A Pedagogy of Poverty

‘Schools in England will no longer be rated as “outstanding” by inspectors if they fail to close the attainment gap between poor and affluent children.’ BBC

It is interesting to consider what the latest gap closing imperative will look like in practice now that the stakes have been raised and test results are directly connected to teachers’ pay and appraisal. The impact of high stakes testing on children and young people, teachers, and schools, has been well researched and documented. Studies from the US show that high stakes testing narrows curricular content, fragments knowledge, and increases the use of teacher-centered pedagogies (Au 2007 and 2011). There are similar findings in England, and evidence of teachers ‘teaching to the test’, drilling and training children and young people for tests, and ‘coaching’ them in how to answer questions (Harlen 2007 in West 2010). The more time teachers spend preparing children and young people for tests, the more the quality of their teaching decreases. Furthermore, test preparation promotes pedagogies that are neglectful of issues concerned with race, class and gender (Grant 2004). Alongside these findings is the enduring and well-evidenced claim that family income and status are the most significant indicators of achievement (see blog post ‘Closing the (poverty) gap, Nov 2012). Hargreaves (2003) points out that the propensity for test-driven systems to inhibit teaching and focus on the acquisition of low-level skills and knowledge is particularly prevalent in poorer areas where test-failure is more of a risk. The impact of high stakes testing on teaching, and the relationship between socio-economic status and achievement, provide the two main ingredients for what Haberman (1991) called a ‘pedagogy of poverty’; a pedagogy in which ‘learners can ‘succeed’ without becoming either involved or thoughtful.’

It is not only the style of teaching that is changed by high stakes testing and poverty. In most schools where there is socio-economic deprivation and associated lower achievement, children and young people are required to spend more time being drilled, coached or tutored after school, during break times and lunchtimes on Saturdays and in the school holidays. Instead of providing them with the stimulating, social and language rich experiences that have advantaged their more affluent peers, teachers are pressured into subjecting them to even more technically oriented directive learning experiences. At the same time, their more advantaged peers are able to enjoy a wider range of social freedoms, stimulations and life experiences that enhance their learning and achievement in deeper and more sustained ways. As Dudley-Marling and Paugh (2005) conclude in their chapter of the same title, ‘The rich get richer, the poor get direct instruction.’

Literacy in particular is reduced to the technical aspects of reading and writing on the grounds that this ‘raises standards.’ A recent dogmatic insistence from the government in England on synthetic phonics at the expense of all else, only serves to magnify the potential paucity of language experience for those who are already language deprived. This is not only through the reduced language learning experience itself , but also through the reduced pedagogic relationship between learner and teacher that this leads to. Literacy that is restricted to technicalities at the expense of interpretation and self-expression does not allow room for teachers to connect at a human level with the diversity of those they teach:

‘When we frame the universe of discourse only in terms of children’s deficits in English and phonological awareness (or deficits in any other area), we expel culture, language, identity, intellect, and imagination from our image of the child.’ (Cummins 2003 in Trifonas (ed) ch 2)

A restricted language of discourse and a pedagogy of poverty also fundamentally estranges children and young people from understanding, negotiating or changing their position in the world. Without critical and problematised forms of engagement with knowledge, ideas and text, they cannot develop either the capacity or cultural capital to be critically engaged citizens with realisable life choices; including the choice to move out of poverty. Without a socially-critical orientation to curriculum and learning, learners cannot view the world from different perspectives, including the perspectives of those defranchised and marginalized by poverty. (see blog post ‘Education and Democracy’ – my least popular post!).

Stronger links between teacher pay and teacher performance that is itself linked to results, and for teachers in areas of social deprivation the results of those who are more likely to have started school from a position of educational disadvantage, can only lead to an increase in pedagogies of poverty.

