Doomed by poverty?

We need to accept reality, writes Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post blog, Answer Sheet.

The strongest predictor of student success in school has long been family income and parents’ education level. So we can applaud and shower with attention the students and teachers and schools that beat the odds, but it’s a bad idea to pretend that the exceptions are anything but exceptions.

Strauss concedes that schools can “make some difference in some circumstances” for low-income children and shouldn’t “get a pass for failing to try.” But why try very hard if it’s hopeless?

Don’t assume poor children are doomed to fail in school, responds Kevin Carey on The Quick and the Ed. More children are living in poverty in Washington, D.C., but test scores have risen.

The rate of black fourth graders in DC scoring above Basic on the NAEP math exam increased from 45 to 50 percent. For low-income students, the rate increased from 43 to 48 percent. Both increases were statistically significant. For low-income 8th graders, 28 to 34 percent. For black 8th graders, 31 to 36 percent. 4th grade reading? 29 to 35 percent for low-income students, 33 to 37 percent for black students. (8th grade reading scores increased too, although not at statistically significant level.)

In other words, Michelle Rhee said poverty was no excuse for her own performance, and then delivered.

In a TNR Symposium in March, Carey nailed the issue:

Of course hunger, mobility, stress, and poor health are barriers to learning.

But let me put it this way: Say we have a group of low-income minority students with chronic health problems whose parents are unemployed. They can attend one of two schools. The first has crumbling facilities, no coherent curriculum, indifferent leadership, and a poorly trained staff of unmotivated teachers who can never be fired. We suspect that academic results in this school are very bad, but we don’t know for sure because the only available data comes from the school itself, which reports that students are doing “fine, all things considered.”

The second school has new facilities, a rich curriculum, and a strong principal. Teachers are well-trained and work in a cooperative, mutually supportive environment. Excellent teaching is rewarded, and there is no tolerance for incompetence. Student results on national criterion-referenced tests are reported to the community every year.

Do you care which school those children attend? Or are you indifferent, because the differences between them are “likely to be overwhelmed by the impact of unemployment”?

If poverty is destiny, then schools do get a pass for failure. I have a modest proposal: Any school that can’t make a difference for its students should replace its teachers with aides who can supervise recess, sports, art and music. Let the kids have fun before they start their grim, hopeless adult lives. Give parents who want their children to be educated a voucher good at a no-excuses school that teaches reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, history, science, etc. I’d bet most parents, even low-income, poorly educated parents, would choose a real school.

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  1. Miller Smith says:

    Kids in DC are doing better since we can see that test scores have risen. Bull. The kids aren’t doing better, the tests are being made easier.

    The tests that I have to administer every year for the past 10 years get easier and easier. Content is removed each year from the cirriculum guide. A student only has to earn a 41% to pass the tests.

    Want to see some proof? Notice here( and then click on the chart) that the the SAT scores are going down or are flat, but the state tests scores are going up. Look at the attendance for each grade level.

    When you get into the data rather than just look at the test scores, you will see that lies are all we have.

  2. With her comparison of successful high-poverty schools to a 95-y.o. pack-a-day smoker, Strauss isn’t just guilty of using a weak analogy. She also shows an appalling lack of statistical reasoning.

    The 95-y.o. smoker is not evidence that smoking ensures a long life, of course. But the reason this is so is precisely that he is a single individual. The risk from smoking holds over a large sample size. (If the claim were made that smoking guarantees a short life, then sure…)

    In a successful high-poverty school, all students are (on average) successful. It’s as if the angel of poverty decided to pass over their schoolhouse. This would be comparable to a group of 90-something pack-a-day smokers…who all smoked the same brand of cigarette, or lived in the same apartment complex, or had the same ethnic background and diet, etc. In other words, it’s suggestive of a causal factor and not just chance.

    It may be the case that the DC exams are getting easier. Even if this is the case, comparisons between DC schools can tell us something about what works.

  3. BTW, Kevin Carey is discussing the NAEP, which is administered US-wide and has not gotten easier.

  4. If poverty doomed children to failure than how does Ms. Strauss explain the success of low-income Asian students? Income isn’t the real problem- it’s a culture that does not value education or hard work.

