Mediocre U.S. scores: Don’t blame poverty

When U.S. students post mediocre scores on international tests, poverty is “the elephant in the room,” says American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Others point to a “poverty crisis” rather than an “education crisis.”

The elephant is not in the room, write Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright in Education Next. U.S. schools do as well — or poorly — educating low-income students as other countries. Furthermore, U.S. children aren’t more likely to be poor: Those sky-high child poverty rates really are measuring inequality rather than absolute poverty.

Overall, the U.S. rates 28th in math proficiency for advantaged students among the 34 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Disadvantaged U.S. students rank 20th compared to similar students in other PISA countries.

Our advantaged students may do better than poor kids here, but they don’t outperform similar students in developed countries.

While income inequality is high in the U.S., absolute poverty is not especially high, Petrilli and Wright argue.  Including all forms of income, including welfare benefits, the U.S. poverty rate is lower than Britain’s, the same as Germany’s and “barely higher than Finland’s.”

Poverty drags down performance here — and everywhere, they conclude.  The U.S. is not an outlier.

Socioeconomic disadvantage — such as few books in the home — explains some of the gap in scores, according to a report  by three economists. “Once we adjust for social status, we are doing much better than we think,” Stanford’s Martin Carnoy told the New York Times.

“There is no way you can blame socioeconomic status for the performance of the United States,”  countered Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA for the OECD. “When you look at all dimensions of social background, the United States does not suffer a particular disadvantage.”

According to OECD’s disadvantage index, which includes “parental education and occupation, household wealth, educational resources at home and other measures of social and economic status,” less than 15 percent of U.S. students “come from the bottom rung of society,” reports the Times. “And yet, Mr. Schleicher found, 65 percent of principals in American schools say at least 30 percent of their students come from disadvantaged families, the most among nations participating in the PISA tests.”

The class system

In Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools, sociologist Peter W. Cookson Jr. describe how students’ socioeconomic status “affects much more than academic outcomes,” writes reviewer Richard Kahlenberg.

High schools “pass on class position through rites of passage that instill in students the values, dispositions, and beliefs of their class,” writes Cookson. Certain schools groom students to be leaders, while others channel adolescents into the laboring class.

High schools have a “latent curriculum,” a set of rules and norms that are written in considerable measure by fellow students, argues Cookson.

School buildings send “unspoken messages.” “Do I go to a school that is beautiful, well equipped, and mirrors back to me a sense of privilege,” he asks, “or do I go to a school that reflects back to me poverty, disorganization, and confusion?”

There aren’t enough whites to go around

School segregation remains a reality: “74 percent of African Americans still attend majority nonwhite schools, compared to just over 76 percent in the late 1960s,” writes The Nation‘s Greg Kauffman.

But there’s a demographic reality to consider, responds Matthew Yglesias in Slate. U.S. schools are running low on white kids.

Non-Hispanic whites were 54 percent of the under-18 population in 2010, compared to 74 percent in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. Furthermore, among kids under the age of 5, non-Hispanic whites are a minority.

Meanwhile, the white people are not distributed evenly across the country. You’re not going urban minority kids to Maine and Idaho or the Texas panhandle so that they can attend more integrated schools. Nor are we about to ban the practice of rich people (who are disproportionately white) from sending their kids to private schools.

So you’re going to face a situation where most schools are majority-minority and the vast majority of minority kids are in majority-minority schools and there’s not going to be anything you can do about it other than try to make those schools be really good schools.

We can’t integrate our way to better school performance, agrees Sara Mead. That includes socio-economic integration, the dream of “smart liberal school reformers in recent years.” Like whites, middle-class students from two-parent families are in short supply and not evenly distributed.

The challenge is to design schools to meet the needs of low-income, minority students. The no-excuses model adopted by some urban charter (and Catholic) schools can make a difference. Are there other models with evidence of success?

Study: Math skills at 7 predict earnings at 42

Math skills at age seven (and reading and math for girls) predicted earnings at age 42 in a British study that followed subjects from birth to middle age, reports The Atlantic.

