Alfonzo Porter is a contributor to The RootDC and the author of “More Like Barack, Less Like Tupac: Eradicating the Academic Achievement Gap by Countering Decades of the Hip Hop Hoax.” He is a speaker, consultant, former teacher and school administrator.

America’s race to the bottom of international student performance has placed teachers and school systems squarely in the cross hairs of national criticism over the past several years. But a look at testing data may go far in reviving the reputations of the nation’s teaching force.


As a new school year dawns, we should take a fresh look at these results: A 2010 article published by the NASSP (National Association of Secondary School Principals) took a closer look at how the U.S. scores on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) compared with the rest of the world’s scores once they took into consideration the socioeconomic status of the students. The data suggest that the higher the instance of students receiving free and reduced meals, the lower the academic performance. For instance, schools with less than 10 percent of its students receiving free and reduced lunch scored on average 551 on the international test. Those with scores between 50 percent and 75 percent on the government program scored 471 and those with 75 percent or more scored 446.

The data also found that U.S. students enrolled in schools with less than 10 percent of its students in poverty significantly outperform the world: The 551 score bested both Finland, which scored 536 and had a poverty rate of 3.4 percent, and the Netherlands, which has a 9 percent poverty rate and a score of 508. Students in U.S. schools with a poverty rate of between 10 percent and 24.9 percent rank third, just behind Korea and Finland. U.S. kids who attend schools with a poverty rate of between 25 and 50 percent are 10th in the world, and those who attend a school with more than 50 percent of its students in poverty are near the bottom worldwide.

Indeed, you’d get a more accurate picture of the performance of American public students by comparing the scores of our children with comparable poverty rates with those of other countries. The good news here is that teachers are not the hapless, inadequate, ineffective laggards they have been painted as. The bad news is that the attention and blame may soon place the spotlight on poor students in urban and rural districts as the central cause for the country’s long-time scholastic decline. The rub is that of all the nations participating in the international assessment, the United States by far has the largest number of students living in poverty.

The overall poverty rate in the United States was 21.7 percent in 2010. The next closest country was New Zealand, which had a poverty rate of 16.3 percent, followed by the United Kingdom at 16.2 percent, Italy and Ireland at 15.7 percent, Portugal at 15.6 percent, Poland at 14.5 percent, and Japan at 14.3 percent. Denmark had the lowest instance of poverty, with only 2.4 percent of its population existing below the poverty line.

But poverty cannot be used solely as an excuse for poor performance. If we seek to address the issues surrounding our collective performance on international assessments, we will be forced to look closer at providing the extra resources needed for high-poverty schools to achieve.

We already know what works. There are plenty of examples of high-performing schools in high-poverty communities that stand ready to teach us what we need to know. While there is no relationship between poverty and effort, ability or cognition, the relationship between poverty and achievement is undeniable. For education reformers, policymakers, and the public to refute that this is a major factor that must be overcome in student achievement is to deny a real problem that continues to impact our global competitiveness.

Simply put, the real crisis in American public education is the number of students existing in poverty. Our lowest-performing schools are the most under-resourced with the highest number of disadvantaged students.

The political hype of recent years exclaiming that U.S. students will be first in the world in science and math by 2000 sounded great when President George H.W. Bush said it in 1991. When his son President George W. Bush called for universal proficiency through his No Child Left Behind initiative by 2014, it was met with a pronounced chorus of loud gasps that echoed throughout the educational community. Those goals have been abandoned, as they are viewed as unreasonable and unrealistic the closer we have gotten to the 2014 NCLB deadline.

If the United States cannot rank first in the world in minimizing the percentage of its population living in poverty, why would any rational person believe that the nation would be first in the world in educational achievement? There is, after all, abundant evidence that these types of social indicators are strongly associated with educational achievement.

America’s teachers and public schools are meeting the challenge of ensuring that our students receive a world-class education. Casting educators as incompetent or placing schools on failure lists to be taken over by the state ignores the difficult socioeconomic factors faced by the students, which in turn lead to poor achievement on the world stage.

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