Friday, October 3, 2014

Poverty and Public Education: a summary

Second in a series

In my last post I promised a look at poverty and its effect on education.  It was an ambitious promise.

What is the national narrative about poor students and schools today? Why is the push toward more accountability in schools adversely affecting poor students, when part of its goal was to make sure no child was left behind?

I’m going to attempt to tackle the first question today.

Some facts about our current situation: poor children, for the most part, do badly on state standardized tests, the current measure used to judge the value of our schools. The stakes couldn’t be higher: under NCLB (No Child Left Behind), low scores on state standardized tests brought sanctions and mandates.

Today, many states have NCLB waivers protecting them from those sanctions, but test scores still initiate scrutiny from state departments of education; teacher evaluations are tied to test scores now, and some states have issued “school grades” drawn almost entirely from test scores. (The impact of this grading system is on more than just the schools. Want to buy a house in a district that has two Fs, three Ds and a C? If you have a family, are thinking of starting one, and can afford to pick and choose, the answer is no.)

Test scores are still thought to be the gold standard of school district quality; in truth, they are only an accurate measure of income level of district families. Study after study has shown that when you compare standardized test scores of kids in similar socio-economic backgrounds, you see that the scores are similar from one school to the next. School quality -- however you define that -- makes no difference to the test scores.

So what does poverty have to do with public education?

This short blog post from Matt Bruening contrasts unfair, mistaken notions about poverty and education, with the real effects of poverty on children’s success in schools. The bullet points on the list are interesting; Bruening inventories the popular theories about why poor kids do badly in school:

1. Genetics. Poor kids just aren’t smart. (Both he and I say, BZZZT. Wrong.)

2. Poor parenting. Bruening summarizes deficit thinking pretty well in this paragraph: “The conditions of poverty create a subculture with its own socialization, behaviors, and attitudes. That culture then transmits itself across generations, which accounts for why poor kids remain poor, and might therefore also account for why they do worse in school.”

That seems like a reasonable viewpoint, and it may sometimes be true, but whenever we form a stereotype in our minds, and approach individuals with those stereotypes, we are in danger of making hurtful assumptions. Why can’t we regard all students as individuals, with strengths of their own?
On the other side is the thought that “...poor parents are poor ...because they are lazy, stupid, and otherwise self-destructive. The same thing that causes them to be poor — these behaviors — is what causes them to be bad parents, and therefore what causes their kids to not do well in school.”

“Blaming the poor for being poor” is a very convenient notion, and comes packaged with a handy way of dismissing larger economic and social problems.

The most constructive way to regard the impact of poverty on parenting is to pay attention to the next bullet point:

3. Effects of poverty. “...economic instability, deprivation, risk, stress, and neighborhood effects that accompany poverty best account for why poor students do not perform as well.”  In other words, it is poverty itself that is the enemy of learning.

Bruening also states that poor kids live in circumstances that make psychological, developmental and cognitive difficulties more prevalent than their better-off peers.

4. Bad Schools. In his final point, he tackles the idea that spawned the Education Reform movement: “...schools in poorer areas are underfunded, mismanaged, and attract lower-performing teachers. As a result, poor kids do worse in school.”

Bruening says, “...when you control for socio-economic background, students that go to the same schools and very different schools tend to perform very similarly. If the schools are what make the difference, this is not what you would expect. Additionally, intense and widespread efforts at reforming schools and teaching models have had little to no success at improving the educational achievement of poor students.”

I had to ask a few people what all this meant, as my mind doesn’t wrap around statistics very well. If you have the same difficulty as me, perhaps multiple answers will help you too!

Laura Faith Tallant: “It just means that no matter which school they attend, across the board, students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds always perform poorer than their more affluent peers. And that the location and style of education doesn't affect this factor.”

Mark Moran: “It means that students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds show similar performance in school, regardless of where they go. By "control" they mean they only compare students with similar backgrounds so that it is removed as an explanatory factor.”

Elaine Walker “1) we removed socioeconomic status as a influencing variable, and found that kids perform about the same at very different schools. 2) thus, this type of research attempts to "prove" that socioeconomic status is one of the most important variables predicting future success -- not matter what kind of school they kids go to. So, in other words 3) socio economic status is more important, in general, than the quality of a school in predicting future student success. In middle school language we'd say ‘money trumps everything’”

It means, in essence, that statistics bear out the premise that socio-economic status is the single biggest factor contributing to students’ performance at school.

In different ways, various interest groups and stakeholders in the area of education are trying to fix the wrong problem -- at least, promote the wrong definition of the problem, so that they can sell the wrong solution. Teachers don’t cause poor students to do badly. Nor do poorly-funded schools. Poor genes and bad parenting are inflammatory and essentially useless non-starters. It’s poverty that makes poor kids do badly in schools.

More than ever schools and districts are responding to the high stakes of standardized tests by focusing on how to raise the test scores of our poorest students. In my next post I’ll address the second question: Why is the push toward more accountability in schools adversely affecting poor students, when part of its goal was to make sure no child was left behind?


  1. we should all read, Anya Kamanetz's new book, The Test
    Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be.

    The last thing a child living in poverty needs is a good test score on a standardized test

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