Poverty and education

Kevin Carey has a great post on the intersection of poverty and education. He starts with University of Colorado Education Professor Kevin Welner Answer Sheet critique of  the education manifesto by the superintendants of the New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Denver, Philadelphia, Kansas City, New Orleans, Charlotte, and Indianapolis schools systems.  Welner writes:

It is disgraceful for these leaders who are in charge of 2.5 million students – disproportionately students in impoverished, urban areas – to act as enablers for those who dismiss the need to address issues of concentrated poverty.

“Welner believes that by asserting that poor children can learn, the superintendents are hurting the cause of making poor children less poor,” Carey writes. But the question isn’t “Does poverty matter?” The question is:  “How much does poverty matter and, knowing that, what should we do?”

The Broader / Bolder manifesto outlines a number of things that would help children be less impoverished in their health, housing, nutrition, and homes. I agree with all of them.

But let’s assume poverty isn’t abolished immediately. How do we educate poor children?

If certain levels of poverty made it impossible to learn, that would be one thing. But we have evidence that this isn’t true, both in the cases of specific poor children who learn, and in high-poverty schools where many children learn.

. . . My quarrel with the Broader / Bolder folks is that they always stop short of explaining the specific, actionable implications of their convictions about education and poverty are for education. We should “account for” the effects of poverty, apparently. How? They never say. If “no excuses” is the wrong approach, what excuses are appropriate? What does that even mean?

We’re a long way from having “schools that are well-resourced, well-run, and well-staffed enough to help poor children learn as much as they’re able,” he writes.  

On D-Ed Reckoning, Ken DeRosa takes on a Walt Gardner column that complains that good teachers can’t erase the effects of poverty.  Gardner writes:

I don’t believe that even the best teachers can completely overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that poor students bring to class through no fault of their own. They can help narrow the gap between these students and those from advantaged backgrounds, but they can’t eliminate it.

Maybe the causation is backwards, writes DeRosa. Suppose middle-class families “possess traits like self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, and cognitive ability that will allow them to stay out of poverty and do well in school.” 

I agree that it’s unlikely the best teachers could erase the performance gap between low-income and affluent students, just as it’s unlikely that deluxe social programs could erase the gap. So what? Let’s educate all students as well as possible and see how much the gap can be narrowed.

Huffington Post finally ran my first submission (a rerun from the blog), Doomed by poverty.

About Joanne


  1. Randi wrote yesterday that teachers can’t do it ALONE. Read the social science and read Kevin Carey’s and you see his simplistic views are not only doomed. They have a record of making a bad situation worse. We can’t invest the money and the time and energy necessary to improve instruction and outcomes on one hand, and on the other hand fight back continually against Carey’s knownothingism.

    Since Carey likes to speculate endlessly about whatever pops into his head, I’ll use the economics term. Data-DRIVEN accountability runs up against opportunity costs. As we spend billions on computer systems designed to reduce teachers to widgets monitoring drill and kill regimes, we are distracted from the hard woork of building community schools, wraparound services, holistic and engaging instruction, and respectful learning cultures. As they concentrate on driving Baby Boomers out of the profession because they don’t want to listen to our experience, the opportunity costs prevent the recruitment and retention of teaching talent. As they scheme to destroy the contractual rights of teachers, the opportunity costs preclude collaboration.

  2. This comment on Te-Nehisi Coates’s blog is worth reading in this context: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/10/the-ignorance-of-what-is-possible/64630/

  3. Poverty is the excuse that system insiders make for their failure with poor kids, while they take credit for the value which wealthy parents add to their children.

    Perhaps an analogy will make my point: against the “English language learner” (ELL) excuse “these children come from homes where the first language is not English” I observe that this does not handicap children in Belgium, Hong Kong, Hungary, or Korea. This is not an attempt at humor. The unspoken assumption which advocates for enhanced fundint to ELL make is that instruction in the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s US (the “public” schools) must occur in a language with which immigrant children are not familiar. This protects jobs for dues-paying members of the cartel against emmigrant Chinese engineers and physicians who, due to legal restrictions written by domestic providers, cannot get certified to practice their profession in the US.

