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. “