Tag Archives: poverty

The Link Between Poverty and Education

I know I often fail to see the big picture. And I also know that the economic and social issues facing our nation defy quick, easy fixes. But I do know that over the past two decades or so we’ve made a mess of public education in the country — and that has undercut our ability to compete in a global economy while leaving many unprepared to enter and succeed in the workplace.

One reason for this is that policy makers, business leaders and educators have adopted one short-term reform after another while often failing to consider a key issue: the link between poverty and success or failure in school.

I also know that it is fashionable these days to point the finger of blame at classroom teachers and teachers unions. The argument: If only we could staff every classroom with an excellent teacher and then hold him or her accountable for results, then the problem would be solved.

Not that simple.

Here’s an informative op-ed in the NYT this morning, “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?”:

No one seriously disputes the fact that students from disadvantaged households perform less well in school, on average, than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. But rather than confront this fact of life head-on, our policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control.

No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature education law, did this by setting unrealistically high — and ultimately self-defeating — expectations for all schools. President Obama’s policies have concentrated on trying to make schools more “efficient” through means like judging teachers by their students’ test scores or encouraging competition by promoting the creation of charter schools. The proverbial story of the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost comes to mind.

The Occupy movement has catalyzed rising anxiety over income inequality; we desperately need a similar reminder of the relationship between economic advantage and student performance.

The correlation has been abundantly documented, notably by the famous Coleman Report in 1966. New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates.

International research tells the same story. Results of the 2009 reading tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment show that, among 15-year-olds in the United States and the 13 countries whose students outperformed ours, students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts within every country. Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre overall performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that one-fifth of American children live in poverty?

Yet federal education policy seems blind to all this. No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face. The legislation did, to be sure, specify that subgroups — defined by income, minority status and proficiency in English — must meet the same achievement standard. But it did so only to make sure that schools did not ignore their disadvantaged students — not to help them address the challenges they carry with them into the classroom.

So why do presumably well-intentioned policy makers ignore, or deny, the correlations of family background and student achievement?

Some honestly believe that schools are capable of offsetting the effects of poverty. Others want to avoid the impression that they set lower expectations for some groups of students for fear that those expectations will be self-fulfilling. In both cases, simply wanting something to be true does not make it so.

Another rationale for denial is to note that some schools, like the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, have managed to “beat the odds.” If some schools can succeed, the argument goes, then it is reasonable to expect all schools to. But close scrutiny of charter school performance has shown that many of the success stories have been limited to particular grades or subjects and may be attributable to substantial outside financing or extraordinarily long working hours on the part of teachers. The evidence does not support the view that the few success stories can be scaled up to address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.

A final rationale for denying the correlation is more nefarious. As we are now seeing, requiring all schools to meet the same high standards for all students, regardless of family background, will inevitably lead either to large numbers of failing schools or to a dramatic lowering of state standards. Both serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system is failing and needs fundamental change, like privatization.

Given the budget crises at the national and state levels, and the strong political power of conservative groups, a significant effort to reduce poverty or deal with the closely related issue of racial segregation is not in the political cards, at least for now.

So what can be done?

Large bodies of research have shown how poor health and nutrition inhibit child development and learning and, conversely, how high-quality early childhood and preschool education programs can enhance them. We understand the importance of early exposure to rich language on future cognitive development. We know that low-income students experience greater learning loss during the summer when their more privileged peers are enjoying travel and other enriching activities.

Since they can’t take on poverty itself, education policy makers should try to provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle-class students enjoy as a matter of course.

It can be done. In North Carolina, the two-year-old East Durham Children’s Initiative is one of many efforts around the country to replicate Geoffrey Canada’s well-known successes with the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Say Yes to Education in Syracuse, N.Y., supports access to afterschool programs and summer camps and places social workers in schools. In Omaha, Building Bright Futures sponsors school-based health centers and offers mentoring and enrichment services. Citizen Schools, based in Boston, recruits volunteers in seven states to share their interests and skills with middle-school students.

Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama administration effort that gives grants to programs like these, is a welcome first step, but it has been under-financed.

Other countries already pursue such strategies. In Finland, with its famously high-performing schools, schools provide food and free health care for students. Developmental needs are addressed early. Counseling services are abundant.

But in the United States over the past decade, it became fashionable among supporters of the “no excuses” approach to school improvement to accuse anyone raising the poverty issue of letting schools off the hook — or what Mr. Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Such accusations may afford the illusion of a moral high ground, but they stand in the way of serious efforts to improve education and, for that matter, go a long way toward explaining why No Child Left Behind has not worked.

