Mike Petrilli was over at Campbell Brown's place this week where A) he was oddly billed as a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a book author, but not as the head honcho of the Fordham Institute and B) suggesting that we might need to reconsider our stances on poverty, now that it's not so much of a thing.
I'm not an economist and I don't play one on tv (though economists pretend to be education experts all the time, so maybe I should just throw caution to the wind), so I'm leery of wrestling with Petrilli's contention that the poverty rate has dropped to 7.8%. But I can say this with confidence-- there's a huge amount of disagreement about what the poverty rate actually is.
The census folks said that in 2014, the poverty rate was 14.8%. But median income rate stayed flat. The poverty rate dropped from 19% in 1967 to around 15% today. Maybe those numbers are all really low because the poverty cut score is set too low, and the true number is much higher. Or maybe the true poverty rate is actually 4.5%. One sometimes suspects that economists do not know what the hell they are talking about.
Petrilli is leaning on a study by Scott Winship. Winship is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and at Brookings (maybe-- they really should annotate their website more carefully). So, not exactly a lefty here. Winship's idea is that when you count people's earnings, you should count all their government benefits as well, as in "Well, you're not really poor because you've got food stamps and tax credits and other non-cash benefits." He also thinks the Census Bureau's inflation calculator overstates things. Let's say that not everyone agrees with Winship's method of computing.
Petrilli is willing to note that Winship's method of figuring clearly implies that there would be waaaayyyyy more people in poverty if welfare-slashers in DC had their way. And he also acknowledges that just even if you're a bit over the poverty line, you're probably still having a Very Rough Time. Yet he also dismisses Free and Reduced Lunch numbers as a good measure of poverty.
But he's going to go on talking as if the 7.8% number is accurate so that we can consider the implications.
Part of his considering is baloney stapled to a straw man.
For the teachers unions and other traditional education groups, it raises hard questions about their familiar contention that America’s lackluster student achievement is due to poverty—that we must “fix poverty first” before our schools will improve.
The contention may be familiar, but only because reformsters keep repeating it and attributing it to their opponents. I don't know any serious voice on the non-reformy side of the debate who says, "We must fix poverty before students can learn." The fact that folks in the public education sphere see poverty as a factor does not mean that they see it as an excuse. If I have a student who wants to race, but she's in a wheelchair, I'm not contending that she must be cured and on her legs before she can race. But the preparations and training for that student will be different from those of a wheelchair-unbound student. If I think the solution for the athlete in the wheelchair is simply push her through the same training program I'd use with a non-wheelchair athlete, I'm a dope. She needs preparation that fits her situation.
Petrilli knows all this, and acknowledges in the piece that "a strong link remains between students’ socioeconomic status and achievement." (As always, we don't really mean "achievement"-- we mean "score on a narrow standardized test.")
But, Petrilli says, if poverty is lessened, then it can't be causing our "educational underachievement"-- which means at this point he is discussing the correlation between two data points (student achievement failure, lessening of poverty) neither of which has actually been established as a true thing.
are doing better by our poorest citizens, including our poorest
children, than we were 20 years ago. And we should expect them to be
doing better in school as a result.
But we don't really know if we're doing better by our poorest citizens or not, and we have no real indication that they aren't doing better in school for any number of reasons, including but not limited to A) policy wonks don't have a decent measure of student achievement and B) we have no way to measure the differences between what schools asked of students twenty years ago and what they asked today.
One implication that Petrilli doesn't address-- one reformster school (the one favored by the current administration) is that better education will cure poverty. So if poverty has been reduced, I suppose they could declare victory. Of course that would also mean they could stop pushing new reformy ideas. But the linchpin of their entire theory is still unproven-- that a child who gets a good score on the Big Standardized Test will end up with a better-paying job, as if employers are sitting out there thinking, "Well, I would pay more for this minimum wage job, but I'm waiting to hire someone who got a really high PARCC score."
The other factor that Petrilli is leaving out is the importance of support from government and policy makers. He notes that society is more stratified, with a greater gap between the wealthy and the not-wealthy; it's worth asking how much that stratification leads to the systemic under-support of schools in poor communities. We could also take a look at reports that show schools are handling 1 million more students with 200K fewer teachers under the headline that the recovery has not reached schools, raising the question: what happens if student poverty gets better, but school under-funding gets worse? He says that we should expect poor students to be doing better in school; I'd say we should expect federal, state and local government to do a better job of supporting those schools that the poor are students in.