The Poverty Myth Persists



By 02/16/2012

11 Comments | Print | NO PDF |

Every time I see a “poverty and education” story I think of the famous line from the New Testament in which Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.”

So, with education. Want a convenient scapegoat for our problems? Poverty. It’s there, it’s handy.

I sat through an hour meeting of our small school district’s budget committee last week, most of it devoted to bemoaning our fate as a “poor district” (over 60 percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, the standard definition of “poor” for schools) in these recessionary times. State aid has been nearly flat and the Governor punched through a two percent local property tax cap. Woe is us. There goes sports. Not mentioned was the fact that we spend over $22,000 per student!

Diane Ravitch has been hitting the poverty gong for some time, most recently in Cleveland, where, she says, “the level of urban decay is alarming.” I was just in Cleveland and, while I can appreciate the sentiment, I fail to understand how she gets to the next sentence: “Yet its municipal leaders have decided that their chief problem is bad teachers.”

Huh?

I visited a couple of successful Cleveland public schools during my visit—successful in educating poor children—and while principals in each of those schools said they could use more money, neither said that money—or their students’ lack of it—was their major challenge. Getting good teachers was. In fact, at one of those schools both the principal and the assistant, in separate interviews, said that having to employ less than competent teachers was the biggest drag on the school’s continuing success.

Poverty is a hard thing. I have seen my share of it and written about it, as have others at Fordham. And one thing is certain: poverty’s connection to education is largely in the eye of the beholder and that eye is often shielded by some kind of rose-tinted (or magic mirror) glass.

It was this feeling I had while mulling how to react to Sabrina Tavernise’s front-page New York Timesstory from last week, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor,” a story which generated a great deal of attention. As Tavernise pointed out,

[A] body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.

That the rich do better than the poor in school is a compelling comment. But to turn an effect into a cause—at least, to offer up a delicious non sequitur—is what so often bedevils the discussion. Bad educational practices, such as the poverty of pedagogy or misshapen human resource policies in inner city schools, does not enter into the discussion.

Tavernise does allow a quick dissent by University of Chicago economist James Heckman, who argues, she writes, that “parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality, particularly in the years before children start school.”

This was the point made by Tavernise colleague David Brooks, in his “Materialist Fallacy column yesterday. It’s not the lack of money that is causing the deterioration of the social fabric, Brooks argues, it’s “disrupted communities” where citizens “lack the social capital to enact…values.”

As has been pointed out often enough, and as Tavernise’s opening sentence says,

Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults.

So why have we given up on the idea that education can be the “great equalizer”? The answer, I believe, is that we have accepted the “materialistic fallacy.” We have taken results of our education ineptitudes—more poverty—and made them the cause of them.

As I suggested the other day, in discussing E.D. Hirsch and reading, insights about cognitive, knowledge, and community deficiencies in early childhood, if recognized, can be compensated for.

That Tavernise ends her story quoting think tanker Douglas Besharov, saying that “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare” is indeed bizarre.

Shouted Whitney Tilson:

What?! The cupboard is NOT bare! In fact, over the past decade it’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that very high quality schools, filled with very high quality teachers, in a culture of high expectations, no excuses, etc. (i.e., KIPP and similar schools) can overcome the effects of poverty and that the great majority of even the most disadvantaged kids can achieve at high levels.

Let’s resolve to quit blaming the poor for the poor education they are receiving.

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.




Comment on this article
  • Barry Garelick says:

    Excellently said. I also read the NY Times piece and was angry that the article just leaves it as a big puzzle as to why there is disparity in educational achievement based on income levels. Or, as you say, as the cause for the effect. There is not even a hint that education practices in the US do not serve students well, and that those who can afford it, get the education they need through parents, tutors, and learning centers (Sylvan, Kumon and the like). Low income families are not able to afford the external education if the schools persist in trendy approaches that pretend to teach critical thinking while neglecting to teach children essential facts, math procedures, and basic grammar.

