August 11, 2006

Taking Advantage of the Poor

The Richard Rothstein poverty meme is the hot topic in the edusphere.

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:
  1. have taxpayers throw money at the problem and
  2. require them to do nothing.
Then there's the extra bonus of providing a launch platform for attacking NCLB fo rdiscriminating against poor kids.

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.
Most of the rest of the world would dream of living in this kind of poverty. In fact, our neighbors to the south are beating down our door to get a little American-style poverty. Hardly paints the picture of Dickensonian abject poverty does it?

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.


Anonymous said...

"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."

Defeatist, or overblown, just for effect?

One problem I have is the required linkage between the two problems. One can't be solved without the other. This makes the solution much more difficult and takes the onus off of the schools. It also implies a lot more money (perhaps funnelled through the schools as the vehicle for a solution) and less school accountability because they can't or won't see it as only a education issue. This is not a formula for success.

Another problem I have is the idea that the goal is a statistical or group solution rather than a one-by-one solution. Rather than set up conditions where individual members of the group can find their own solutions, they want to guarantee success for the whole group. Let us (society) FIX poverty; let us (society) FIX education ... with no expectations for the individual group members.

As a long-time programmer, I've learned that you have to be very careful about fixing problems. When I taught, I had students who tried to debug things correct. This is where you get some ideas, try them, and then see what happens. Over and over and over. Often, this is before they even really know what the problem is. They might do something where the problem looks solved, but I will look, line by line, in their code and find many other problems. You can't debug something correct. However, I see this over and over and over again in the education field.

Educators look at the "bug" (results of testing) and think up all sorts of things to fix the bug - guess and check. Actually, with our NCLB state tests, I'm beginning to see parents and teachers sit down and actually analyze test questions and results. They try to figure out exactly why the numbers are bad. They are not guessing. One might disagree about the questions on the test, but it doesn't matter which test you use, you have to dig through the results to see exactly what is going on. If you don't believe in tests (of any sort), then you really have no basis for deciding if there even is a "bug".

When I looked at our public schools' test questions and results (and the NAEP questions and results), my conclusions are 1) The test questions are really, really easy, and 2) What the heck do they do in schools all day?

I look at the depth and breadth of the questions and the last thing I think about is how not knowing the answers to these simple questions have anything to do with poverty or home-life. The kids are in school 6+ hours a day for 180 days a year. Blaming specific test results on poverty or social issues is an extreme form of guess and check.

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to the argument that a good education was the way out of poverty? And how does the argument that social causes are behind the failure of poor children to academically thrive explain the poor academic results for the children of the middle-class?

KDeRosa said...

One technique is to deny there is any problem at all based on cherry picked data. Bracey is the master of this technique. In this article he uses present day data from Romania (when his argument should have reliwed on past data) and 4th grade international data from one reading test. In 4th grade kids have barely laerned to read proficiently.