Researchers also analyzed socioeconomic class at birth, IQ at age 11, academic motivation at 16. Controlling for other factors, “the association between basic math and reading skills and future socioeconomic status remained” and was significant.

As a next step, the researchers hope to assess the long-term impact of early education and interventions.

Measuring disadvantage

Student poverty usually is measured by school lunch eligibility, which undercounts older students, who may shun the school lunch even if they’re poor.

The National Assessment of Education Progress is developing new ways to evaluate students’ socioeconomic challenges, reports Ed Week.

It will start with the “big three”: the family’s income, parents’ level of educational attainment, and whether and where they are employed. This year’s administration of NAEP has also tried out new background questions, including how long the child has lived in the United States, how many family members live with the child, and how many adults in the home have a job.

The NAEP student survey includes questions about home possessions related to student achievement, such as access to the Internet and the number of books in the home.

The board may add to the mix neighborhood resources, such as libraries, museums and parks, and neighborhood problems, such as concentrated poverty, linguistic isolation, low education, low employment and high crime rates.

Integrating D.C. schools — or not

The District of Columbia’s rapid gentrification makes it possible to create “racially and socio-economically integrated public schools,” writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. But without some form of  “controlled choice,” there will be no space in gentrified, high-performing schools for less affluent non-white students who live outside the boundaries.

Increasingly, well-off, white parents are sending their children to public schools, he writes. Perhaps they can’t afford private schools any more. Perhaps it’s the decrease in crime or confidence in Michelle Rhee’s reforms.

In some cases, middle-class parents in gentrifying neighborhoods are persuading others to give the local public school a try, starting with free full-day preschool.

Lots of evidence shows that poor kids learn more, on average, when they attend middle class schools. And many middle class families want their kids going to schools that reflect the diversity of the society they will inherit.

But here’s the rub: Rather than settling into a nice racial balance, several D.C. schools are on their way to flipping from all-black to all-white in just a few years. Go visit schools like Brent on Capitol Hill or Ross in Dupont Circle and you’ll notice that their fourth-graders are mostly African-American and their kindergarteners are mostly white. Follow that trend for a few more years and say goodbye to our once-in-a-lifetime shot at integrated schools.

It’s not just the district schools.  Middle-class, mostly white students are entering the lottery for admission to the high-performing E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, reducing the odds for low-income students. (The pre-K-7 school is now 24 percent white and Asian and 40 percent non-poor.)

D.C. could eliminate school boundaries, then admit students “based on a mix of a lottery, geographic proximity, and the goal of socio-economic balance.” Or the boundaries could be redrawn to combine gentrified and poor neighborhoods. Finally, the District could “create magnet schools in strategic locations to draw middle class and poor students alike.”

For instance, DCPS officials could take an under-enrolled “poor” school on Capitol Hill and turn it into Montessori program, or an accelerated math and science academy—something attractive to affluent parents on the hill. Or they could put a bilingual Spanish-immersion magnet school in Columbia Heights (perhaps a replication of the Oyster School in Woodley Park).

Charter schools could play this “magnet” role, too — but they would need to be able to manage their lotteries to ensure a balance of middle class and low-income students — something not allowed today.

The magnet option is the most viable politically, but would affect only a few schools, Petrilli writes.

Too many poor kids

Poor kids learn more in low-poverty schools, according to a Century Foundation study that looked at Montgomery County, Maryland schools. Writing in Time, Andrew Rotherham sees socioeconomic integration as logistically challenging. Century’s Rick Kahlenberg responds here.

It’s impossible for most low-income students to attend low-poverty schools, writes Sara Mead in her Ed Week blog. There are too many poor kids.

The study found low-income students learned more in schools in which no more than 20 percent of students qualified for a subsidized lunch, but the benefits vanished when 35 percent of students were eligible for a subsidized lunch. “Nationally, 41% of American students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches,” Mead writes. Do the math.

It’s possible for a fraction of low-income students to attend middle-class schools.  For the majority, “it is absolutely critical that we ALSO have strategies in place to enable low-income children to get a good education in high-poverty schools.”

This makes sense to me. There are some high-performing, high-poverty schools, usually organized around middle-class values. Districts could create more.