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Stop Objectifying Poor Students

The objectification of low-income students is a perennial problem in education research and policy that undermines the effectiveness of both. It has become so blatant that education researchers and policymakers do not even recognize it when it is right in front of them. It is a major challenge to providing adequate educational opportunity for low-income, predominately racial minority students in the United States.

It occurs not just in the definition of “poor students” ascribed methodically by education researchers in comparative, percentage data snapshots or in minimalizing acronyms such as “LIMS” (low-income minority students). It is also deeper than the absence of “this segment” in attendance or speaking on the panels at the countless forums and briefings about “their” disadvantaged status. Most problematic are the assumptions and hypotheses that are made about “them” based on the data. In addition, research and policy recommendations about how to help “them” are often posed as if “they” are unable to advocate for themselves.

It’s time to stop presenting or regarding poor students as objects to treat impersonally.

Even though researchers are required to be objective observers, “drive-by” qualitative studies primarily provide education researchers a cursory view of “who” low-income students are, what “they” experience and what “they” require to succeed. Without having walked through the metal detectors and spent more than several days in an urban high school, for example, education policies targeted at urban high schools or any other specified geographic based on such data are not often grounded in the reality of the culture. This is why in part many education reform policies have missed the mark and have set poor students up for failure.

In fact, the W.F. Kellogg Foundation launched last week a national campaign, “America Healing,” to “improve life outcomes for vulnerable children and their families by promoting racial healing and eliminating barriers to opportunities.” It is an ambitious and urgent pursuit. It is also one to be commended. However, I caution the campaign directors also to avoid falling into the same objectifying trap that amounts to typecasting racially, diverse, and poor students.

Kellogg’s national campaign should challenge the business model approaches in higher education, which predominately objectify poor students as the target customer in their marketing plans. Including the voices, faces and lived experiences of America’s poor students in the design and presentation of the campaign would further challenge why “they” have become the objective mass of students that community colleges have to serve and the more elite private institutions price out of the market for their services.

Poor students must be approached as unique individuals. We cannot rebuild our economy and resume global intellectual leadership without the aggressive, comprehensive education of and direct contribution from poor students. To continue to objectify their existence and participation in education research and policymaking is incongruous with democracy. Humanizing poor students is a social justice imperative to ensure all students are afforded fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of our society.

Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith is the director of The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, which conducts and disseminates research and policy analysis to encourage policymakers, educators and the public to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income, first-generation and disabled college students.

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