    True, parent SES is strongly correlated with standardized test performance. This means that differences in parent SES predict differences in student performance (and vice versa). This “poverty” defense that the cartel’s defenders and other socialist shills deploy falls to the simple observation that some poor countries outperform the US. Further, within the US, differences in institutional variables (age of compulsory performance, district size, teacher credential requirements) between States make large differences in overall system performance.

    As ever: If a policy dispute turns on a matter of taste, a federal system with numerous local policy regimes or a competitive market in goods and services allows the satisfaction of varied tastes while the contest for control of a State-wide monopoly provider must create unhappy losers. If a policy dispute turns on a matter of fact, where “What works?” is an empirical question, numerous local policy regimes or a competitive market in goods and services (e.g., education services) will generate more inforemation than will a State-wide monopoly enterprise. A State-monopoly enterprise is like an experiment with one treatment and no controls: a retarded experimental design.

  4. Mike,
    Thanks for the link to the Atlantic comment. You’re right. That comment helps us to see important factors that I think some people don’t realize and others choose to ignore.

  5. The late Gerald Bracey did analysis of poverty’ influence on standerdized testing achievement and here’s what he found:

    American students attending schools with
    – less than 10 percent in poverty averaged 589 (14% of students).
    – 10-24.9% in poverty averaged 567 (20% of students)
    – 25 to 49.9% in poverty averaged 551 (30% of students)
    – 50 to 74.5% in poverty averaged 519 (21% of students)
    – 75% or more in poverty averaged 485 (15% of students)

    Clearly, students in schools with lower levels of poverty did better. Of great interest to us is the fact that American children attending low poverty schools (25% or less) outscored the top scoring country, Sweden (561). Bracey also points out that “if the students in schools with 24-49.9% poverty constituted a nation, it would rank fourth among the 35 participating nations”

    To me this is all I need to know. There are issues that poor children that have to be dealt with like hunger, poor dental care and poor healthcare. Then there are other issues to be concerned with, especially parental care.

  6. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    I am a public school teacher who has taught for the past 22 years. I have had students from a wide spectrum of socioeconomic levels, but the majority from those families considered “low-income”. A few observations:

    1. Even students receiving Title I funding (low-income families, according to Uncle Sam) seem to have the latest electronic devices, ie. XBox and other video game systems, cellphones, flatscreen TVs, Wii systems, ad nauseum. Many of those same students do not choose to buy books from our monthly Scholastic book club, nor have they visited a public library, unless we go there on a field trip. Many of these Title I parents drive late model cars/SUVs and have the latest cellphones and IPODs. Many do not have home libraries or use electronic media for anything other than entertainment.

    2. Many of these Title I students have not been to a museum or other educational venue, unless on a school field trip, despite the fact that most museums offer free days each month, all year round. The same families who choose not to take their own children to museums, aquariums, etc., manage to take their children to places like amusement parks, Las Vegas and Mexico.

    3. Many of these Title I students do not come with proper school supplies, ie. pencils, notebooks, etc., but instead bring toys, electronic devices, and junk food to school daily. Our school provides many different kinds of school supplies to the students, courtesy of the taxpayers. Our state (California) is now bankrupt, and currently is running close to a 60 BILLION dollar deficit.

    4. Many of these Title I families do not have health insurance or other basic insurance, yet seem to have the disposable income to purchase the aforementioned flatscreen TVs, video game systems, cellphones, late model cars, etc. Many of these families regularly use the nurse’s office at school and emergency rooms of our hospitals for basic medical visits, instead of for true emergencies. Many of our state’s hospital ERs/Trauma centers have been closed or are close to bankruptcy. The number of school nurses and other support personnel at schools has been reduced, due to the budget crisis.

    5. Many of these Title I families falsify income statements to qualify for free breakfasts and lunches at the school. It’s hard to believe that a family with two late model SUVs and flatscreen TVs only make $200/mo. as many write these kinds of ridiculously low figures on their meal applications. Many of these families pay no income or property tax, despite their obvious assets. There is no current verification system at our school or most public schools. Our school allows families to apply for publicly-supported programs for dental and eye care, with many falsified applications that go unverified. The taxpayers are feeding and providing health care for many of these families who prefer to spend their disposable income on entertainment gadgets instead of basics for their family.

