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Are we using poverty as an excuse for school failure?

When I first covered schools as a young reporter fresh out of grad school, I made assumptions based on my 12 years in Catholic schools in urban New Jersey. While my  family was working class, I sat next to children whose parents were recent immigrants to America; those parents expected their children to do well and go to college. Many did.

As a result, I assumed any teacher could teach any child. I didn't see poverty or non-English-speaking households as obstacles as many of my classmates overcame both. Covering schools for many years has tempered that view. Now, I don’t think any teacher can teach any child. Some children bring intense challenges that require deft teachers, tailored instruction and more time on task.

I still believe children of low-income parents can flourish in school – especially if their parents are engaged. In looking back, I realize most of my classmates from low-income households had involved and motivated parents. Yes, their mothers and fathers toiled long hours, but their school uniforms were pressed, lunch boxes packed and homework checked. Often, an Abuela or Oma lived with the family and kept a pot of soup simmering on the stove and children reading at the kitchen table.

Kids can come from poor families without being impoverished educationally. The lethal combination for education success seems to be poverty coupled with parents who don't value or promote learning.

With that preface, I wanted to share an excerpt from a Thomas B. Fordham Institute article headlined, “Poverty cannot explain America's mediocre test scores.”

In the essay, Michael J. Petrilli and Brandon Wright write: (This is a very short excerpt. Please read the full piece before commenting.)

At a time when the national conversation is focused on lagging upward mobility and yawning income inequality, it is no surprise that many educators point to poverty as the explanation for American students’ mediocre test scores compared to their peers in other countries. If teachers in struggling U.S. schools taught in Finland, says Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, they would flourish—in part because of “support from homes unchallenged by poverty.” Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff at Columbia University’s Teachers College argue that middling test scores reflect a “poverty crisis” in the United States, not an “education crisis.” Adding union muscle to the argument, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten calls poverty “the elephant in the room” that accounts for poor student performance.

But does this explanation hold water?

Critics of education reform are certainly correct when they say that poverty is a major factor in lackluster academic performance.

Still, poverty is an issue for virtually every nation on the planet. Where reform critics get it wrong is when they claim that America’s average scores are dragged down by the particularly poor performance of low-income students — or that the advantaged kids are doing just fine. That is objectively untrue. And its scores are not dragged down by an unusually high proportion of poor students, as measures of absolute poverty find the United States not to be an outlier at all.

America’s mediocre performance is remarkably consistent. Yes, our affluent students outperform our poor students. But they don’t outperform their peers overseas. This doesn’t imply that reform, as currently formulated, is on the right track. The enigma of our mediocre student performance is a topic worthy of study and debate, as is the challenge of helping students at all points on the economic spectrum perform better.

What it does show is that poverty can’t explain away America’s lackluster academic performance. That excuse, however soothing it may be to educators, politicians, and social critics, turns out to be a crutch that is unfounded in evidence. We need to stop using it and start getting serious about improving the achievement of all the nation’s students.





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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.