Want Poor Kids to Learn? Help Them Grow!

We must reject the established wisdom on who kids are.

Posted May 02, 2013

Dr. Lenora B. Fulani, co-founder of the All Stars Project, Inc.

If you’re reading this, chances are your annual family income is way more than $23,000, so keep reading!

I just spent five days in San Francisco participating in the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA)—along with 14,000 of my peers! I was thrilled that the conference theme was Education and Poverty, the issue of my life’s work. It couldn’t be more timely; 22% of America’s children now live below the federal poverty line (unbelievably, that’s $23,000/year for a family of four). We know that schools in poor neighborhoods are “poorer” than those in middle-class and rich neighborhoods. We know that if you live in a shelter or come to school hungry it’s hard to learn. But what happens in school is only one part of the story. What happens outside of school is the other part. Poor kids don’t get to do much outside of school and rich kids do.

And as the income gap between rich and poor gets bigger and bigger, what happens outside of school becomes a bigger and bigger factor in limiting the educational opportunity of poor kids. Speaker Greg Duncan, Professor and author of Wither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools and Children's Life Chances, brought this into stark relief—the amount of money the rich spend on educational enrichment for their children (lessons, trips, books, technology, tutoring, etc.) is now nearly 10 times more than poor families spend. It’s not that poor families don’t invest in such things (they spend 50% more now than they did 30 years ago); it’s that their resources are severely limited, while those of the wealthy (who spend 150% more now than 30 years ago) aren’t.

Enrichment activities give kids more stuff to learn, more ways to learn, more people to learn from. But they do more than that. They help kids develop, show them a bigger world than their home or neighborhood, bring them into contact with different kinds of people, increase confidence, create possibilities, inspire dreams. For poor youth, these activities engage the emotional and social-relational aspects of being poor. And unless we do that, it almost doesn’t matter how much we invest in poor schools to make them “richer.” 

I attended some conference sessions that highlighted outside of school activities. And I organized and chaired one myself—an invited Presidential session entitled, “Education, Poverty, and Development: Breakthroughs in Addressing the Subjectivity of Poverty,” It featured Lenora Fulani, who is a developmental psychologist and co-founder of the All Stars Project; three young people from the San Francisco Bay Area All Stars; A. J. Franklin of the Boston College Lynch School of Education; and David Grusky, director of the Stanford University Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The session was very powerful. The young people spoke openly and intimately with the audience about their lives, touching upon ways that being poor narrowed their identities, limited their hopes, and made them feel they didn’t belong to the broader society. Dr. Fulani shared the breakthrough concepts behind the transformation of these young people and the thousands more who participate in the All Stars in NYC, Newark NJ and Chicago. The All Stars brings development back into the education equation. It’s been a pioneer in using performance—on stage and off stage—to help young people from poor communities to develop. It’s also 100% independently funded. Professors Franklin and Grusky emphasized these innovations in their remarks, urging that we follow in the footsteps of Fulani and the All Stars: buck the orthodoxy, reject the established wisdom on who young people are, how to help them, and how to fund projects—and help our kids to grow.

Dr. Fulani has issued a special report to go along with her AERA presentation: ”Helping the Poor to Grow A Special Report on Solving the Poverty Crisis in America.” You can read it here.