    The basic point? There are some students from truly destitute families (and we teachers usually can spot them very easily) who merit some kind of safety net from the public. I believe in helping those most in need. But vast numbers of Title I families believe they are ENTITLED to the taxpayers’ largesse. They have a poverty of VALUES and PRIORITIES, not a poverty of income or wealth. Many of these “low-income” families have a far higher standard of living than many “middle class” people elsewhere. Parents and students make CHOICES as to what they VALUE most. Las Vegas or an aquarium? Six Flags or a history museum? Wii Basketball or real exercise outdoors? Sitting on your buttocks in front of the XBox, or reading a book? Buy a pound of apples or a large bag of Hot Cheetos for your child? These are everyday choices made beyond the classroom that have educational and ultimately, economic, consequences.

    When something is given “free” (read: someone ELSE bears the cost) , it is a disincentive for individual responsibility. Many accomplished Americans of the past and present came from poverty, but did not rely on entitlements to rise above it. We’ve created an entitlement monster and it must be stopped!

    ‘Nuff said.

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    The late Gerald Bracey did analysis of poverty’ influence on standardized testing achievement…

    Unfortunately, what you’ve shown in your post is the correlation between poverty and test scores. Showing influence/causation requires much more than just showing a correlation.

    -Mark Roulo

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Mark Roulo…. that’s actually more true than you know. Not to be pedantic, but it’s technically impossible to show causation. For anything. All we ever have is correlation and a theory to explain it. The question is always this: how good do the theories we have seem to us, and are there other theories that seem better?

    There are some pretty good theories about poverty and test scores, although frankly I don’t buy them myself. Good theories, though, nonetheless.

  9. nailsagainsttheboard,

    I think part of the solution to the problem you describe is for schools to start retaining kids. When we pass along kids who have acquired no knowledge in a given school year, we are implying that things are OK. We are not challenging these people’s view that education can be a passive process. Neither parents nor students get the wake up call they need. WE can help these kids by making a stink when they don’t learn, and making sure our districts don’t issue false documentation (i.e. credits and diplomas) to kids who have not acquired an education. WE are guilty of fraud when we allow non-learners to pass.

  10. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Ben F.,

    I agree in principle with you–the social promotion of substandard students is a travesty that’s gone on too long. However, logistically, it would be a nightmare to house all the students who’ve failed and are retained in a certain grade level at an individual school, together with incoming students new to the grade level. Our school is crowded, even with social promotion. With an average of 32 kids per class in 5th grade, together with students who SHOULD be retained….we wouldn’t have the classroom space and materials for what would be the warehousing of large numbers of retained students. Unfortunately, consistently adding more and more standards and raising the complexity of those grade level standards year after year for students who come less and less prepared for school is just setting up the system for failure. The parents of these students expect the school personnel to do what was once the parents’ responsibilities. Schools are not daycare centers, and I am not a babysitter. Learning is a difficult, arduous, amazing and wondrous process all rolled up into one. Teachers cannot and should not be all things to all people. Public school administrators and teachers need the ability to expel disruptive and incorrigible students, and their unsupportive parents, just as charter and private schools can do so now,, with far fewer roadblocks. Only when parents invest something of their own, ie. money or time, in their child’s education, will we see progress. California–whose public schools were once the envy of the nation 40+ years ago–now languishes near the bottom in both standardized test scores and graduation/dropout rates. I wish there was a quick and easy solution–like ending social promotion–but that alone won’t work. I agree that phony diplomas should not be issued to those students who didn’t earn them. Ending social promotion is just a start. Something more draconian may be needed.

  11. (Bracey): “if the students in schools with 24-49.9% poverty constituted a nation, it would rank fourth among the 35 participating nations.”
    Entire nations of people who are as poor as the US “poor” do better than the US average.
    Here’s OECD: “Finland, with an average of 563 score points, was the highest-performing country on the PISA 2006 science scale. Six other high-scoring countries had mean scores of 530 to 542 points: Canada, Japan and New Zealand and the partner countries/economies Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei and Estonia. Australia, the Netherlands, Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and Ireland, and the partner countries/economies Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Macao-China also scored above the OECD average of 500 score points.”
    Here’s TIMSS:…

    South Korea pci $17,930
    Hungary pci $13, 780
    Estonia pci $12,480


    Some years ago I heard a report (NPR?) that student performance was more highly correlated with the family’s future income than with current income. That is, the investigators measured performance and family income, then returned years later to measure family income again. The conjecture was that people who plan ahead invest wisely, in their children and elsewhere.

