacher educators apparently did not feel adequately prepared for diversity (p. 297). Scholars such as McKinney et al. (2008), Ullucci and Howard (2014), and Gorski (2016) explain that teacher educators need to understand the influence of their own ideological positions and understandings of poverty.

Antideficit and Stereotypes

Numerous studies find that both teacher educators and preservice teachers often hold stereotypical views of families in poverty. These stereotypes can be blatant (e.g., poor parents do not care about children’s education) or can involve misinterpretation of factors they simply have no experience with, leading to presumptions, for example, that poor students must have poor self-esteem. Some of these assumptions or stereotypes are criticized as culture of poverty discourses that imply poverty is the result of people’s values or cultural norms.

Some research has been done of preservice teachers’ attitudes toward poverty. For example, Cho et al. (2015) asked questions such as: What does poverty look like? Such studies note the general negativity some preservice teachers feel when they are placed in a high-poverty school for their professional field experience without any preparation. Watson (2011) ranked preservice teachers’ attitudes toward their practicum and found that the less urban the students and their families were perceived to be, the happier preservice teachers were to have been placed there (p. 28). Anderson and Stillman (2013) similarly found that preservice teachers came with

many beliefs and attitudes, some very negative including escalated fears for personal safety; negative assumptions about students’ prior knowledge, abilities, and behaviors; stereotyped, deficit views about parents’ interest in, concern for, and knowledge about their students’ academic development; wholesale negative assessments of communities as lacking in assets for learning; tendencies toward racially disproportionate special education referrals; and so on. (p. 45)

When placed in high-poverty schools without preparation or support, preservice teachers report shell-shock (Ellis, Thompson, McNicholl, & Thomson, 2016), resistance (Aveling, 2002), and disequilibrium (Cook, 2009); at times, they even mock their students (e.g., Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson’s [2008] report about preservice teachers who caricatured lectures about poor people). However, on a more positive note, given the right education, preparation, and support, preservice teachers are reported overall as initially resistant but generally able to change.

Community Engagement

One aspect considered important in preparing teachers for high-poverty contexts is a familiarity and, even more significantly, a relationship with the communities in which they will be teaching. As Ladson-Billings (2006) proclaimed

The first thing we need to do is give prospective teachers an opportunity to interact with children and adolescents in non-school settings; preservice teachers need the chance to see students in places where they are likely to be experiencing success—community and neighborhood centers, clubs, teams, and after-school activities. (p. 108)

Cipollone, Zygmunt, and Tancock (2018) argue that through deep engagement with community, candidates come to value community expertise and open their eyes to the ways in which structures of oppression have worked to benefit some at the expense of others.

There is some concern that many preservice teachers never engage deeply with community at all, but examples do exist of innovative community engagement in teacher education. In one version of community involvement, Riley and Solic (2017) invited preservice teachers to spend time with activist teacher communities and explore questions of social justice, equity, and multicultural teaching. Students attended conferences, professional meetings, and on-campus dialogs during one semester. This experience gave the participants an extended repertoire of practice and, even more importantly, a sense of hope. At Ball State University in the United States, preservice teachers are matched with mentor families, who work with them throughout their teacher-education program. This program recognizes that

Mentors understand that children’s lives are literally dependent on educators who will know and appreciate who they are and from where they come, understanding that both are decisive elements in their ability to make learning relevant and engaging. Without access to mentors’ collective wisdom and expertise, our candidates would be fundamentally under- prepared for the endeavor of teaching, something which, prior to their experience . . . many considered to be a technical skillset, interchangeable from locale to locale.

Cipollone et al., 2018, p. 11)

In Amatea, Cholewa, and Mixon’s (2012) design of a course to influence the attitudes of preservice teachers about how they might work with low-income and/or ethnic minority families, they consciously developed a program to encourage preservice teachers to think in more family-centric ways. Amatea et al. (2012) used the Teacher Self-Efficacy in Engaging Families Scale, which includes items such as

  • I will not have any problems communicating with my students’ caregivers or families.

