Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's Poverty, Stupid!

     I have been writing this article for months in my head as well as on paper.  It has consumed hours of thought as I ride my bike to and from work, travel out of state, or lie awake in the morning before getting out of bed.  I've stayed up late at night fretting about wording, but especially about political repercussions, accusations of classism, and my own professional reputation.  I guess I have been waiting for someone else to say it first. 
     Recently two people who I would consider part of the mainstream of educational politics finally said it.  One of them was the superintendent of my school district.  In a front page article in our local paper he was quoted as saying that he is against dividing our large district into two smaller districts along a natural north-south axis because that would lead to one district having more poor kids than the other and therefore lower test scores. The other was a reporter for National Public Radio.  In a piece about why teachers receive most of the blame for all the perceived shortcomings of public education, he asked, "Do teachers and their unions deserve more of the blame than, let's say, shrinking education budgets, poverty or bad parenting?"
In both cases I waited for the backlash, but it didn't come. For the first time in my career I heard two people outside academia—one a highly placed public school official and the other a reputable national journalist—say publicly what most public school teachers have known for years: It's poverty stupid! With few exceptions, lower income public school students have poor test scores. As Stan Karp points out in his essay NCLB's Selective Vision of Equality: Some Gaps Count More than Others (2004): "Education research has established a strong link between student performance on standardized tests and family income. While income equality in a community is no excuse for school failure, certainly any serious federal plan to close academic achievement gaps needs to concern itself with trends in closely related areas, like the resources that families and schools have to work with."  Note that Karp emphasizes that poverty is not an excuse but an explanation of low test scores.  Those who would accuse Karp or anyone else of being a classist snob, or a "bigot of low expectations" (Bush, 2002), simply because he points out the link between poverty and low test scores, is simply not paying attention or is not yet prepared to accept the truth.
Like education researchers, teachers across the nation continue to encounter the same link between poverty and low test scores. The teachers at my school recently scrutinized results from standardized math and reading tests our students took this year. We disaggregated and analyzed the results from every possible angle, including gender, ethnicity, familial instability and mobility, and even language. And what did we find? Or, as the NCLB compliance cops would ask, "What did the data show?" The data showed that the ONLY consistent correlation one can make between children and their low test scores is poverty.
For example, we identified African American students with low, medium and high test results. But the African American students with the lowest scores were also the African American students from the families with the lowest incomes. The same was true for Native American, Asian, Hispanic and Anglo students; girls and boys; English and non English speakers. If we were asked to identify the kids in greatest need of test score improvement, all we had to do was apply a family income filter to the data, and the students with the low test scores would instantly be revealed. (The questionable validity of the tests, and the dubious ethical and political motivations for giving them, are addressed elsewhere by me and by dozens of other teachers, professors, authors and politicians.)
The original intent of NCLB was to prevent school districts from sweeping lower income and underperforming students under the rug in order to hide their low test scores, thereby preserving the school's reputation as well as the property values of adjacent homeowners. (This law could have been called NCLUR or No Child Left Under the Rug!) That was an admirable goal. Earlier in my career I witnessed first hand the wholesale disenfranchisement of entire groups of lower income kids (who Ronald Reagan referred to as "residuals") as they were asked by the school principal to stay home for a week while the other children were being tested.   I was disgusted by this practice even though I was and have always been a vocal opponent of standardized testing. In a strange and creepy way, this actually put me in agreement with one of the major tenets of NCLB:  if schools were going to test their students, then they should not cherry pick them based on who would give the school better test scores.  They should test them all.
As the saying goes, watch out for what you wish for because you just might get it.  Testing everyone—absolutely everyone—has not solved a thing. In fact, it has created a multitude of more serious problems, more than anyone could have anticipated. (Diane Ravitch details these problems and offers some solutions in her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.) 
     Now that we have lifted the proverbial rug and exposed the fraud, we as conscientious citizens need to take a hard look at who was under the rug and consider ALL the data they generate, not just their reading and math scores.  If we considered all the data generated by all students, we would find problematic demographic data that are undetectable by standardized tests and unfixable by schools alone.  These data would inevitably include extreme poverty and everything associated with it: low level of parents' formal education; home languages other than English; limited access to educational resources; lack of preschool enrollment; and a dearth of meaningful learning experiences that cost money, such as belonging to a sports team, joining Girl Scouts, taking piano lessons, flying to Washington D. C. for Spring Break, and so on. The advocates of NCLB have been trying to convince us that data doesn't lie.  Well, in this case, I couldn't agree more.
If we were to focus on student demographic data in addition to the data generated by reading and math scores, we would be forced to admit that poverty is the main cause of low academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.  After that important step we could then begin to initiate a national debate on the causes of poverty and its effects on academic achievement. From that debate we might be motivated to design concrete solutions that directly address student poverty instead of solutions that until now have only addressed the consequences of poverty manifested in schools.
If, on the other hand, we continue to deny the obvious link between poverty and academic achievement, as measured by test scores, and continue to believe that schools can singlehandedly eradicate the academic wounds inflicted by endemic poverty, then we will continue to be complicit in the perpetuation of the achievement gap between the haves and the have nots.