  • Alex says:

    Mr. Meyer,
    I agree with your article and think more on this topic needs to be brought to light. I believe that our social morals are escalating downward. Family beliefs and structure is causing a huge problems and education is just one aspect. I do believe the down fall that started in the 60-70’s has led to the type of mediocrity of teaching today. These current older teachers are products of the self-indulging rebellious movement of the 60s-70s and that is why they have a belief of entitlement. Young teachers like me take their work seriously and work every day like we have to earn it. To solidify this sense of entitlement these older teachers hide behind the unions with seniority and tenure as a shield to prevent them from doing their job. What Mayor Frank Jackson is doing in Cleveland is a step in the right direction. His movement is not against charter schools or public schools. It’s against poor performing schools. The link between high performing charter schools and public schools seems like a great idea.

  • Cal says:

    ” In fact, over the past decade it’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that very high quality schools, filled with very high quality teachers, in a culture of high expectations, no excuses, etc. (i.e., KIPP and similar schools) can overcome the effects of poverty and that the great majority of even the most disadvantaged kids can achieve at high levels.”

    We’ve not proven any such thing, not to a shadow or a massive cliff overhang of a doubt. At best, we’ve shown that with much more time, low ability kids can get to grade level in elementary school, usually several years after high ability kids got to the same level.

    ” and that those who can afford it, get the education they need through parents, tutors, and learning centers (Sylvan, Kumon and the like). ”

    This is also untrue. The rich and upper middle class use tutors far less than seem to think. Sylvan and Kumon are emphatically not for the rich or the upper middle class, but for the middle class–and they aren’t considered very good.

    As a rule, tutoring (whether a company or individual) doesn’t bring ability up from low level to mid level–or even high level–but rather strengthen a weak kid’s ability to perform to make a teacher happy so the kid will get good grades.

    The issue isn’t poverty, but cognitive ability. Low ability is just found more frequently in low income areas.

    But to pretend that it’s all about hard work and teachers is simply delusional.

  • TeacherAtHeart says:

    Many are the schools and principals who lose great teachers at impoverished campuses, not because of the lack of money or ability of the students to learn, but due to a sickening lack of appreciation for free education, and the absence of respect from students and parents. I am finished coddling a small community of bullying parents and students who have a sense of entitlement, an exhausting lack of morals, and no idea or concern regarding how ignorant they are becoming.

  • laj says:

    I invite any of you to my school. I am a principal in NC. You can visit for a day or a week. The majority of my kids are socio-economically disadvantaged. I have dedicated teachers….and we welcome any visit and ideas. If you are interested, please send me an email.

    I will not argue any points here, I just challenge you to step outside “I’ve studied poverty; I’ve interviewed principals” mentality and come work in the public school environment. Or even shadow me in this environment. It’s a challenge I’d like for more people, especially those who consistently criticize teachers and leaders, to take. As I said, please just come visit my school. Come work there, live what we live, see what we see, and then stand on your soapbox and yell at public education. At least then I’ll know you’ve had a relevant experience in our world.

  • Sam Fancera says:

    You cannot ignore the decades of work that has identified level of poverty in schools as a strong predictor of school/student success. Higher concentrations of poverty are associated with lower levels of school/student performance. This evidence does not suggest that poverty causes low achievement. What it does suggest is that educators must look to the academic literature for ways to overcome poverty so all students learn. In six decades, researchers have identified just a few school level variables that mitigate the strong influence of poverty on achievement. It is our job as educators to ensure that we are doing all we can to improve these school conditions to overcome the deleterious influence of poverty on school and student outcomes. As I often tell my colleagues, educators work for those students whose parents, for whatever reasons that don’t really matter, are unable to provide the necessary supports for them to achieve at high levels.

