Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Education vs. Poverty

Ben Spielberg, at 34justice, has put together a short stark piece that juxtaposes five simple pieces of data. There is nothing new here, but putting these five points side by side is compelling.

1) There are achievement gaps already present by the time children enter kindergarten, and they are related to family income.

2) School quality is a minor factor in explaining the testing (aka "achievement") gap.

3) Economic success in this country is less common for low-income students who are successful in school than for high-income students who are unsuccessful in school.

4) The test scores of students in the United States relative to the test scores of students around the world aren’t all that different than what students’ self-reports of their socioeconomic status would predict.

5) The distribution of educational attainment in the United States has improved significantly over the past twenty-five years without significantly improving students’ eventual economic outcomes.

None of these are news, though #5 in particular is often overlooked. We've been improving achievement among students for decades; according to the theory of action among some reformsters, we should be seeing an increase in student success as they go out into the world. According to the theory, if Chris got better test scores than Chris's parents did, then Chris ought to have a better job and higher income. That hasn't been happening, just as students who spent their whole academic careers soaked in Common Core have not suddenly been tearing up college campuses.

Speilberg's conclusion is pretty simple, and not a huge stretch given the evidence he's laid out-- if we want to boost opportunities for poor students, education is an important thing, but it is not the most important thing.

Yet here is Arne Duncan, former head of the US Department of Education Reform, taking to the pages of the Atlantic to wax poetic on how awesome charters are, and how they are changing the world by raising the achievement levels of non-wealthy, non-white students.

Yet I absolutely reject the idea that poverty is destiny in the classroom and the self-defeating belief that schools don't matter much in the face of poverty. Despite challenges at home, despite neighborhood violence, and despite poverty, I know that every child can learn and thrive. 

Ignoring for the moment that nobody is saying that "poverty is destiny in the classroom," Duncan is somehow confusing getting poor children to score higher in a narrow standardized test and getting poor children access to better, more prosperous and successful lives.

Duncan says that he is focused on the idea "that high-performing charter schools have convincingly demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels—and can do so at scale." There's plenty of evidence that neither of those things are true, but even if they were true, so what? The continued assumption that a high score on the PARCC is somehow a gateway to a brighter tomorrow is bizarre and dangerous-- bizarre because it has no foundation in reality and dangerous because it give policy makers like Duncan an excuse to walk away from the children of poverty.

Duncan says he's a "huge fan" of out-of-school anti-poverty programs, but he cites some medical assistance programs and moves on to this:

High-performing charters are one more proof positive that, as President Obama says, “the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”

The data says that Arne Duncan and Barack Obama are just plain wrong. 


  1. Good jobs. That is what a lot of people need to lift them out of poverty. If people had access to more jobs and jobs with better pay and benefits, including paid vacation and paid sick leave, then some of the poverty in this country would be alleviated. People can get all the education they want, but that won't create jobs by itself.

    I'm reminded of the many people who call for a return to vocational education. But increasing vocational education by itself, won't do much. We would also need to change many labor laws, get rid of incentives to offshore manufacturing, etc. Some of the advocates of vocational education mention Germany as a model to follow. But Germany also has labor and industrial policies that are very different from ours.

    1. YES. Education has helped individuals raise themselves out of poverty. But it has never, ever, lifted a whole class of people out of poverty.

      Poor people do jobs that pay badly. That's pretty much what "poor" means. Does Arne Duncan believe that somehow, if all Americans get enough education to work in banks or law offices, that those jobs will magically appear, and that no one will be wiping trays in the railway station branch of Sbarro's?

    2. You imply that poverty is some permanent feature - "that's pretty much what poor means". Both individuals and an economy as a whole are in a constant state of disequilibrium. "IF all Americans get enough education to work in banks or law offices, that those jobs will magically appear." It may seem like magic, but that's the way an economy works. Basic supply and demand. The supply of educated workers will increase - thereby likely driving down the cost (wages) of such workers. You can already see this in the huge increase in the percentage of the American population with at least 4 yrs of college (32% of men in 2015 vs 6% of men in 1962).

      Unfortunately, the demand for unskilled labor has fallen even faster - from 22% in manufacturing in 1977 to just 9% in 2015.

      So yes, you have a lot of people "wiping trays in the railway station of Sbarro's. But like anything else, if the supply of low skilled labor declines (due to an increasingly educated public or higher demand for low skill workers), then the price should go up. See link for workers at McDonalds in ND and TX being paid $15/hr or more.

      It's not min wage or unions. It's simple demand for unskilled workers since another sector (energy) is taking a lot of those workers.

      Last, "education has never lifted a whole class of people out of poverty". Really ? See link below. Women went from labor force participation of about 20% in 1950 to roughly 60% today. At the same time, only 8% had 4 yr degrees compared to 32% now. There are now more women than men in med school and law school. Education has lifted a whole class of women out of poverty and into independence - it's called women.

  2. The world class education Obama gives his kids is not in crowded classrooms with oppressive test regimes. World class education involves a great deal of individualized attention and a conversation rich environment where language skills can flourish as concepts become internalized through natural situations, not artificial simulations or even worse, screen time. I am thinking of early class levels which provide the foundation for the upper level grades.
    Emotional safety and nurturing combined with a routine of conversation rich activities on relevant topics and not Fancy Nancy's Pajamas- these things are at the core of long term student achievement. None of this should be a surprise.

    The bitter, bitter truth is that these leaders can delude themselves and ignore the facts in front of their noses. They prefer expensive data from pricey test vendors and technology opportunists.

    They turn a blind eye. They lie. They move on to bigger and better things. And then, as we hear everywhere these days, they's all good. And the little ones starting kindergarten? They are facing an awful future that none of us would want for anyone we know, let alone ourselves or our children.
    "World class education", my foot.

    It fries me that they get away with it. It fries me that there is no accountability, especially after they claimed to be the ones to rectify the disastrous situation they inherited. Can they at least stop pouring salt into that wound?