    Both my grandfathers grew up dirt poor but in families that valued education. One wound up earning scholarships to a prep school, then Wesleyan, then a PhD. program at Harvard. The second dropped out of high school at 13 when his father died but eventually earned his diploma and then a bachelor’s degree at night. After serving in WWII, he used the GI Bill to earn a J.D.

  5. I think it’s a genetic/family culture thing. I spoke about it earlier:

    From NYT: “In terms of the relation between family income and SAT test scores, the Times analyis shows the statistical relation a monstrous direct correlation (.95). This same correlation, by the way, can be found in any set of state test scores for elementary school children, too.”

    It’s a strong correlation between scores and income because the characteristics that keep a family poor (on average) are work ethic, intelligence, motivation and education. Those who work their way out excepted. Those who are poor by misfortune or medical emergency also excepted. These characteristics are also likely to be passed on to children of this family and they are the same ones that lead to poor education. There are exceptions and everyone knows them, but I’m speaking “on average” and the average cannot be applied to the individual.

    Those who feel tempted to brand me a hateful bigot, consider this: in thirty years of testing, ETS has never had any strong correlations between scores and any other characteristics. Other tests show the same. Not gender, race, school type, city/suburb, curly/straight hair … nothing else correlates. Only income correlates with scores.

    I don’t like this explanation, but I cannot see another.

  6. I can’t speak for all teachers of low-income students, but I can say that the success stories our staff sees in the South Bronx has little to do with the amount of money the parents make (none of them make very much). The success stories almost always happen because the home life is in order and supportive.

  7. “In terms of the relation between family income and SAT test scores, the Times analyis shows the statistical relation a monstrous direct correlation (.95).

    Except the nasty, irrefutable fact that poor whites outscore wealthy blacks.

  8. Welcome to the Human Biodiversity (HBD) camp, Curmudgeon.  The blank-slaters will hate you and call you the “r”-word, but keeping up your allegiance to the truth (however poorly you know it, and however unwelcome it might be) is its own reward.

  9. I was going to say pretty much what Curmudgeon did, so bravo for him (and whether someone likes an explanation is not a particularly good guide to whether it’s correct). I’ll only add that the reason the best predictors of success always turn out to be family income and parental education is that schools are afraid to test children’s IQs, and these two variables are the closest proxy variable available. If IQ were in the data, there would be little independent effect from income/education; they’re all highly correlated. Charles Murray published a study of all pairs of siblings, biological children of two married parents in non-poor families (he calls it his Utopian sample), from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth database, and found nearly as much educational inequality between siblings in different IQ ranges as in the full sample. Siblings, of course, have the same family status and are the same race, whatever it is.

  10. So we can probably save a ton of money by means testing for attendance in public schools. If you fall below a certain point, no education for you; it’s pointless and a waste of public money.

    Of course there are the exceptions to deal with but why question such a strong correlation?

  11. I’ve been teaching many years in urban, rural, and suburban districts.

    I grew up poor. I was surrounded by many children who came, also, from poor families. Most of them were not that successful in school. Some were.

    What did they have in common?

    Ambition – either personally, or the ambition of a parent with the will to impose their ambitions on the child.

    Quite simply, they wanted more than they had in their current circumstances.

    Not native intelligence – most of us have enough to achieve whatever we want to, IF we want to, badly enough.

    Not income – we were all broke.

    What Jaime Escalante called “ganas” – the DESIRE to do more.

  12. Can I insert an image here?

    (no preview button is showing so I can’t tell if this works.)

    The graph I attempted to include is from Liberal Biorealism.  It shows that the children of the richest cohort black parents (purple curve) have PSAT scores LOWER than the children of the poorest cohort of white parents (red curve).  The Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study proves that the element isn’t environment, either.

  13. Walter_E_Wallis says:

    But we get some of the highest scores in Self Esteem and Racial Pride in the world!

  14. Whatever the effect of income, culture, etc on student achievement, the practical point is that schools should do the best job they can in helping kids to achieve their potential. Can anyone seriously believe that the bureaucratized, edu-fad-ridden, performance-pay-resisting public schools are really doing such a good job that the only constraining factor is the IQ levels and family backgrounds of their students?

    People in *all* fields have to deal with factors that are outside their control, but are still expected to perform.

    Analogy: There are inherent thermodynamic limits on the efficiency of a steam engine. What if James Watt had looked at the horribly inefficient, coal-gobbling Newcomen engine of the time and said, “Well, no point trying to improve it, because those pesky thermodynamic limits will still be there”??