  • I am willing to schedule conferences with the caregivers of my students before school and in the evenings to accommodate their work schedules.

  • I am willing to schedule family–school events to accommodate the work schedules of my students’ families.

When preservice teachers considered the alternative models of practice illustrated by these items, it seemed to have a positive effect on their beliefs and attitudes after the course.

Within the literature on community-engaged teacher education, there is little doubt of the positive effects when teachers “visit homes, explore the surroundings, and conduct interviews in order to detect family structure, labor history, household activities (daily and weekly activities, distribution of household tasks, and education and language), parental attitudes, money, religion, education, and ethnic identity” (Esteban-Guitart & Moll, 2014, p. 38).

Critiquing “What Works” and Alternative Pathways

Much research in teacher education, and in education in general, focuses on what works, which takes shape around lists/sets of practices seen as “quick fixes.” One critic of this approach is Haberman (2010), who expresses concern that a focus on best practice or exemplar programs (“pedagogies of poverty”) leads to the creation of prescriptive, highly structured, regulated pedagogies that make unrealistic, even dangerous, claims about what will solve poverty and close the achievement gap. The what-works approach includes

almost every form of pedagogy: direct instruction, cooperative learning, peer tutoring, individualized instruction, computer-assisted learning, behavior modification, the use of student contracts, media-assisted instruction, scientific inquiry, lecture/discussion, tutoring by specialists or volunteers, and even the use of problem-solving units common in progressive education.

(Haberman, 2010, p. 81)

Allard and Santoro (2004) caution against offering preservice teachers “quick fixes,” such as being led to accept scripted instruction as the best way to teach students in high-poverty schools. While is it seductive to accept that highly scaffolded, rote learning will work best for students whose literacy is low, Haberman (2010) has long insisted that scripted pedagogies “ appeal to those who have low expectations for minorities and the poor. People with limited vision frequently see value in limited and limiting forms of pedagogy. They believe that at-risk students are served best by a direct, controlling pedagogy” (p. 82).

Sleeter (2008) finds that “teacher education programmes are being compelled to jettison not only explicit equity-oriented teacher preparation, but also learner-centered teaching, in order to prepare technicians who can implement curriculum packages” (p. 1952). Helping future teachers to resist the “dumbing down” that comes from low expectations is perceived by many as a crucial component of teacher education.

Another very different sort of prescription comes in the form of Payne’s (2005) Framework for Understanding Poverty, which has gained traction in the United States and elsewhere. Written as a professional development package for teachers, Payne’s glossy resources and training model have been adapted by some teacher-education programs and schools, not just in the United States but increasingly, for instance, in Australia. Payne’s explanations of what people from poverty are like has attracted extensive criticism from many scholars, such as Bomer et al. (2008) and Gorski (2011), who are critical and concerned about the dangerous and often racist stereotypes propelled by assuming that all poor families are the same, that they do not think the same as “the rest of us,” and that they need moral, cultural, or middle-class coaching to succeed. Bomer et al. write of how Payne asserts dozens of truth-claims regarding the material, daily conditions of poor people’s existence. Payne’s package includes a quiz designed for teachers to self-assess whether or not they could survive in poverty. Bomer et al. are concerned about how Payne’s poverty framework is “unsubstantiated and built upon a deficit perspective, painting a portrait of economically disadvantaged people, a portrait many teachers are using to inform their relationships to students” (p. 2499). Although scripted pedagogies and theories of poverty such as Payne’s are somewhat unsurprisingly appealing to preservice teachers who are looking for practical explanations and solutions to the achievement gap, many scholars suggest that they should be critiqued in teacher education, rather than simply taught. As Ng and Rury (2006) suggest, teachers need a way to critique the extent to which Payne “essentializes the values, behaviors, and orientations of those who are poor” (p. 7).

