Education Opinion

For Richer or Poorer: Does Poverty Explain American School Performance?

By Ilana Garon — January 30, 2014 2 min read
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In an article in Talking Points Memo, Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, contends that poverty is not, in fact, the problem holding back American school-children from parity with peer nations in tests like the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA), an OECD-sponsored test of academic skills administered to fifteen-year-olds in major countries nationwide. Despite a child-poverty rate of 22%, she asserts, American school-children are better off economically than many of their global peers, have more money spent on education than many of these peers, and--perhaps most damning--under-perform even at the highest economic echelons of American society (undermining the idea that America’s high rate of poverty is what causes it to lag behind in educational statistics.)

While I would agree that simply blaming poverty for American shortfalls on PISA tests is an overly broad explanation for a nuanced problem, to discount the influence of socio-economics on education--which seems to be the over-riding point of Ripley’s article--seems equally short-sighted. I’m no statistician, and moreover, one could clearly write a book on this subject (indeed Ripley has). But I want to raise some points for consideration (if not complete rebuttals) here:

- On the domestic level, income is the single strongest correlate to academic success in the United States, as measured on standardized tests such as the SAT. Keeping in mind the embarrassingly high rate of child poverty in America as a developed country, ruling out poverty as a factor in America’s lag behind comparatively wealthy countries seems implausible.

- Towards that end, the USA (unlike some peer-nations) has compulsory K-12 (roughly ages 5-18) education. The reality is that in countries where K-12 education is not mandatory, many students who are discouraged or prevented from attending school past a certain point would have ended up comprising the lower percentiles on any achievement test.

- American education offers an insufficiently broad array of options for academic tracks (college-for-all is still the prevailing philosophy), which has at least two effects I can think of on American students’ achievement compared to countries that do offer career-tech or vocational tracks: (1) A more heterogeneous group of students in America would be taking the PISA, whereas in a peer-country offering alternative options to a college-prep track, similar students may have been “tracked” away from such exams (a form of cherry-picking, no doubt, but one that I’d bet exists); (2) More career-tech or vocational tracks, targeted to interested students, could possibly engage recalcitrant students stuck in a college-prep track, enabling them to more meaningfully learn the skills tested on the PISA.

- But, to Ripley’s point that even America’s wealthiest kids do comparatively poorly on tests like the PISA when ranked against their global GPD-peer nations (and, as several commenters asserted when I talked about this months ago, to the extent that it actually even matters), I offer my belief that American culture is marked by a lower valuation of education in recent years, as seen in disdainful attitudes towards the teaching profession, prevalence of using social media over print-reading as an activity for youngsters, and an overall culture of diminished student accountability for one’s own education outcome.

So, that should tick everyone off for the week. Feel free to lambast me in the comments.

The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher’s Perspective are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.