‘Broader, Bolder’ is ‘narrow, niggling, naive’

Low achievement by low-income students isn’t caused by poverty, argues Paul Peterson in Education Next.  He’s responding to a speech by Helen Ladd to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management calling for fighting poverty and income inequality rather than trying to change schools.

Education reform policies “are not likely to contribute much in the future —to raising overall student achievement or to reducing [gaps in] achievement,” said Ladd, an advocate of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Instead, policy makers should adopt “macro-economic policies designed to reduce unemployment, cash assistance programs for poor families, tax credits for low wage workers, or or an all-out assault ‘war on poverty.’”

Family income correlates with reading and math scores, but research hasn’t found a causal link, Peterson writes. It’s possible that “parents who make a better living also . . . do a better job of raising their children.”

In a 2011 Brookings Institution report, increasing a poor family’s income by 50 percent lifted math achievement by 20 percent of a standard deviation,” but that drops to 6.4 percent after adjusting for “race, mother’s and father’s education, single or two-parent family, smoking during pregnancy, and so forth.”  It’s more than twice as important for achievement to have a mother with a high school diploma instead of a mother who dropped out.

Drawing on a study by Stanford education professor Sean Reardon, Ladd says that the gap in reading achievement between students from families in the lowest and highest income deciles is larger for those born in 2001 than for those born in the early 1940s. She suspects it is because those living in poor families today have “poor health, limited access to home environments with rich language and experiences, low birth weight, limited access to high-quality pre-school opportunities, less participation in many activities in the summer and after school that middle class families take for granted, and more movement in and out of schools because of the way that the housing market operates.”

But her trend data hardly support that conclusion. Those born to poor families in 2000 had much better access to medical and preschool facilities than those born in 1940. Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, summer programs, housing subsidies, and the other components of Johnson’s War on Poverty did not become available until 1965. Why didn’t those broad, bold strokes reduce the achievement gap?

What has changed for the worse is family structure, Peterson writes. More children are growing up in single-parent families, which doubles the risk that a child will drop out of high school.

Ladd proposes spending more on preschool, after-school programs, school-based health clinics and social services. These programs “have never been shown to have more than modest effects on student achievement,” Peterson writes. She also wants high-quality schools with good teachers for needy students — with no way to judge quality. “In sum, the Broader, Bolder platform is narrow, niggling, naïve, and negligible. . . . They promise little hope of stemming the rising number of single-parent families, a major contributor to both child poverty and low levels of student performance. “

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  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    The problem is that we want to be able to do SOMETHING to close the achievement gap. However, we can’t force people to delay childbearing until marriage, graduate from high school, show up for work on time and take an interest in their children’s schoolwork.

    You can’t legislate culture. All you can do is offer a path out for the kids who want one. You also can’t force kids to WANT a path out. Past generations of lower class kids had parents who saw education as the means to success. Poor immigrant moms who worked in sweatshops and barely spoke English sent their kids to college and churned out doctors and lawyers. Why? Because their cultures valued education as a means to success and valued certain careers as signs that a child had ‘made it.’

    Throwing more money at people determined to preserve an anti-education culture won’t help their kids do better in school–it will just give them posher schools to fail out of.

  2. Colin Fredericks says:

    I wish more people who argue about education – hell, about anything – knew about this:


  3. Several years ago, I took a class that featured a psychological/sociological view of the poor.

    In it, the researcher described different scenarios and showed how each class structure would answer it. Poor/middle/higher. Most illuminating, and pointed to the fact that poverty, especially in this country, is a self selected trait. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the names.

    Don’t suppose it would go over with these yahoos. If 20 grand a year would solve it, it would be interesting to try it as a control group and see what happens….

  4. palisadesk says:

    I don’t see why we can’t agree to do BOTH.

    Poverty and income inequality are complex social problems which can be ameliorated to some extent, and that is a goal worth pursuing.

    Teaching children from low-SES backgrounds well is ALSO a worthwhile goal, but may require a different approach than that which is effective for middle-class students (Pondiscio has written some good posts on this topic).