Through a national debate on poverty and its effects on public school students, we might be better able to understand that even though public schools have been touted as one of society's great equalizers—environments where the playing field is level and all students, regardless of family income and education, have access to the same material and intellectual resources—middle and upper income students come to school with material and intellectual head starts that lower income students could only dream about. The belief in the public school classroom as a level playing field is in truth a cruel illusion, one that seduces us into believing that what is equal is also fair, even though we know it's not.
For example, our more financially fortunate public school students usually come from homes where English is the home language. This gives them automatic membership into the dominant culture and access to that culture's greatest intellectual archives. These same students likely have parents who have not only graduated from high school, but who often have one or more diplomas from the university and therefore work as professionals in any number of fields that enjoy great social, political and cultural status in the dominant culture. This gives the students an enormous advantage when asking for help with homework, school projects at home, and finding extracurricular experiences that might enhance what they are learning at school. Middle to upper income students likely have traveled to far away places in airplanes or mini vans for pure enjoyment or for educational purposes, not just to visit extended family or to renew visits across the border. These travel experiences give what they learn in class automatic and concrete associations that enrich their learning immeasurably. Finally, their privileged financial status means they never have to worry about fees for Girl Scouts, piano lessons, soccer team, baseball team, dance lessons, art lessons, etc., all of which enrich a child's academic experiences, greatly increase her personal and academic confidence inside and outside of the classroom. By the time these students enter the classroom, the field they are playing on is already heavily groomed to their advantage.
Diane Ravtich writes, "Our schools cannot be improved by those who say that money doesn't matter . . . Our schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children's ability to learn.  Children who have grown up in poverty need extra resources, including preschool and medical care.  They need small classes, where they will get extra teacher time, and they need extra learning time.  Their families need additional supports, such as coordinated social services that help them to improve their education, to acquire necessary social skills and job skills, and to obtain jobs and housing. While the school itself cannot do these things, it should be a part of a web of public and private agencies that buttress families."  She goes on to say,  (from In Need of a Renaissance, American Educator, Summer 2010).
     Ravitch gives us a good start, but her plan does not go far enough and is not adequately specific.  If we were to sincerely address the causes of poverty in an effort to genuinely raise children's academic achievement levels (whether detectable by standardized tests or not) and level the playing field inside and outside the classroom, then we might seriously consider some or all of the following:
  • Require businesses to release employees with pay so they can attend ESL or GED classes or volunteer in their children's classrooms once a week.
  • Require businesses that receive tax breaks or incentives for locating in a particular community to adhere to a business model for Annual Yearly Progress that shows employee progress towards increased pay, benefits, training, education and working conditions (thanks to Stan Karp for this idea).  
  • Require businesses that distribute coupons, gift certificates and other consumer incentives to students, to contribute, in actual dollars, half the redeemable value of each incentive distributed to the PTA or proportionally to every classroom.
  • Require the state to exact a 1/8 ¢ profits tax on all out of state businesses to fund preschool programs in every public school.  (Pre school attendance, along with family income and education, is a key to academic success and is generally one thing middle and upper income students have that lower income students don't have when entering kindergarten.)
  • Require all organizations that offer extra curricular activities—such as music, art, dance, martial arts— to public school students to accept sliding fee scales for payment.
  • Require after school sports teams to offer scholarships to low income students that include fees, uniforms and transportation to and from practices and games.
  • Require the state or school district to either give, loan or subsidize computers, printers and internet access to families of public school students who qualify for free and perhaps reduced lunch.
  • Require school districts to subsidize or pay for at least four out-of-town field trips for students at Title I schools.
  • Require school districts to offer free after-school tutoring by volunteers or paid professionals for lower income students either at the school site or at the students' homes.
Is this socialism? Is this communism? Is this another way of creating a new welfare state in which lower income families feel they are entitled to what others work hard for? Probably not. There is nothing communistic or socialistic about demanding that poor students have an opportunity to avail themselves of what more financially fortunate students already have and will probably continue to have. We are not talking about a full scale redistribution of wealth. That would likely escalate interclass tension and animosity. Regardless of how critics might characterize solutions such as those listed above, our efforts to raise academic achievement and test scores solely within schools are falling woefully short of the mark primarily due to the fact that we are not addressing the inequalities in the world from which our students come. If schools are treating all students equally and the disparity in test scores still exists between upper and lower income students, then it is obvious that schools are not the main problem; we need to look outside the schools for causes and solutions to these problems. It is time to treat our students fairly, since treating them equally only maintains the status quo while seducing us into thinking we're playing on a level playing field.
It's poverty, stupid! But until poverty is addressed thoroughly and comprehensively by the public and private sectors of our society, our public school students will continue producing test scores that show not how much they know, but how much money their parents make.

1 comment:

erin penner said...


Very interesting post. I like, at the end, that you ask the question so many will be inclined to ask: is this socialism? is this communism?

I like that you ask these questions because in so many obvious ways, the answer to both is clearly, no. In fact, an equitable distribution of educational opportunity sounds like the most American thing I've heard in a long time. Aren't we supposed to be a meritocracy? Aren't we all supposed to start on an "equal playing field"? Isn't that why we're not leaving any children behind? Equitable distribution of educational resources is the only possible way for us, as a nation, to ensure that the American Dream is something (slightly) more than a pipe-dream.