Rich and Poor—Both Can Learn

By 03/12/2012

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Family income is associated with student achievement, but careful studies show little causal connection.  School factors—teacher quality, school accountability, school choice—have bigger causal impacts than family income per se.

Thinking otherwise is a group of advocates and interest groups, including leaders of the country’s two big teacher unions, that calls itself the Broader, Bolder Approach (BBA) to school reform.  Its mission statement says that “weakening [the] link [between income and achievement] is the fundamental challenge facing America’s education policy makers.”  In a paper given last November, Duke University Professor Helen F. Ladd, a BBA co-chair, makes the best case she can for the group’s position.   She shows that in fourteen different countries student achievement is higher if a student comes from a family with higher income.

But a correlation proves nothing about cause and effect, as I explain in a new article, “Neither Broad Nor Bold,” and in an op-ed in the New York Daily News. Years ago, Susan Mayer, former dean of the Harris School at the University of Chicago, showed that much of the connection between income and achievement is spurious, caused by other factors associated with both.  More recently two Brookings scholars, Julia Isaacs and Katherine Magnuson, updated the Mayer work by examining an array of family characteristics – such as race, income, mother’s and father’s education, single or two-parent family, smoking during pregnancy – on school readiness and achievement.  The Brookings study found that the distinctive impact of family income was just 6.4 percent of a standard deviation, which is generally regarded as a small effect.  The impact of the rise in single-parent families is likely to be much more important for student achievement than any changes in the distribution of income in the United States.

In the end, Ladd and her BBA colleagues seem to agree that income redistribution is not essential, as they quickly drop the idea in favor of an alternative dear to the heart of any public-sector union leader: Expanding the range of social services to include medical and nutritional services as well as pre-school, after-school, and summer programs. All those expensive programs outside the regular school day would undoubtedly add to the number of professionals available for recruitment by public-sector unions.  But none of them hold as much promise for student learning as any one of the many school reforms on the nation’s agenda—student and school accountability, school choice, and changes in teacher recruitment, compensation and retention policies.

Jay Matthews, of the Washington Post, says it is “galling,” at least to some, for me to have worried about the rising number of single-parent families while doubting the value of hiring more professionals.  But I am surprised he thought my common-sense observations were “thrilling.”  I concede that adjective to Jay only if he agrees that little boys are exhilarating when speaking frankly about emperors parading in birthday suits.

– Paul Peterson

Comment on this article
  • Christina Lordeman says:

    Though I generally agree with you, I think what is most problematic in this debate is the way the poverty-achievement correlation is used to distract from the need to reform American education. Poverty does affect academic performance, but this does not mean that our public schools are O.K. and we should be content with the system as it is (or as it was before NCLB). This is my greatest contention with Diane Ravitch and her followers. The effects of poverty on education do not erase the need to improve the quality of education for the poor (and for everyone). Our teaching force, taken as a whole, simply does not stack up when compared to that of countries like Finland (Ravitch’s favorite model) or Singapore that outperform us. Yet Ravitch and others on her side of the debate focus all their energies on attacking current reform efforts and promoting greater wealth distribution–completely ignoring the need for higher standards in the teaching profession.

    Education reformers need to focus on reforming education – not the economy. I do not view economic redistribution and greater social services – whether one supports them or not – as education reform. Throwing them into this context only distracts from the very real problems that need to be solved within education. We have to stop deluding ourselves into thinking that wealth is the only cure for poor academic results and undermining public education by our learned helplessness. Less poverty would probably improve education, but in the meantime, schools can do a lot to improve education too.

    The question for education reformers, then, is not whether family income affects achievement more strongly than single parenthood or smoking during pregnancy, but whether our schools are achieving acceptable academic outcomes in spite of these challenges. I think we can clearly see that they are not.

  • Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence says:

    THANKS for your refutation of the widely-held misconception that SES fates an economically-poor student to poor academic achievement and future economic distress.

  • Cajbo says:


    Can you engage in an experiment for us?

    After you eat lunch today, can you not eat again until lunch tomorrow.

    And tomorrow, please leave your glasses at home because your family can no longer afford them.

    And, if you take any meds, do not take them tomorrow either, because you no longer receive any health services.

    And tomorrow evening, can you report to us on how productive you were?

    Can you do that for rest of the week . . . and then report on the week?

    Thanks for helping us understand what some children face.



  • Dr. Joseph McCleary says:

    Professor Peterson is right on the money. Being wrong on the money is the oldest canard in public education.
    Charters and choice are showing every day that
    accountable and competent teachers, content-rich curriculum, and attention to character are the keys to success for rich, poor and everyone in between.

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