Have you ever taken part in a poverty simulation? I had as part of my Americorps training in 2008, but I was surprised about how much I'd forgotten of that feeling that, no matter what you do, you cannot get enough money to meet your basic needs and those of your family.
As part of the new teacher orientation for my new school division, we took part in such a simulation. Put into teams of varying sizes, participants work to have enough money to pay rent, buy food, while making sure that all dependents are cared for. Each "week" lasts fifteen minutes, and there's just no time. If you have a full-time job, you have to spend five minutes "working" in order to get your check. Then, you have to go to the bank (where you probably don't have enough money to open an account and thus must pay fees). Oftentimes, your movement is interrupted by the need to go buy more bus tickets. This leaves no time left to sign up for social services, check in with a kid's teacher, or attend any sort of classes to help you advance to the middle class (I'm getting stressed just typing this as I remember the frenetic pace at which my family ran trying to get jobs, secure services, and navigate a world of volunteer "business owners" willing to take advantage of our situation).
Sometimes people make bad decisions and take their kids along with them. Sometimes people have medical disabilities. Sometimes one family member bails, and you have to figure out a whole new way to run your household. A friend summed it up best after a class about education policy: Think about what you would do in a situation where your family didn't have enough money. Do you really think the people living that reality are so different from you?
My new school division serves a lot of different kinds of kids, and every kid has something going on in his or her life that comes before school. Educators have to find ways to reach students and make school meaningful in light of a student's problems. It continues to be unbelievable to me, however, that some think we can overcome educational inequality without overcoming inequalities in standards of living.
As one of the participants said, "When I was at school, even playing a nine-year-old, I couldn't help but think of my family and all they had going on. I couldn't concentrate on school." Maybe those interested in bettering education should concentrate on some of those problems that distract our students, too.