Does Poverty Explain the Mediocre Performance of American Schools?

By 11/03/2015

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WINTER 2016 / VOL. 16, NO. 1

Michael Petrilli: Through Ellen Alpaugh, (202) 223-5452 or
Brandon Wright: Through Ellen Alpaugh, (202) 223-5452 or
Amanda Olberg, 617-496-2064,, Education Next Communications Office

Does Poverty Explain the Mediocre Performance of American Schools?

U.S. students from both affluent and low-income homes underperform their peers in other countries

Many educators and others interested in the mediocre performance of the American education system point to poverty as the explanation. Middling test scores, they say, are a poverty crisis, not an education one. But in a new article for Education Next, Michael J. Petrilli and Brandon L. Wright of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute show that “absolute” poverty rates in the United States do not exceed those in most other industrialized nations. Further, they show that students from both advantaged and disadvantaged families in the U.S. trail their peers abroad. Their article will be available on the Education Next website on Tuesday, November 3, and in the Winter 2016 issue of the printed journal, available by November 20, 2015.

In order to prove that poverty is the major factor driving the country’s poor academic achievement, Petrilli and Wright say, analysts would need to establish that: 1) America’s poor students perform worse than other countries’ poor students; and/or 2) The poverty rate in the U.S. is substantially higher than in industrialized countries around the world.

Do U.S. students from low-income families do worse than their low-income peers in comparable countries? The best available data to answer this question is collected by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which uses an index that looks at parent occupation, education, family wealth, home educational resources, and family possessions related to “classical” culture. Some countries do better at teaching higher-income students (France, for example), while others, such as Canada and Finland, do better at instructing students from lower-status families. The United States, however, does equally poorly on a relative basis at teaching its most prosperous students as those coming from lower-income homes. Overall, the U.S. proficiency rate in math places the country at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries that participate in PISA. And ironically, the ranking is lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than from disadvantaged ones (20th).

Is the poverty rate in the U.S. higher than in comparable countries? Those who assert that the U.S. has a sky-high poverty rate use a relative measure of poverty that assumes all families with less than half the median income of the country are by definition “poor.” In the U.S., median family income is about $52,000 per year, so any family earning less than $26,000 is said to be poor. This measure excludes any income from governmental transfers, such as food stamps, a major source of income for many below the poverty line. Quite apart from excluding an important income source, use of this relative measure, the authors say, can be very misleading, “because it’s more a measure of income inequality than of poverty.” They use state-by-state poverty rates to demonstrate the problem with using relative poverty measures. In Arizona, Alabama, and Louisiana, there is not much difference between relative and absolute poverty. However, in rich states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, the relative poverty rate is high but the absolute poverty rate is not. Neither state has as much poverty as Alabama. They just have more income inequality. Yet relative poverty rates would indicate otherwise.

When we look at absolute poverty rates, and once governmental transfers are included, the U.S. is hardly an outlier. Based on 2010 data assembled by Timothy Smeeding, founder of the Cross-National Data Center in Luxembourg, the authors found that the U.S. absolute poverty rate is lower than the United Kingdom’s, virtually the same as Germany’s, and just barely higher than Finland’s.

The authors conclude that poverty is an issue for nearly every nation. If one uses a measure of absolute poverty that counts income from all sources, it becomes obvious that the scores of U.S. students “are not dragged down by an unusually high proportion of poor students.” The “poverty excuse” given by educators, politicians, and social critics alike is unfounded in evidence. Say the authors, “We need to stop using it, and start getting serious about improving the achievement of all the nation’s students.”

About the Authors:

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where Brandon L. Wright is managing editor and policy associate. The authors are available for interviews. Please contact Ellen Alpaugh.

About Education Next:

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. For more information about Education Next, please visit

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