February 7, 2008

It's not the poverty, stupid

Over at the Education Policy Blog, the sycophantic, partisan hack Jim Horn poses a loaded hypothetical question to the presidential candidates regarding education and poverty.


Question # 1: Poverty

Thank you for taking my question. And this question is for all candidates:

Our poorest children in the public schools face insurmountable challenges that threaten their future, as well as the future of their schools. It is an indisputable fact, for instance, that family income is positively correlated with student achievement, with state and district level test scores showing the correlation without exception, as do SAT and ACT scores: the lower the family income, the lower the test scores, and the higher the family income, the higher the test scores.

At a time when public school households across the nation are, indeed, getting poorer, NCLB demands test scores go higher and higher. While experts agree, without exception, agree that these demands can't be met, and that most public schools will fail by 2014, and while most urban and poor rural schools are being turned into abusive test prep chain gangs, politicians refuse to confront the truth for fear of being accused of the "bigotry of low expectations."

My question is this (and thank you for your patience): Do you see poverty as the problem that has to be addressed in order to raise student achievement? And if you do see poverty as a problem related to the achievement gaps, what will you do to reduce poverty in urban and rural neighborhoods and to help raise family incomes, which would constitute the grandest kind of education reform--one that does more good than harm?

I'm not a presidential candidate, but if I were, here's how I'd answer.

Jim, your question assumes, wrongly, that since poverty correlates with low student achievement that poverty somehow causes low student achievement. This, quite frankly, is a profoundly foolish mistake, even for an assistant professor at Monmouth college. It would be like someone observing that wet streets correlate highly with rain and then jumping to the conclusion that wet streets cause rain. I mean really, Jim, have you no shame?

Given the poverty/achievement correlation there are three potential causalities: 1. poverty causes low student achievement, 2. low student achievement causes poverty, or 3. some third factor causes both poverty and low student achievement. For example, low student IQ is correlated with both poverty and low student achievement and might be one potential "third factor."

We have no hard evidence today that supports your contention that poverty causes low student achievement. And, there is no hard evidence that supports your conclusion that reducing poverty will lead to increased student achievement. If anything, we have quite a bit of longitudinal data relating to adopted twin studies that shows that even if we were to take a low-SES child and place that child in a high-SES home, the gains in student achievement will be small and will almost completely wash out by late adolescence. This is an extreme intervention and government could not hope to achieve but a fraction of these conditions and government could not hope to replicate the familial effects of smart, well-educated parents in any event.

Your rhetoric notwithstanding, the poverty rate stands at about half of what it was 50 years ago (23% vs. 12.3%). The average poor person in the U.S. actually has more income than the average European (not just the average poor European). Student achievement has not improved during the past 50 years during this rapid increase of wealth.

Today a family of four can have income of nearly $21,000 and still be considered to be living in poverty. This income does not include a substantial amount of governmental benefits: 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.) In addition, assets, such as the family home are not counted. Nor is the income of cohabitors and nonfamily household members. All of this non-income and governmental assistance permits the typical "poor" family to consume 50% more than their income alone would permit.

Additional government assistance is not going to raise the income of the poor for the simple reason that governmental assistance does not count as income. And once you account for all the governmental assistance the poor currently receive, it's difficult to imagine that the vast majority of our poor have the same resource problems as the subsistence-level poor do around the globe.

So, no, I do not see poverty as the problem that has to be addressed in order to raise student achievement. Nor do I think that there is any reason to believe that devoting additional resources to poverty will result in an increase in student achievement.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, "It's the instruction, stupid." Not poverty.

18 comments:

Instructivist said...

Thanks for the gratifying and satisfying jibes.

What holds back low-SES pupils more than anything are behavioral disorders, poor attitude (not paying attention, no desire to put in the effort), cultural values, lack of intellectual stimulation at home, an erratic curriculum and goofy instructional practices.

Did I cover all the bases?

The first few items are usually inexplicably left out of pundit discussions.

Oldtimer said...

I don't understand why it is so difficult to grasp the idea that what goes on away from school affects what goes on in school.

The destructive away-from-school menu includes lack of sufficient sleep, lack of proper nutrition, lack of proper medical care, abuse, drugs, crime, mean streets, gangs, negative peer pressures, constant moving from residence to residence, family instability, lack of good parenting skills, no family respect for education or educators, no reading material in the home, too much TV and computer games, no private space...the list goes on and on.