    While preschool generally may not have shown strong evidence of effectiveness, SOME preschool programs have done so. Peterson is wrong on that point. Some afterschool programs also have strong evidence of effectiveness. Why not use successful ones as models for furter replication?

    Of course that would mean actually reading research evidence carefully and planning well-thought-out courses of action instead of sloganeering.

  5. Peterson is yet another Ivy League snob, who has never taught in the K-12 world but thinks he has answers to education reform. While tearing down Ladd’s work, Peterson adds nothing significant of his own.

  6. Poor immigrant moms who worked in sweatshops and barely spoke English sent their kids to college and churned out doctors and lawyers. Why? Because their cultures valued education as a means to success and valued certain careers as signs that a child had ‘made it.’

    No, that’s not why. Because in earlier generations, those poor immigrant moms had a reasonable possibility of passing on a 3-digit IQ to their kids.

    We can’t make that assumption anymore. It’s not about values, but ability.

    • I’d like you to clarify: “It’s not about values, but ability.” What does that mean? Poor children no longer have the ability to face rigorous academics? Poor parents no longer have a reasonable possibility of passing on a decent IQ to their kids? Why not? Is there something in the water? Maybe the steroids and antibiotics in our chicken and beef?

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        I suspect it is the drugs.

      • Poor parents no longer have a reasonable possibility of passing on a decent IQ to their kids? Why not? Is there something in the water? Maybe the steroids and antibiotics in our chicken and beef?

        Thanks to sorting, poor parents are far less likely to have high IQs, and their kids are less likely to be born with high IQs. It’s not impossible, just less likely. And this is hardly news.

        This was not true in earlier years, prior to WW2.

        • Immigrants to this country are still likely to have modest incomes but high IQ’s that they can pass along to their children. The Hmong family that runs the dry cleaning business our family patronizes came to this country with only the clothes on their backs. Yet their oldest daughter is a pre-med at UC Berkeley. They are not alone in having this kind of up-from-the-bootstraps story.

          The problem is that because our country has done such a good job over the past half-century or so in providing a path out of poverty for high-IQ folks, those who remain behind tend to be disproportionately lower-ability. In the past, maybe they could’ve gotten a manufacturing job but with globalization there are far fewer of those.

          • Immigrants to this country are still likely to have modest incomes but high IQ’s that they can pass along to their children.

            No, they aren’t. First, the selection bias is not as strong as it was in years past–it’s much easier to get here, particularly with the family chain. So we aren’t necessarily getting smarter Russians or Indians.

            And the biggest immigrant category is immigrants from Mexico, whose average IQ is not anything to get worked up about–and again, no selection bias.

            I believe Hmong IQs are lower than the rest of eastern Asians, by the way.

  7. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    Poverty is apparently the one, magical sparkly super-thing in the world that does not follow the otherwise iron-clad law, “subsidization of x gives you more x“.

  8. Corporate-ed-reform supporters constantly deny that they deny that poverty correlates with low achievement. If you point out that they regularly deny it, you get a chorus of “prove it!” “Where did anybody ever say that?” “Nobody denies it!” and such.

    Well,next time that happens I’ll probably be too busy or tired to remember this post and seek it out to link. So I’m just venting for no reason.

    • As my old stats professor used to constantly harangue our class, correlation does NOT equal causation. If parental income correlates with low student achievement, then either low achievement causes the familial poverty (unlikely), poverty causes low achievement, or some 3rd factor causes both poverty and low achievement. The linked article seems to support the latter conclusion. I personally think Cal is right about IQ being the elephant in the room.

    • “Family income correlates with reading and math scores, but research hasn’t found a causal link, Peterson writes.” He goes on at length about the strong correlation before discussing the lack of evidence that lack of income causes low achievement. He speculates that cultural factors linked to poverty, such as single-parent families, are the primary causal factor.

  9. Stacy in NJ says:

    The problem with broader, bolder is that we’ve already been there, seen it, done it.

