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The Unaddressed Link Between Poverty and Education

Durham, N.C.

NO one seriously disputes the fact that students from disadvantaged households perform less well in school, on average, than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. But rather than confront this fact of life head-on, our policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control.

No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature education law, did this by setting unrealistically high — and ultimately self-defeating — expectations for all schools. President Obama’s policies have concentrated on trying to make schools more “efficient” through means like judging teachers by their students’ test scores or encouraging competition by promoting the creation of charter schools. The proverbial story of the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost comes to mind.

The Occupy movement has catalyzed rising anxiety over income inequality; we desperately need a similar reminder of the relationship between economic advantage and student performance.

The correlation has been abundantly documented, notably by the famous Coleman Report in 1966. New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates.

International research tells the same story. Results of the 2009 reading tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment show that, among 15-year-olds in the United States and the 13 countries whose students outperformed ours, students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts within every country. Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre overall performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that one-fifth of American children live in poverty?

Yet federal education policy seems blind to all this. No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face. The legislation did, to be sure, specify that subgroups — defined by income, minority status and proficiency in English — must meet the same achievement standard. But it did so only to make sure that schools did not ignore their disadvantaged students — not to help them address the challenges they carry with them into the classroom.

So why do presumably well-intentioned policy makers ignore, or deny, the correlations of family background and student achievement?

Some honestly believe that schools are capable of offsetting the effects of poverty. Others want to avoid the impression that they set lower expectations for some groups of students for fear that those expectations will be self-fulfilling. In both cases, simply wanting something to be true does not make it so.

Another rationale for denial is to note that some schools, like the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, have managed to “beat the odds.” If some schools can succeed, the argument goes, then it is reasonable to expect all schools to. But close scrutiny of charter school performance has shown that many of the success stories have been limited to particular grades or subjects and may be attributable to substantial outside financing or extraordinarily long working hours on the part of teachers. The evidence does not support the view that the few success stories can be scaled up to address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.

A final rationale for denying the correlation is more nefarious. As we are now seeing, requiring all schools to meet the same high standards for all students, regardless of family background, will inevitably lead either to large numbers of failing schools or to a dramatic lowering of state standards. Both serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system is failing and needs fundamental change, like privatization.

Given the budget crises at the national and state levels, and the strong political power of conservative groups, a significant effort to reduce poverty or deal with the closely related issue of racial segregation is not in the political cards, at least for now.

So what can be done?

Helen F. Ladd is a professor of public policy and economics at Duke. Edward B. Fiske, a former education editor of The New York Times, is the author of the “Fiske Guide to Colleges.”

Australia an education underachiever

Slipping ... 18 per cent of students reached high levels in international tests in 2000; in 2009 this had fallen to 13 per cent.

Slipping … 18 per cent of students reached high levels in international tests in 2000; in 2009 this had fallen to 13 per cent. Photo: Julian Kingma

AUSTRALIA is being left behind by the education investments of competitor nations, and funding needs to rise by at least $10 billion a year just to reach the average of OECD nations, the NSW government has argued in its final submission to the Gonski funding review.

And if the nation is to aim at reaching higher standards in order to transform the economy to a ”high skill, high wage” future, the need is even greater.

The education funding review headed by David Gonski, due to report by the end of this year, has floated the establishment of an educational resource standard, which is the amount of funding needed for the average student to reach minimum benchmarks.

The NSW government says the goal must be set higher, with a focus on the entrenched underperformance of students. Instead of looking at minimum attainment, the government proposes additional benchmarks for ”proficient” and high levels of achievement in literacy and numeracy.

The intention should be to make it a ”realistic possibility” for all students to go on to tertiary or vocational study, no matter their background or circumstances.

While the educational focus has been on low performance, the submission argues that many students who exceed minimum standards fail to do as well as they could. Australia’s decline, as measured by international testing, is particularly evident at the top levels, where Asian nations are witnessing far more high or advanced performers in maths and science.

”We must set more ambitious national targets and use existing data to better understand student performance across the range of achievement in order to raise expectations and address underachievement,” the NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, said.