    Both the charity industry and the education industry would work better if the State got out of the business, seems to me.

    Kevin Welner uses one government failure to expand another failed government enterprise.

  12. I know the logistics are ornery. But if there’s a will, there’s a way. The least we can do is cultivate that will, which is currently lacking.

    We can also expose the fraudulent cures for the unmanageable diversity of preparation of our students: “differentiated instruction”, Response to Intervention, etc.

  13. GDP per capita means little if there’s no comparison of the cost of living.

    But I’ll bite, Malcolm. I read recently the average income in the US is somewhere around 230K.

    I don’t know a single person making that much money. The average is skewed towards the upper range by the number of enormously wealthy in the US.

    A more recent statistic is that 20% of US kids are living in poverty, defined as a family of four living on 22K a year or less. Poverty equates to hunger and poor health.

    What’s the poverty rate for the countries you cited?

  14. The average family income is a bit over $50,000.

  15. Malcolm I’d like to know more about that report. It makes sense that educational achievement “was more highly correlated with the family’s future income than with current income.” That would imply that the key is delayed gratification.

    That gets us to the paradoxes cited by nailsagainsthe board. Kids don’t have health insurance or free fruit but they have the full range of digital toys. They haven’t been to a museum. Some have been to the casinos, even traveling to Las Vegas, but they’ve never taken a hike in a national park.

    The “answer” is to teach delayed gratification. Restore field trips. Restore an engaging curriculum and electives. Teach nutrition. Bring teams of caring adults into schools to mentor the whole child. Teach students to be students. Converse with kids, and listen to their fears.

    Hope is the greatest educational solution.

    The social promotion is maddening and I suspect most teachers have the same frustrations that we get the worst of both worlds. We get bogus, dishonest de facto social promotion by passing kids on with a wink and a nod. But Ben F, don’t discount logistics. Quantity has its own quality. Where there’s a will there’s a way is not true when facing extreme critical masses of generational poverty. As John Hopkins has shown, the remediation strategy of NCLB can work in schools where dozens of students need additional help. But when you have hundreds, the logistics are impossible. For those schools with need community schools and wraparound services.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Mike in Texas.
    As you know–seen this before–but hope the rest of us don’t, income levels are capped for purposes of calculating averages. I believe the top rate considered is $600,000. For purposes of calculating averages, means, quintiles and so forth, Bill Gates makes $600,000–or a newer max.
    When the cap went from $300k to $600k, the top quintile went up substantially. The usual suspects howled that the rich were getting richer–BAD–while as many as one percent of them were actually smart enough to know better. It was an artifact of reporting.
    LBJ and his Great Society decided to count only cash income with the purpose of increasing the number of “poor” in order to provide more urgency to the political issue. So rent subsidies or other subsidies, WIC, Medicaid, and whatever other local help is available without being cash is not counted. IIRC, counting all income cuts the number of actually poor by about a third.

    I tell you this, Mike, so that you’ll know the rest of us know. Too.

  17. It’s not about how much money you make, it’s about your culture… If your culture doesn’t value education, it won’t matter how much money you make.

  18. (John): “I’d like to know more about that report.
    I wish I could recall more, but I cannot. The result makes sense in view of performance of poor East Asian immigrant children.

    (Mike): “GDP per capita means little if there’s no comparison of the cost of living..”
    Correct. One could have a dollar-denominated income of zero and live well on a tropical island.
    (Mike): “A more recent statistic is that 20% of US kids are living in poverty, defined as a family of four living on 22K a year or less. Poverty equates to hunger and poor health.”

    You’ve just contradicted yourself. This last is empirically questionable. In the USA, poor people are more likely to be obese than are wealthy people. They are more likely to smoke cigarettes than are wealthy people, so poor health is, to a considerable degree, self-inflicted.

    In any case, the income-related test-score gap is inversely related to the degree of parent control (the more control parents exert, the less income matters). With homeschoolers, it almost disappears. It is smaller in parochial schools than in State (government, generally) schools.

    If Professor and the other cartel defenders argue “We are helpless against poverty” then maybe voters should give control of education to some agent who is not helpless.

  19. Sorry. “If Professor and the other cartel defenders…” should be “If Professor Welner and the other cartel defenders…”