Yes, we need to make sure that all children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to good schools, as defined by the quality of teachers and principals and of internal policies and practices.

But let’s not pretend that family background does not matter and can be overlooked. Let’s agree that we know a lot about how to address the ways in which poverty undermines student learning. Whether we choose to face up to that reality is ultimately a moral question.

[Writers: Helen F. Ladd is a professor of public policy and economics at Duke. Edward B. Fiske, a former education editor of The New York Times, is the author of the “Fiske Guide to Colleges.” ]

As I said, no quick, easy fixes here.

But for those blaming teachers and teachers unions for all the problems facing our educational system these days, you’re missing the big picture.


Occupy Wall Street and Poverty: Is There A Connection?

I’m not big on the idea of redistributing income or wealth. And when folks start talking these days about class warfare, I’m not sure exactly what side I’m supposed to be on. Maybe I need to keep two pitchforks handy in the garage.

I also grew up in an era when the presumption was that if you worked hard you had a good shot at being successful and at least achieving a middle class lifestyle. I know realistically that never applied to everyone in this country. But I wonder these days if even the majority believe it is true?

My guess is no. And that’s why the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations — beyond the fact that they are great made-for-TV events — resonate with many, young and old, liberal and conservative.

The reason? Like it or not, there is a growing problem in this country: Income distribution is moving to the high and low ends, with the middle getting squeezed to the bottom. And young people, even those with college degrees, are getting left beyond by a political and economic system that appears right now to dismiss the issue that most are concerned about: jobs.

Here’s from a story in September on CNN Money online, “Poverty rate rises as incomes decline“:

Amid a still struggling economy, more people in America fell below the poverty line last year, according to new census data released Tuesday.

The nation’s poverty rate rose to 15.1% in 2010, its highest level since 1993. In 2009, 14.3% of people in America were living in poverty.

“The results are not surprising given the economy,” said Paul Osterman, author of “Good Jobs America,” and a labor economist at MIT. “You would expect with so many people unemployed, the poverty rate would go up. It’s just another sign of what a difficult time this is for so many people.”

About 46.2 million people are now considered in poverty, 2.6 million more than last year.

The government defines the poverty line as income of $22,314 a year for a family of four and $11,139 for an individual. The Office of Management and Budget updates the poverty line each year to account for inflation.

Middle-class wealth falls: For middle-class families, income fell in 2010. The median household income was $49,445, down slightly from $49,777 the year before.

Median income has changed very little over the last 30 years. Adjusted for inflation, the middle-income family only earned 11% more in 2010 than they did in 1980, while the richest 5% in America saw their incomes surge 42%.

“Over that period of time, it’s not that the American economy has necessarily performed badly,” Osterman said. “As a country we’re richer over that period, but there’s been this real shift in where the income has gone, and it’s to the top.”

So as much as I hate to admit it, I guess I find myself coming down this morning on the side of Eugene Robinson, the always-left-leaning WaPo pundit. He opines in “Occupy Wall Street: A timely call for justice“:

Occupy Wall Street and its kindred protests around the country are inept, incoherent and hopelessly quixotic. God, I love ’em.

I love every little thing about these gloriously amateurish sit-ins. I love that they are spontaneous, leaderless and open-ended. I love that the protesters refuse to issue specific demands beyond a forceful call for economic justice. I also love that in Chicago — uniquely, thus far — demonstrators have ignored the rule about vagueness and are being ultra-specific about their goals. I love that there are no rules, just tendencies.

And more:

“Economic justice” may mean different things to different people, but it’s not an empty phrase. It captures the sense that somehow, when we weren’t looking, the concept of fairness was deleted from our economic system — and our political lexicon. Economic injustice became the norm.

Revolutionary advances in technology and globalization are the forces most responsible for the hollowing-out of the American economy. But our policymakers responded in ways that tended to accentuate, rather than ameliorate, the most damaging effects of these worldwide trends.

The result is clear: a nation where the rich have become the mega-rich while the middle class has steadily lost ground, where unemployment is stuck at levels once considered unbearable, and where our political system is too dysfunctional to take the kind of bold action that would make a real difference. Eventually, the economy will limp out of this slump, and things will seem better. Fundamentally, however, nothing will have changed.

Ah, pitchforks anyone?



BFGoodrich Company: RIP

Well, the BFGoodrich Company, formerly headquartered in Akron where its founder, