I'll paraphrase Rothstein's argument as:
The effects of poverty are the primary cause for low student achievement among poor kids. And while schools can be improved, substantial improvement in the achievement of poor kids is not possible until the effects of poverty are eliminated.Would you be surprised if I told you that this argument has resonated with many educators and other soft-headed education thinkers? You shouldn't. That's because the implied solution to Rothstein's argument invokes the educrat's favorite solution to all education problems:
- have taxpayers throw money at the problem and
- require them to do nothing.
The question remains: is Rothstein's argument valid? Let's find out.
Let's get beyond the fact that the premise (the effects of poverty are the primary cause for low student achievement among poor kids) remains unsubstantiated. Let's, instead, focus on the term "poverty" so we can see what it really means to be living in poverty in the U.S.
According to the census, in 2005 a family of four could have an income as high as $19,806 and still be living below the poverty threshold. Not a princely sum by any stretch of the imagination, but not exactly destitution either. And wait until you get a load of what isn't included in "income." Income doesn't include:
noncash benefits such as food stamps (about $2,200), housing assistance (about $5,400), Medicaid (about $6,000 for a family of four), the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) (about $1,000 per child), energy assistance (about $400), the school lunch and breakfast programs (as much as $600 per child), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) (about $400 per person). It also does not count refundable tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) (about $1,700), because they are “post-tax.” (All figures are average benefit amounts in 2002 regardless of family size, unless otherwise noted.) (Source)It also doesn't include such assets as homes:
according to American Housing Survey for 2001, about 46 percent of poor households owned a home, with the median value being about $86,600 (about 70 percent of the median value for all homes), and the equity value being about $52,800. (About 58 percent had paid off their mortgage.)Nor does it include the income of cohabitors and nonfamily household members.
Then we have a few of these charming factoids to put "poverty" into better perspective:
- Seventy percent of "poor" households own a car; 27 percent own two or more cars.
- Ninety-seven percent have a color television. Nearly half own two or more televisions.
- Nearly three-quarters have a VCR; more than one in five has two VCRs.
- Two-thirds of "poor" households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
- Sixty-four percent of the "poor" own microwave ovens, half have a stereo system, and over a quarter have an automatic dishwasher.
- As a group, the "poor" are far from being chronically hungry and malnourished. In fact, poor persons are more likely to be overweight than are middle-class persons.
- Nearly half of poor adult women are overweight. Despite frequent charges of widespread hunger in the United States, 84 percent of the "poor" report their families have "enough" food to eat; 13 percent state they "sometimes" do not have enough to eat, and 3 percent say they "often" do not have enough to eat.
- The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children, and in most cases is well above recommended norms.
- Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes that are 100 percent above recommended levels.
But for a small fraction at the very bottom, it is the height of absurdity to think that our poor suffer from the effects of poverty of the variety that Rothstein is describing. This is not to say that they don't face more challenges and have more problems than your average middle class family. But lack of money, and all the things it buys, is certainly not the root cause of their academic woes. These people don't have enough money to be rich, but they have too much to be truly considered poor, much less suffer from the destitution brought on by real grinding poverty.
Our definition of poverty is ridiculously overbroad and includes way too many people who are not poor in the traditional sense. It's like when recent studies claimed that bullying is rampant in our schools and then included under the rubric of bullying not only physical behavior (hitting), but also verbal behavior (name-calling, threats), and phsycological behavior (rumors, shunning-exclusion). Basically, it took a lot of harmless and minor things ordinary children do and turned them into examples of bullying. And by doing so, it greatly overstated the problem of bullying.
This is the same problem that infects any serious discussion on poverty and the plight of the poor. By vastly overstating who is poor, we diminish the effects anti-poverty measures will have on those that aren't truly poor. And, to think that the eradication of this inflated notion of poverty is going to have a significant effect on curing the existing academic failure affecting our schools is foolish, at best, and dangerous, at worst.
It is merely the lastest convenient excuse for those that want to maintain the status quo.