”School funding mechanisms also need to direct resources to those students with the highest level of disadvantage and educational need. This includes students from rural and regional areas who are, on average, 18 months behind their city peers,” he said.

An immediate focus should be on early childhood education and care where Australia is way behind the rest of the developed world.

Money invested in pre-school programs has the greatest return on investment of any education funding, the submission says.

The additional $10 billion would enable Australia to catch up with other developed nations. However, the submission also warns of major problems the state will face in the short term, all of which will require increased funding or put the performance of NSW students at risk.

The NSW government is facing a surge in enrolments, which will require more schools to be built over the next 15 years. Enrolments are predicted to rise by 135,000 during that period, and this will force the government to build 400 new schools based on the average size of existing schools.

It is not just the total number of students that is predicted to rise. The number of students with disabilities is increasing rapidly and straining the budget, with the additional costs of educating them climbing by 9 per cent a year.

By 2020, the government expects one in 10 students to have a diagnosed disability. The fastest growing categories for primary students are autism and Asperger syndrome and, for secondary students, mental health issues.

The number of Aboriginal students in NSW public schools is also expected to rise 50 per cent in the next eight years, from 40,000 to 60,000.

Education reform advocate says online learning offers alternatives to under-performing schools, students

PLEASANT HILL — Charter schools and online learning could help turn around underperforming campuses such as Clayton Valley High School in Concord, an education reform advocate said Friday.

Lance Izumi, who is an author and senior director for education at the Pacific Research Institute public policy think tank, said many school districts throughout the state and country are failing to adequately prepare students to be competitive with students around the world.

“In a recent survey, three quarters of Americans surveyed said that college is important to achieving success in life,” he said during a Contra Costa Taxpayers Association luncheon in Pleasant Hill. “However, less than half believed that their local high school was doing an excellent or good job at preparing students for college.”

Of Clayton Valley 11th-graders who took the Early Assessment Program examination last year, only 29 percent were college-ready in English and barely one out of 10 met that goal for math, he said.

“On a whole set of indicators,” he said, “from California’s state exams to the CSU college-readiness exams to international comparisons, many students here in Contra Costa County are having real achievement issues.”

Although Izumi said he did not want to wade into the Clayton Valley charter conversion controversy, he urged local school board trustees — such as those in the Mt. Diablo district — not to put up roadblocks to charter efforts.


Izumi said government regulations, bureaucratic intransigence and union contracts have impeded the expansion of online education, which could benefit many students. In recent years, three types of online education programs have emerged, he said.

One incorporates interactive computer software in traditional classrooms. Another, called the “blended” or “hybrid” model, combines online learning with classroom instruction. Finally, “virtual” schools are made up entirely of online lessons.

“The reason online learning is so important for all of us to understand is not only because it looks like it is the wave of the future,” he said. “It is also important because the early evidence shows that it improves the achievement of students.”

Izumi described several online programs such as one used by the Rocketship Charter School in San Jose, which has achieved great success with a student population that is 93 percent Hispanic. He also referred to an autistic seventh-grader in Santa Cruz, who found that online lessons through the California Virtual Academy met his needs better than classroom teachers, because the computer programs adapted to his learning level.

“Ultimately, what we need to do to improve the performance of our schools is to increase competition in the education marketplace,” Izumi said. “Online education and virtual schools, charter schools, tuition tax credits and vouchers — all these different mechanisms would put pressure on the current public school system to improve.”

Some in the audience praised Izumi’s ideas, while others were skeptical.

Jim Hunt, a Walnut Creek resident who teaches engineering at UC Berkeley, said most of the faculty there doubts the effectiveness of online learning, which the university system is exploring.

“It’s far more expensive to run an online course than a lecture-based course,” Hunt said. “There’s also an advantage to having students in a classroom, even if you are uncomfortable. If you hide behind a computer, you don’t ever have that social interaction, which is what you have to do after you graduate.”

Pleasant Hill resident Rene Maher, on the other hand, said Izumi’s comments gave her hope.

“It’s fun to learn when it’s on a computer,” she said. “The whole point of education is engaging the student. We’re in an education crisis. If these children don’t get educated, we’re really out of luck.”