It's not any one of these things but rather a combination that contributes to poor school performance. To argue whether a child's position on the SES scale is the sole reason behind the child's poor academic performance is to overlook everything else that is going on in that child's life.

Despite how good the teaching is, a child cannot be expected to come to school prepared to learn when the away-from-school environment is destructive. It is a rare child who can compartmentalize their life such that they perform well in school despite living in a destructive away-from-school environment. Many of these destructive environmental factors are beyond the control of a teacher no matter how good that teacher is in the classroom.

To naively say "It's the instruction, stupid" ignores the realities in a child's life that affect learning.

KDeRosa said...

Oldtimer, there is data that refutes both of your theses.

Putting a low SES child in a high SES household had little effect on the child's educaional outcomes. The child still performed like he was in a low SES environment even though he wasn't. My theory is that the low SES household while somewhat toxic still provides sufficient resources to stave off malnutrition and disease which are the real depressors of achievement.

We also know from Project Follow Throgh, that improving instruction alone and not improving SES factors served to increase educational outcomes.

Your conventional wisdom does not bear close scrutiny.

Brett said...

Ken - nice post. But can you cite or link to your sources (specifically the types/levels of government support)? It would be helpful.

KDeRosa said...

Sure thing.

Here's my original post, with cites/links, where I stole most of the content from.

Oldtimer said...

Kderosa,

Thank you for your prompt response to my comment. I enjoy reading your blog and appreciate your feedback despite its somewhat dismissive tone.

Please understand, I am not parroting what you call "conventional wisdom." I am merely reflecting what I have seen with my own eyes during ten years of tutoring kids in math from high-SES and low-SES families and teaching in high-SES and low-SES middle and high schools.

I have seen remarkable academic turn-arounds in children who have been removed from destructive away-from-school environments.

You say putting a low SES child in a high SES household has little effect on the child's educational outcome. The child still performs like he was in a low SES environment even though he isn't.

I would like to read any refernces you may have describing this research. It seems to me that when you remove a child from one environment and place him in another, you have to allow sufficient time for the child to unlearn whatever was blocking his progress. For some kids, it may be months. For others, it may be years. And, in the end, if the child did not improve after the switch, I would hope the researchers looked for non-environmental factors that might provide an alternative explanation for the observations.

For example, I have seen children whose cognitive reasoning abilities were practically nil. I often wondered what happened to these kids during their early years. I would expect these kids to not show much difference whether they lived in a high- or low-SES environment.

I am not a professional educator or clinical psychologist. But more than 25 years of clinical pharmaceutical research has taught me how difficult it is to conduct research involving humans while trying to control and understand the effects of the many variables that inevitably are present.

Again, thank you for your comments.

Instructivist said...

[Putting a low SES child in a high SES household had little effect on the child's educaional outcomes. The child still performed like he was in a low SES environment even though he wasn't.]

There are various variables to consider: The age at which the switch ocurred; the length of stay in the new environment; the health and psychological condition of the switchees at the time of the switch.

Some kids are already so damaged that no switching will constitute an instant remedy.

This debate is somewhat reminiscent of Galileo's travails. Church doctrine says one thing but my eyes tell me something else.

Downes said...

There is no data to refute the proposition that poverty causes poorer educational outcomes. Indeed, there is a strong correlation, and to date, socio-economic status has been by far the best predictor of educational outcomes.

I understand that you take the opposite tack (for what are probably political reasons) and if you are willing to adduce some evidence for your position, I would be willing to listen. However, making stuff up simply will not do. For example:

> Student achievement has not improved during the past 50 years during this rapid increase of wealth.

This makes you possibly the only person in the world to believe this. 50 years ago, students were not even finishing high school. A tiny fraction attended university. Many were still illiterate. To say that student achievement has not improved over the last 50 years is a fabrication on a monumental scale.

As oldtimer says, "I don't understand why it is so difficult to grasp the idea that what goes on away from school affects what goes on in school." And I would add that it is a pity that the partisanship displayed on this blog causes so much blindness.

KDeRosa said...

You guys are tough. I'll respond to these comments in another post.

I do agree that the environment can affect student achievment.

Stephen, I am mildy amused by your shifting standards of proof depending upon whether you agree with a policy/reform or not. A few posts ago you were insisting upon an impossibly high standard for the social sciences, now apparently you are willing to accept no proof at all as your standard. BTW, you have the causation backwards on the politics accusation.

rightwingprof said...