    Free public education ala Horace Mann and LBJ’s War on Poverty were prior generation’s answers to “solving” poverty. How’d that work out? It worked out really well for the middle and upper classes who were/are employed by these agencies – “serving” poor communities. It worked out less well for those actually living in poverty. We should view these initiatives for what they actually are, which is public works projects (i.e. Make Work). Another example of good intentions morphed into self-interest supported on the back of the banality of sentimentality.

  10. Peterson sort of misses his own point. Poverty does matter, as it is the “culture of poverty” that leads to the holes in education. It’s not simply the money. It’s all the other social ills that come along with poverty. But poverty is the root of the social ills.

    There are plenty of kids in middle and upper class homes who come from divorce, live in single parent homes, use drugs, have sex outside of marriage, etc. But it doesn’t affect their education the way it does in other neighborhoods. So, the poverty matters.

    Though I would agree that simply improving wages and employment isn’t going to solve the achievement gap.

  11. Ponderosa says:

    There is no silver bullet for fixing dysfunctional kids. But insuring that all American parents have a decent-paying job and decent social benefits (e.g. free child care) certainly couldn’t hurt. Plus it would be humane.

    It seems to me that some of the commentators here just want the underclass to suffer more and more until they go extinct. That’s the way our society is currently dealing with unemployed fifty-somethings too.

    The broader question here is, how are we humans going to treat each other?

    • Excellent points. Imagine if our government threw its entire weight into the issue of poverty just how many far-reaching problems in our country might be solved.

      • Mark Roulo says:


        If only the federal government would declare war on poverty! 🙂

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Wonderful! While we’re at it, let’s make a high quality education available to everyone for free! In addition to educating the poor, we can indoctrinate them with our shared values to ensure we have civic-minded responsible citizens. I’m sure it will work out beautifully and will only cost a pitence.

          • Richard Cook says:

            My God! That there are still intelligent people around that still believe the government can solve this. Wow. Sounds like what i heard in the 60s!

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana

    • I’d like there to be greater personal responsibility so that poorly educated, unmarried teens and 20somethings aren’t having so many babies. The best way to reduce suffering among poor children is for fewer of them to be born into poverty in the first place. True, contraception isn’t 100% effective, but a lot of these babies are conceived deliberately or “accidentally on purpose” (e.g. the mom knew she was being careless and was not displeased when she became pregnant).

      • Ponderosa says:

        Crimson Wife,

        What percentage of people in need of a social safety net fit this profile? Ten percent? Twenty percent? Should we throw the majority under the bus because a minority are egregiously irresponsible? Would it be the worst tragedy in the world if we took care of some undeserving folks in the process of helping the deserving? Where in the Bible does Jesus say, “Be careful not to give charity to people who’ve made bad decisions”? I support separation of church and state, yet I’d like our government to be more Christian.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          The problem is that subsidizing single-parenthood with an expanded social safety net will increase poverty not decrease it. And, again, we know this to be true because we’ve already done it.

          As Thinly Veiled posted it is an economic reality that you get more of what you subsidize. If we subsidize single-parent households, you we will get more single parents. This will increase dysfunction and poverty not decrease it. Just as dysfunction will expend so will the cost of the programs which NEVER decrease in cost but always expand.

          Just because some European countries have more generous benefits doesn’t mean that those same types of programs would work as effectively in the USA. Success of social programs depends a great deal on the shared culture of the country – the countries homogeneity. Here in the USA, we are not all Swedes with Swedish sensibilities.

          We will see in our life time the gutting of most of those programs across Europe as they raise taxes (austerity) to try to retain them, and their economies fail to expand. This cost level was supported by borrowing via issuing bonds that were then purchased by fellow EU members. Their banking sector is leveraged 3X greater than our own due in part to the need to purchase these same bonds. This is a Ponzi scheme waiting to fall apart, and it is falling apart in front of our eyes.

          Margaret Thatcher had it right when she said that the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.

          We do need to address poverty and the poor state of public education in America, but we need to be much more creative and thoughtful than we have been in the past. Broader, Bolder is same old – same old.

          • Ponderosa says:

            Stacy, by your logic, we shouldn’t help the victims of floods or hurricanes –because that will just encourage them to rebuild homes in dangerous places. Let ’em feel the full consequences of their decisions! It’s the only way they’ll learn.