And to finish a word or two from Giroux (2004)

‘Central to the hegemony of neo-liberal ideology is a particular view of education in which market-driven identities and values are both produced and legitimated. Under such circumstances, pedagogy both within and outside of schools increasingly becomes a powerful force for creating the ideological and affective regimes central to reproducing neo-liberalism. In the current historical moment, critical education and the promise of global democracy face a crisis of enormous proportions. It is a crisis grounded in the now common-sense belief that education should be divorced from politics and that politics should be removed from the imperatives of democracy. At the center of this crisis, particularly in the United States, is a tension between democratic values and market values, between dialogic engagement and rigid authoritarianism. Faith in social amelioration and a sustainable future appears to be in short supply as neo-liberal capitalism performs the dual task of using education to train workers for service sector jobs and produce life-long consumers. At the same time, neo-liberalism feeds a growing authoritarianism steeped in religious fundamentalism and jingoistic patriotism, encouraging intolerance and hate as it punishes critical thought, especially if it is at odds with the reactionary religious and political agenda being pushed by the Bush administration. Increasingly, education appears useful to those who hold power, and issues regarding how public and higher education might contribute to the quality of democratic public life are either ignored or dismissed. Moral outrage and creative energy seem utterly ineffective in the political sphere, just as any collective struggle to preserve education as a basis for creating critical citizens is rendered defunct within the corporate drive for efficiency, a logic that has inspired bankrupt reform initiatives such as standardization, high stakes testing, rigid accountability schemes, and privatization.’


  • Au, W (2007) ‘High-Stakes Testing and Curricular Control: A Qualitative Metasynthesis’ Educational Researcher, Vol 36, No.5, 258-267.
  • Au,W (2011) ‘Teaching under the new Taylorism: high-stakes testing and the standardization of the 21st century curriculum’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol 43, issue1, 25-45.
  • Dudley-Marling, C. & Paugh, P. (2005). The rich get richer, the poor get Direct Instruction. In B. Altwerger (Ed.), Reading for profit. Portsmouth, Heinemann.
  • Giroux, H. A. (204) ‘Public Pedagogy and the Politics of Neo-liberalism: making the political more pedagogical.’ Policy Futures in Education, vol 2, nos3&4, 494-503.
  • Grant, C. A. (2004). Oppression, privilege and high – stakes testing. Multicultural Perspectives, 6 (1), 3-11.
  • Hargreaves (2003) Teaching in the Knowledge Society: Education in the Age of Insecurity. Open University Press
  • West, A. (2010) ‘High stakes testing, accountability, incentives and consequences in English schools’ Policy & Politics, 38(1), 23-39.

3 thoughts on “A Pedagogy of Poverty

  1. Pingback: Discriminating in favour of the more able | websofsubstance

    • Thank you for engaging so deeply and critically with my post. I don’t think I have managed to to convey my point as clearly as I had intended. Firstly, I am not arguing, and I do not believe, that experiential or problem based learning discriminate in favour of higher achieving children and young people. I am arguing that children and young people achieve more highly because, taking their wider language environment and life experiences into account, they are more exposed to the kind of thinking, language and attitudes that go with problem based and enquiry based learning than lower achieving children and young people. (I know this is a simplification of a more complex picture but I don’t want to be side tracked here into a discussion about intelligence and ability at this point.) What I am arguing is that poorer children and young people who are lower achievers get less experiential, problem based and inquiry based learning than higher achievers. The additional time that low achievers have for learning – and in my experience this can be quite substantial – tends only to be used for more drilling and ‘teaching to the test’, and not for other forms of learning. That is, the very things that have given the more advantaged an advantage, are not the core of what the less advantaged are given more of.

      I completely agree with your thoughts about guidance, and I do also believe that there is a place for direct instruction (and phonics come to that but that, but gain this is not the point.) Vygotsky’s explanation of how people learn, and the role of the teacher in that – a social constructivist view of learning – emphasises the importance of dialogue and the significance of what he calls the zone of proximal development. This is an oft misunderstood concept, and simply put is the difference between what someone can achieve on their own and what they can achieve with guidance. Neil Mercer’s work on the guided construction of knowledge is a very good example of this in practice but what it does illustrate is that the guiding role is about a much richer, and wider use of language to scaffold, challenge and question than the language of direct instruction. My point is that all children and young people need to be guided in their construction of knowledge and that this happens through language rich environments that problematise knowledge rather than through direct instruction, which has a different function.

      In the end, what we believe to be the best way, or what works best in teaching is fundamentally connected to what kind of society we want and what citizenship in that society looks like (see my blog posts ‘the question before what works in education’, and ‘education and democracy’- the latter of which does not seem to interest anyone!)

      Lets keep the debate going.

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