The Washington Post

A new poverty-doesn’t-really-matter-much argument


Correction: In an earlier version, one letter in Paul E. Peterson’s name was incorrect. It is correct in this version.

And so the poverty-doesn’t-really-matter-in-student-achievement drumbeat keeps getting louder, most unfortunately.

This time we hear it in the new edition of the magazine Education Next, in an article called “ Neither Broad Nor Bold,” by Harvard’s Paul E. Peterson. He attacks a school reform effort called the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education but manages to mischaracterize it, and he savages a speech and an op-ed by a Duke University professor — all the while accusing her of saying things she didn’t say.

Modern school reformers reflexively label anybody who refuses to ignore the consequences of living in poverty on student achievement as “defenders of the status quo,” or worse. They insist that schools can largely overcome the outside influences that affect how a student does in class, and say there isn’t research that shows health clinics and other social services contribute to student achievement. But they never quite explain how a teacher is supposed to help a student who is exhausted, or sick, or can’t see the blackboard understand the Pythagorean Theorem.

The Broader, Bolder Approach takes the view that children who live in poverty — and today that’s 22 percent of American kids — face obstacles that often hurt their development and academic progress and that comprehensive school reform must try to alleviate the consequences of living in poverty. (That, of course, is what Geoffrey Canada had in mind when he developed the Harlem Children’s Zone.)

The Broader, Bolder initiative doesn’t suggest that children who live in poverty can’t learn, and it doesn’t say schools and teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for how well they do their jobs. In fact, its mission statement notes that school improvements should continue to be a priority though it doesn’t take sides on what those improvements should be. Lots of people signed the mission statement, including the very reform-minded Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Yet Peterson wrote this about the people behind the Broader, Bolder Approach: “For this group, poverty and income inequality, not inadequate schools, are the fundamental problem in American education that needs to be fixed. Other possible approaches to improving student achievement — school accountability, school choice, reform of the teaching profession — are misguided, counterproductive, and even dangerous. The energy now being wasted on attempts to enhance the country’s education system should be redirected toward a campaign to either redistribute income or expand the network of social services.

But Broader, Bolder doesn’t advocate the redistribution of income, it doesn’t suggest that school choice or school accountability are “dangerous” and it doesn’t say that improving social services for needy kids is all that these children need to do well in school.

This all relates to his perplexing attack on the work of Helen Ladd, the Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics at Duke University who has spent years researching school accountability, education finance, teacher labor markets, and school choice. More specifically, he reviews an address to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management that she gave in Washington D.C. last November and a New York Times op-ed that she co-authored that had this on-line headline: “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?

She argued that education policymakers should quit pretending “that family background does not matter and can be overlooked.”

“Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre overall performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that one-fifth of American children live in poverty?” the op-ed says.

Well, yes, apparently.

Here’s what Peterson wrote about Ladd’s speech: “The central thesis of the Ladd presidential address is certainly sweeping and bold: The income of a child’s family determines his or her educational achievement. Those who come from low-income families learn little because they are poor. Those who come from prosperous families learn a lot because they are rich.”

But that’s not what she said.

Ladd pointed out that the “achievement gap between children from high and low income families is now far larger than the gap between black and white children.” She doesn’t, however address income in the way he says she does. She speaks of income as one of many factors that characterize educational disadvantage. Her entire argument is framed around the issue of economic and other types of disadvantage.

Peterson mentions a study or two which concluded that income itself isn’t the key determinant factor in how well a student does in school. But this is a straw man, since Ladd never made a causal statement about income. The closest she comes to doing so is when she looks at changes within states and poverty rates, but she seems to be very careful to say that she is talking about the many ways a poor child is disadvantaged and how this these affects his/her student achievement. Sometimes these disadvantages are measured by family income, and sometimes by the educational level of the parents, and sometimes by occupation, and sometimes race is used as a proxy. But there is not a particularly strong casual link between income and outcomes – and Ladd doesn’t say there is.

Peterson further confuses things when he points out one of the charts that she used in her presidential address.

He writes “Key to Ladd’s case is a graph that shows a correlation between family income and student achievement in 14 industrialized nations. To no one’s surprise, that graph shows that in every country students who come from higher-income families score higher on math and reading tests. But is the connection causal? Do some students do better than others because their parents earn more money? Or are the parents who make a better living also the ones who do a better job of raising their children?”

Well, um, that chart doesn’t correlate family income and student achievement. The chart shows a measure used by the Organization of Economic CD, that takes in economic, social and cultural status. It does include a measure of family possessions and occupational status of the parents, but not direct income.

Then he says: “A better case can be made that the growing achievement gap is more the result of changing family structure than of inadequate medical services or preschool education. If the Broader, Bolder group really wanted to address the social problems that complicate the education of children, they would explore ways in which public policy could help sustain two-parent families…”

Nothing like advancing a huge social agenda in the middle of an educational critique!

But what really stands about this statement is just how contradictory it seems. He spends a lot of time attacking people who want to offset the disadvantages that impede the learning of disadvantaged children — such as poor health, limited access to rich vocabulary, and limited access to enrichment activities that middle class kids take for granted. But then he says that what we really need to do is help foster two-parent families. So it’s not, apparently, consequences of poverty, but the consequences of living with a single parent. Hmmm.

A new book called “ Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances .” makes a strong case that a student’s class background is the single most important factor in their academic achievement.

The book examines existing research about how economic and social inequality influence academic achievement, and it offers important new findings from numerous social scientists. Whither Opportunity?, edited by the University of California’s Greg Duncan and Harvard University’s Richard Murnane, is not an easy read by any means — it has a decidedly academic bent — but it is important.

We are reminded in one article that wealthier children spend as many as 1,300 more hours than poor children on child enrichment activities such as music lessons and travel – and this gives them an advantage when they start school. There is, too, research showing that children from affluent families have fewer behavioral problems, and that the gap between how well rich and poor children do on math and reading standardized achievement tests is much larger than it was 50 years ago. And there’s much, much more.

School reformers should read the book, and spend time in classrooms where the kids live in impoverished homes and neighborhoods. It would be mighty interesting to see how that informed their views of school reform.

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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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