    The public school system, taken as a whole, probably makes the Newcomen engine look highly efficient by comparison. The meme “we can’t improve the schools until we fix the whole culture” is a “boil the ocean” approach–ie, one that leads to inaction.

  15. So we can probably save a ton of money by means testing for attendance in public schools. If you fall below a certain point, no education for you; it’s pointless and a waste of public money.

    Absolutely not. However, we could require parents to contribute towards their children’s education, both financially (on a sliding scale of course) and by requiring them to perform a certain number of hours of labor per month the way that private schools do. Families on a tight budget could be permitted to do additional work hours in lieu of the financial contribution.

    People always value what they have to earn more than what is freely given. This is the reason why Habitat for Humanity requires recipients of the houses to put in “sweat equity”.

  16. David Foster,

    I agree with you to a large extent: schools should do the best they can. But unless solid mental nourishment occurs K-3, the deficits become so big –even in late elementary school –that it may be unreasonable to expect even bright and energetic teachers to bring lagging kids back up to grade level. I’m just about finished reading City on a Hill by James Taub. It’s a great read. It recounts the herculean efforts that City College has made to give remedial education to underprepared graduates of NYC high schools since the college went to open admissions in 1970. Brilliant efforts, dismal results. It seems to me that we still don’t understand intellectual development that well, but I suspect that it depends on massive quantities of rich verbal imput year after year starting very early, and that the knowledge that goes in incubates, ramifies, sends out synaptic “roots” around the brain slowly and invisibly in ways that we don’t yet grasp to create a well-formed and sane intelligence (naturally smart people with poor educations can become crack-pots, pawns of demagogues, or simply ineffectual members of society). There are no short-cuts to creating top-notch readers and thinkers. No teacher, no matter how great, can do in one year what requires ten or twenty years. And there’s no way to do it without offering young minds rich, nourishing content for their brains to feed on –something our emotions- and skills-obsessed schools fail to do. As I keep saying, we need a French-style school system. One of the really interesting things about City on the Hill is how it shows so many poor black students from the Caribbean and South America doing so well as City College, while African American kids flounder. Sure, there’s a ethos gap there, but another big factor is the old-fashioned colonial (French and British-style) school systems the Jamacian, Guyanese, Haitian, etc. kids went to that gave them the foundations they needed to succeed in college. One kid from the US Virgin Islands had hopped over to the British Virgin Islands because the US schools were so lame compared to the BVI ones. The corrosive effects of Teachers College pedagogy.

  17. Like LindaF said – it’s about culture, not income. (The fact that bad culture produces a lack of wealth is just a side effect of bad culture.) To succeed in anything in life, you have to CARE. You have to want to succeed, and have the ambition to do so, and the willingness to give up things now to gain even greater things later. This is why education results in the U.S. have always gone Asian -> White -> Hispanic -> Black, and will continue to do so, no matter what K-12 schools or community colleges try. It’s not about income, or race (though it might appear that way on the surface, due to generalities of subcultures), or even base genetics – it’s about culture. Look at how the Asian culture treats education and hard work, and compare that to the Black subculture in this country. See any differences? There are plenty of people in all four general subgroups with IQs of 70, 100, and 130 – so it’s not about IQ, it’s about what people in each subgroup find important in life…

  18. It’s not about income, or race (though it might appear that way on the surface, due to generalities of subcultures), or even base genetics – it’s about culture.

    A nice confession of the blank-slate faith, that is.

    Unfortunately, mountains of evidence including the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study debunk blank-slatism quite thoroughly.

  19. Engineer Poet, how do you account for the fact that West Indian blacks excel at much higher rates than poor African-Americans. It would seem to point to culture, since the genetics are the same.

  20. … the genetics are the same.

    What’s your evidence for this claim?  The two groups could easily have come from different areas (remember, Africa has the greatest human genetic diversity), been selected for different traits upon arrival, and been under different selection pressures afterward.  Remember, the Ashkenazim shifted their average IQ by about +1 SD in just a few hundred years, and that was without slavers treating them like dogs.

    There’s also intermarriage.  Rihanna is considered black in the USA, but she appears to be mostly European by ancestry (I’ve read that in Barbados she is considered white).


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