            I don’t agree. The poor folk you disdain are living catastrophic lives. The moral thing to do is to give them basic assistance in their time of catastrophe, regardless of whether it “encourages” them to keep bad habits. Once stabilized, then we should talk about how to break those bad habits. Humans are complex organisms, our motivations are complex. To say that gov’t subsidy = more dysfunctional families. You’re ignoring all sorts of other variables that come into play, such as the improved receptivity to education their kids might possess as a result of their stabilized home lives.

            By the way, it’s also false to suggest that “subsidizing” the poor is like throwing money down the toilet. What happens to that money? It gets spent quickly, thus animating the economy. Much of it ends up in the pockets of middle class managers and business people. Whereas letting the super rich have their Cayman Island bank accounts deadens economic activity in America.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Ponderosa, Have you heard of AFDC, TANF, Food Stamps, Medicaid, CHIP, or Head Start? We have been providing basic assistance to the poor for decades.

            Currently 15% of our federal budget is spent on social safety net programs EXLUDING Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare, and Social Security.

            In total, all social programs (Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Social Security, and “Other” programs) are 58% of our federal budget.

            FYI, we are currently borrowing 40% of all dollars we spend via the issuance of bonds which are purchased primarily by China and our own Federal Reserve (QE programs). Does that sound sustainable to you? If we were to confiscate the complete wealth of Warren Buffet and Bill Gate (about $111b) we will be able to completely fund the federal government for less than two months.

            When does poverty become “stabilized”? What percent of our federal budget do we need to devote to “stabilizing” it? 65%? 75%?

            Even if we use every dollar we tax in revenue (which will decease as few people are engaged in productive work) to ameliorate poverty, we will NEVER stabilize it because the programs you’re proposing are not capable of stabilizing it.

            Taking a position against increasing federal and state spending on social programs that have proven ineffective over generations does not equate with disdain for the poor. It equates with actually desiring EFFECTIVE policy.

  12. But insuring that all American parents have a decent-paying job and decent social benefits (e.g. free child care) certainly couldn’t hurt.

    Sorry comrade, the gov’t ‘ensuring’ everyone has jobs somehow leads to totalitarian gulags.

    • Bandit, that’s ridiculous.

      How about Sweden, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, France, Taiwan, South Korea, etc.

      All schools that best us in educational results …. oh, and overall quality of life measurements.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Sweden, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, France, Taiwan, and South Korea. do not ensure everyone has a job. They all have official unemployment rates, some of which are quite high (especially for young people).


      • Richard Cook says:

        I really don’t know where to start with this. It would take a book to point out how seriously flawed your statement is.

        • Who? Me?

          Regardless, Richard, all you offer is a logically flawed statement.

          In your words, “You are wrong, but I can’t really explain why, so I’ll use my inability to respond with details, to de facto declare that I am right.”

          Well said. My perhaps a refresher course on argumentation would help you find the words to articulate your position.

          If that’s all you have, don’t bother.

          • Richard Cook says:

            It’s not that I can’t explain it, its that I don’t have the time to do your work for you. Perhaps an optometrist is in your future.

      • I was in downtown Seoul a couple of weeks ago, and let me assure that despite the freezing cold weather, I saw beggars and other panhandlers. Doesn’t exactly sound like insuring decent-paying jobs for all.

  13. Ponderosa says:

    I’m not certain of that at all (are you familiar with the WPA and CCC?) But I am certain that many unemployed people are currently planning suicide. I know a few.

    • Which has what to do with what? In market economies there is unemployment. When countries ensure full employment they also require employment and the gov’t dictates what the employment is. The WPA and CCC didn’t guarantee employment – they were gov’t programs created during a period of high unemployment to work on some federal projects. If you want to see examples of guarenteed employment go to the workers paradise of NKorea or Cuba. The gov’t solves all your problems for you.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    I don’t think Brookings paid a lot of poor people money to raise their income by half. I think they chose a higher income group to compare. Cheaper.