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Life Arts    H2'ed 8/7/13

Blame poverty, not public schools

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Conservatives love to hate public schools and public school teachers.

Every chance they get, conservatives (more properly called "regressives") blame public schools for the inadequate educational outcomes of students in poor neighborhoods.  They also point to the supposed low performance of American students compared to students of other countries.

Conservatives are  promoting charter schools, despite the lack of evidence that charter schools are any better than public schools (and despite questions about whether they're even constitutional here in Washington State;  also, conservative lawmakers in Washington State haven't granted cost of living adjustments to public teachers' salaries for several years now).

For a while I've been wondering how American's K-12 schools would rank against schools in other countries if we adjusted for the large lower class in the U.S. Does poverty explain most or all of the poor performance of American students?  I found my answer in this article by the Economic Policy Institute,  What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?  In summary:

  • Because in every country, students at the bottom of the social class distribution perform worse than students higher in that distribution, U.S. average performance appears to be relatively low partly because we have so many more test takers from the bottom of the social class distribution.
  • If U.S. adolescents had a social class distribution that was similar to the distribution in countries to which the United States is frequently compared, average reading scores in the United States would be higher than average reading scores in the similar post-industrial countries we examined (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), and average math scores in the United States would be about the same as average math scores in similar post-industrial countries.
  • A re-estimated U.S. average PISA score that adjusted for a student population in the United States that is more disadvantaged than populations in otherwise similar post-industrial countries, and for the over-sampling of students from the most-disadvantaged schools in a recent U.S. international assessment sample, finds that the U.S. average score in both reading and mathematics would be higher than official reports indicate (in the case of mathematics, substantially higher).
  • This re-estimate would also improve the U.S. place in the international ranking of all OECD countries, bringing the U.S. average score to sixth in reading and 13th in math. Conventional ranking reports based on PISA, which make no adjustments for social class composition or for sampling errors, and which rank countries irrespective of whether score differences are large enough to be meaningful, report that the U.S. average score is 14th in reading and 25th in math.

In short, we can blame poverty, not public schools, for most of the problems with American education. As reported in New Report Documents Effects of Childhood Poverty on Education, Adult Life

A comparison of children from homes below and above the poverty line found that even among 2-year-olds, children from poor households do worse on average in language skills such as listening comprehension, letter recognition and expressive vocabulary. Poor children tend to score lower on standardized achievement tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and to have lower scores on the critical reading section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). These inequalities persist through the college years: looking at children born between 1979 and 1982, more than half (54 percent) of those from families in the highest income quartile graduated from college, versus only 9 percent from the lowest income quartile.

Nevertheless, as the article by the Economic Policy Institute says,

At all points in the social class distribution, U.S. students perform worse, and in many cases substantially worse, than students in a group of top-scoring countries (Canada, Finland, and Korea). Although controlling for social class distribution would narrow the difference in average scores between these countries and the United States, it would not eliminate it.

But guess what? The problem isn't public schools.  The countries that outperform America in education (Finland, South Korea, Canada, Japan, and Singapore) have public schools. See Public schools win internationally.

See also:

How Poverty Affects Behavior and Academic Performance  "A childhood spent in poverty often sets the stage for a lifetime of setbacks."


Class Matters. Why Won't We Admit It?: The Unaddressed Link between Poverty and Education

More Money, Better Grades

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty

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Democratic Precinct Committee Officer, activist, writer, and programmer. My op-ed pieces have appeared in the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and elsewhere. See and for my (more...)

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