  • Katharine Beals says:

    Cal cites Peter Meyer: ” In fact, over the past decade it’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that very high quality schools, filled with very high quality teachers, in a culture of high expectations, no excuses, etc. (i.e., KIPP and similar schools) can overcome the effects of poverty and that the great majority of even the most disadvantaged kids can achieve at high levels.”

    Then Cal write “We’ve not proven any such thing, not to a shadow or a massive cliff overhang of a doubt. At best, we’ve shown that with much more time, low ability kids can get to grade level in elementary school, usually several years after high ability kids got to the same level.”

    Cal thus conflates poverty with cognitive ability.

    Cal writes: ” The rich and upper middle class use tutors far less than seem to think”
    Does Cal have any sources for this?

  • Peter Meyer says:

    For the record, the “beyond a shadow of a doubt” comment was made by Whitney Tilson. I tend to agree with him, that the educational disadvantages associated with poverty can be overcome, but I didn’t say it.

    But I think Sam has it about right: “educators must look to the academic literature for ways to overcome poverty so all students learn. In six decades, researchers have identified just a few school level variables that mitigate the strong influence of poverty on achievement. It is our job as educators to ensure that we are doing all we can to improve these school conditions to overcome the deleterious influence of poverty on school and student outcomes. ”

    As my sister-in-law would say, Nothin’ to it but to do it.

  • SteveH says:

    “We have taken results of our education ineptitudes—more poverty—and made them the cause of them.”

    At best, they can’t tell the difference between the two. At worst, they are using poverty as a cloak. Some educators want it both ways; they blame poverty and wait for it’s solution, but then they don’t want give individual urban parents the choice to find their own solution. These are the people who would be thrilled if little urban Suzie makes it to the community college even if she had the ability to make it to Harvard. Nobody is an individual.

    There is a direct solution. Look at the actual questions on the state test, not the statictics. Look at the raw percent correct scores. Look at the individual students and try to explain why it is that poverty prevents THAT student from knowing what 6*7 is in fifth grade. I’ve seen bright suburban kids in a private school fail that test in fifth grade. What makes anyone think that this is just an issue of poverty or that it’s not possible to separate the variables?

  • SteveH says:

    Another issue is assumptions. Education in urban areas can look impossible because of them. If you can’t or won’t separate those who are willing and able from those who are not, then how much can you expect to achieve? Often, problems in education are defined by teachers as what walks in the door of their classroom. Making their life easier does not necessarily solve the systemic problems of education.

    This issue has been highlighted in our area by the fight against charter schools. Some think that even with lotteries, allowing those with initiative to leave the regular public schools will make them worse. This is not about affluent parents who want vouchers to send their kids to private schools. This is about giving urban parents the opportunity to fix a clearly defined problem for their individual child, with the school offering no solution if they stay. Their solution is immediate and substantial. Some charter schools might not turn out to be as good, but I trust parents to make the best choice of school A or school B.

    Is the motto of urban public education: “Nobody gets out unless everybody gets out”? They blame poverty, but then want to hold eveyone hostage. Give indivuals a way out. Let them show the way for others.

  • Carlene Byron says:

    One issue no one seems to be taking into consideration is the curriculum change during the 1990s that outsourced the most basic elementary instruction — how to write letters, map them to their sounds, identify colors, etc — to parents and preschools.

    Before the mid-1990s, this instruction occurred in public schools through grade 1.5. But as we became more focused on the “critical early learning window,” we also removed much basic education out of the elementary curriculum.

    So it’s not really a question of whether one group of kids or another gets tutors — it’s whether one group of kids gets 4- and 5-star preschool educations. And yes, the group that goes without is pretty much all of your “at-risk” kids. They arrive on day one of kindergarten and discover that both they AND their parents are labeled as failures because the children haven’t mastered, before arriving at school, what public schools taught children just 30 years ago in this country — and still do in advanced countries like Finland that far exceed us in academics.

  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    *

         11 Comments
    Sponsored Results
    Sponsors

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform

    Sponsors