This appears to be a valid concern: In the UK, Thompson et al.’s (2016) study shows that preservice teachers’ ideas about poverty are deeply engrained and persist, even when they have taken specialized social-justice subjects specifically designed to break down stereotypes. Ideologies of the culture of poverty that equate the poorer educational outcomes of young people in poverty with their culture or their lack of dispositions are default positions. Coming from psychological or anthropological paradigms rather than sociological, Ladson-Billings (2006) argues that

the problem of culture in teaching is not merely one of exclusion. It is also one of over-determination. What I mean by this is that culture is randomly and regularly used to explain everything. So, at the same moment teacher education students learn nothing about culture, they use it with authority as one of the primary explanations for everything from school failure to problems with behavior management and discipline. (p. 104)

Gorski (2016) also criticizes a different kind of deficit position: one that imagines students as needing more “grit.” This ideological position proposes that a teacher’s job is to teach young people from disadvantage to be more resilient. This position encourages teachers to believe that if children from poverty and their families can just work hard to rise above their lot in life, they can be whatever they want to be. Such positions have a “whiff of the missionary” (Connell, 2009, p. 216) about them, something highly criticized by Kincheloe (2010), who wrote about the dangers of producing teachers who want to save children. Cochran-Smith (2004) argues that “it may be wise for us to remember as we define the outcomes of teacher education that teachers—and teacher educators—are neither the saviours nor the culprits of all that is wrong with education” (p. 206).

While not the focus of this chapter, it would be remiss not to mention the rise of alternative pathways into teaching, such as Teach for America or Teach for All. Often their main claim is that they can provide a better pathway for teaching in high-poverty schools than currently delivered through mainstream university programs. With the objective of taking high-caliber graduates into disadvantaged schools, Teach for All is a global network of 46 partner organizations (in China, Latin America, the UK, and many other nations) and holds a significant place in teacher education. Teach for All is often critiqued as undermining mainstream university-based teacher education, but there is no question of its increasing influence in the field. Criticisms include the short six-week nature of its coursework (something it has changed to some extent), its selection of students from industry, its leadership angle, doubts about whether the teachers stay for long in the teaching profession, and its potential over-claims (Crawford-Garrett, 2017; McIntyre & Thomson, 2016). As Cochran-Smith, Villegas, et al. (2016) found in their survey of teacher-education research

the research is still too thin to develop a clear understanding of how this rapidly expanding group of teachers learns to teach for diversity and equity. This gap in the research is especially disturbing because alternatively certified teachers are often hired to teach in high-poverty urban schools, sites in which students of diverse backgrounds are concentrated. (p. 182)

Teach for All is only one example of alternative pathways into teaching that emphasize preparing teachers to work in challenging contexts. For instance, in England alone, potential teachers can choose between Troops to Teaching, School Centred Initial Teacher Training, or participating partners in the School Direct program, in which schools recruit trainees and the deliver the training in partnership with a university or other accredited provider.

All of the alternative pathways are too numerous and complex to discuss here, but many mainstream teacher-education programs have already established specialized programs within mainstream initial teacher education to prepare teachers for working in high-poverty schools. The main point is that alternative pathways are part of the what-works discourse that claims solutions to persistent inequalities and problems are not solved by teacher preparation, or teachers, alone.


Anderson and Stillman’s (2013) review of two decades of empirical articles on teacher education for high-poverty schools highlights

a disproportionate emphasis on belief and attitude change, a relatively slim evidence base concerning the development of actual teaching practice, a tendency toward reductive views of culture and context, and a need for more longitudinal analyses that address the situated and mediated nature of preservice teachers’ learning in the field. (p. 1)

Nonetheless, the research suggests that teachers who have been specifically prepared to teach in high-poverty schools have better self-efficacy and feel more confident and prepared (Bernadowski, Perry, & Del Greco, 2013; Thomas & Mucherah, 2014). The crowding-out of the social-justice curriculum in teacher education reminds us not simply that social justice in many teacher-education programs remains at the level of rhetoric but also that what knowledge matters, what constitutes good teaching, and how teachers should learn (Apple, 2008) are ongoing concerns for teacher educators. Developing and sustaining programs that focus on teaching in high-poverty schools is challenging, and more research in the field is important in ensuring that this preparation has a more solid and lasting place in university-based teacher education.

Further Reading

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