The burden of proof is on the shoulders of those who claim that poverty is a meaningful variable, particularly given that at least in Indiana, rural school districts have both the second-highest graduation rates and scores, only slightly below suburban districts, and urban school districts have by far the lowest of both.

This does not support the "poverty as a crucial variable" hypothesis.

Downes said...

Please note how I characterize the proposition: socio-economic status is the best predictor of economic outcomes.

People who have read my other writings know that I do not subscribe to simplistic cause-effect explanations of complex phenomena.

Secondly:

> Indiana, rural school districts have both the second-highest graduation rates and scores, only slightly below suburban districts, and urban school districts have by far the lowest of both.

Do people read their submissions before hitting 'submit'?

The richest people live in suburbia. The second richest live in rural areas. The poorest live in the slums in urban areas like Gary.

Which predicts - and happens to match - exactly the educational outcomes described by rightwingprof in his putative 'counterexample'.

KDeRosa said...

Stephen, I don't subscribe to a simplistic casuality either when it comes to student achievement. Nonetheless, SES is not a good, let alone the best, predictor of achievment (SA) in the statistical sense.

The correlation between SES and SA is only about 0.4 - 0.5. Compare this with the 0.7 - 0.8 correlation between IQ and SA.

Both of these correlations are too low to establish causation by themselves. The causality is more complex than that.

Let's agree we have a complex causality. Yet Horn (and apparently you) subscribe to a simplistic solution--raising SES. Actually, Horn goes even further than that, he contends that SA cannot be improved until SES is improved. This not only implies a causality it implies a simplistic causality--a simplistic causality that is not supported by the relatively low correlation.

Which makes me wonder what exactly your point is in defending Horn.

rightwingprof said...

"The second richest live in rural areas."

You're sorely mistaken. Indiana is packed with small, family farms, and median incomes are low. I know. I grew up on one of those farms.

Start backing up your statements with facts.

Instructivist said...

[Actually, Horn goes even further than that, he contends that SA cannot be improved until SES is improved.]

The way I understand SES, it means money and education. People like Horn seem to focus only on the money aspect.

Instructivist said...

It would advance the discussion on the relationship between poverty and academic achievement if poverty were not treated as an absolute.

As I pointed out in my post above, among the impediments to academic achievement are behavioral disorders, poor attitude (not paying attention, no desire to put in the effort), cultural values, lack of intellectual stimulation at home and so on. I am sure, social scientist can find high correlations between these undesirable traits and poverty.

On the other hand, people of modest means can have well-behaved kids and stress learning. So the discussion should focus on these specific undesirable traits and shy away from using poverty as a proxy or catchall category. It's a little like invoking "poverty" to excuse crime. Yes, street criminals tend to be poor but most poor people are not criminals.

KDeRosa said...

I agree with that, Instructivist.

People like Horn must ignore the education part of the equation because it leads to a giant catch-22.

Follow the illogic.

In order to improve student achievement, you need to improve parental SES. But to improve parental SES you need to improve parental education and parental income levels. Improving parental income levels is easily accomplished with money. So how do we improve the education (and all the resultant behaviors) of the parent? But. that's the same problem we face today, merely one generation removed. One way or another we have to improve the education of people to carry this grand scheme out. But supposedly that's impossible unless we improve someone's ses level. I'm confused.

Downes said...

> You're sorely mistaken. Indiana is packed with small, family farms, and median incomes are low. I know. I grew up on one of those farms.

You may have grown up there, but it does not follow that you are correct.

United States Census Bureau Small Area Income & Poverty Estimates Model-based Estimates for States, Counties, & School Districts reports poverty statistics in Indiana as follows:

Most poverty: Indianapolis Public Schools, 17,344 families in poverty

Second most poverty: Gary Community Schools Corporation, 8,656 families in poverty.

While the urban areas are more populous, a quick calculation of the percentages shows these to be higher in these urban areas as well - Gary's especially, where about 40 percent of all families are in poverty. The rural school districts are not in the same league.

Link: use the forms starting from here: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/saipe/district.html

CitizensArrest said...

Your opening analogy is completely false. Poverty exists and affects kids before they go to school where low student achievement then occurs as a result, just as rain exists and falls toward the street before the street then gets wet as a result. All arguments that proceed from this "mistake" are therefore also false. There are large numbers of definitive studies from numerous sources on the direct connection between poverty and low student achievement, I suggest you try google. Have you no shame?