October 5, 2010

The Poverty Meme Elephant in the Room

The biggest distraction in education policy is the poverty meme (or, more accurately – the low socio-economic status meme).  It goes something like this:  Being poor prevents poor kids from succeeding in school; therefore reforming schools is largely a waste of time.

Here’s the queen of the poverty meme:

Then, there it was, the moment when Lauer raised the issue of poverty and the new Census Bureau figures showing that one in seven Americans live at or below the poverty line, defined as an annual income for a family of four of $22,000. That’s one in seven -- and that figure doesn’t include families of four with a $23,000 annual income.

I thought Lauer would make the obvious connection between poverty and student achievement. After all, the most consistent link in education and social science research is between family income and standardized test scores.

Today’s breed of school reformers, however, have ignored this link and adopted a “no excuses” policy, which essentially claims that good teachers can overcome anything, including medical, sociological and psychological problems that children who live in poverty bring into the classroom.

There is an oft-stated claim that three (or four, or five, depending on the source) “effective” teachers in a row can wipe out the effects of poverty. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made this claim today in an interview with Tom Brokaw as part of the network's Education Nation Summit.

There is no valid research to show this…

So the most important issue in school reform was ignored again…

That their discussion ignored the elephant in the room tells you everything you need to know about what is missing from today’s school “reform” efforts and why they are doomed to fail.

She even cites the King, David Berliner, who has teased out the most important poverty-induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that poor children bring to school and which doom all education reform to failure.

These are six out-of-school factors Berliner has identified that are common among the poor and that affect how children learn, but that reformers effectively say can be overcome without attacking them directly: (1) low birth weight and nongenetic prenatal influences; (2) inadequate medical, dental and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics.

The conclusion.  Fix poverty and you’ll fix education. Or will you?

Let’s test the hypothesis by looking at how family income and parental education (the main components of socioeconomic status) are “linked” to student educational performance.

Let’s compare how the children of over-educated plutocrats



compared to the children of poverty-stricken, oppressed wage-slaves.



But, before we look at the data, let’s test your knowledge of poverty’s pernicious effects on children.

  • Which kids do you think had better prenatal care?
  • Which kids do you think had better medical, dental and vision care?
  • Which kids do you think were more likely to have medical insurance?
  • Which kids do you think had more food insecurity?
  • Which kids do you think grew up around more environmental pollutants?
  • Which kids do you think had more family stress and worse family relations?
  • Which  kids do you think grew up in better neighborhoods?


Now see if you can predict which kids did better on the SATs.

First, let’s look at how rich black families compare to poor Asian families


Poor Asian children from families making between $10k and $20k performed better than rich privileged black children from families making at least $70k.

Now, let’s look at parental education.


Asian children with parents having only a high school diploma performed better than black children with parents having graduate degrees.

If poverty is such a brutal predictor of academic success, why do the children of educated,privileged blacks and Hispanics perform worse than poor, uneducated whites and Asians?

Can’t be white racism, Asians disprove that hypothesis.

And bear in mind, this data (which holds for almost all measures of student achievement) is no worse than the data the poverty elephants rely on for their poverty hypothesis.

Run this by your favorite poverty edu-pundit.  You’ll hear lots of excuses. None will be coherent. 

And, that’s why its pointless to debate these people on matters of education policy.


Parry Graham said...


I'm not entirely sure I understand the point you're making. The two graphs seem to strongly support an argument that SES and student achievement are tightly linked: within each racial sub-group, there is a consistent positive relationship between parental income or parental levels of education and student achievement. Because there are clear disparities across racial groups within the same socio-economic or parental education level, one could argue that something else is also going on, but the strong relationship between either SES or parent education and student achievement is remarkably consistent within each racial group.


RMD said...

Parry . . . are you arguing for racial superiority?

I would instead argue for superiority of expectations. Here are my un-scientific observations . . .

The Asian parents I know expect more out of their children. I go to the pool and see Asian parents teaching their parents to swim laps at what might be considered to be a young age. I know an Asian dad who makes his son do 100 kicks each leg each day. And when I go to Kumon, I see a lot of Asian and Indian children (the caucasians are usually there for remediation).

Stephen Downes said...

Got anything more recent than a cherry-picked 15 year old study to support your point?

KDeRosa said...

Parry, SES and student achievement are correlated. (You can't tell the tightness of the fit with this graph.) But, as you indicate SES can clearly not be the only independent causal variable. In fact, SES doesn't have to be an independent variable at all; there could be a third variable(s) that drives both SES and student performance.

RMD, Stanley Sue and Sumie Okazaki, noted in their paper, "Asian-American educational achievements: A phenomenon in search of an explanation" that the parenting styles and values found in East Asian-American homes tend to correlate with lower test scores when they are found in white homes.

Stephen, is that the best you have to offer?

KDeRosa said...

My next post will be on the Harlem Children's Zone which is related to this post.

Parry Graham said...


I'm not sure how you construe a racial superiority argument from my post. I simply made a factual statement about disparities across racial groups in the chart that did not seem to be explainable by SES or parental education levels. In fact, I have made strong arguments against racial superiority explanations on this blog (for example: http://d-edreckoning.blogspot.com/2008/08/iq-conundrum-for-broader-bolder.html).

That having been said, I am ducking the bigger question that Ken raises -- what might be responsible for these differences -- because I don't have a good answer. But I think it is a question ripe for investigation.


Dick Schutz said...

OK. We've known for a long time that SES and standardized achievement test scores are correlated, but only since the Coleman report in 1966 has the meme of a causal relationship become popular.

The meme is popular for several reasons. It lets the schools off the hook for mis-instruction. It provides an argument for those promoting income redistribution. It provides a rationale for latent and overt racism/classism.

Instructional achievements are caused by instruction. But with instruction remaining a black box between wishful standards and instructionally insensitive standardized tests, kids don't stand a chance.

Linda Seebach said...

It's telling that Berliner lists as No.1 in his six factors "low birth weight and nongenetic prenatal influences" but does not list anywhere "low intelligence." Perhaps he is afraid that if he did he might find himself accused of believing that's a result of genetic prenatal influences.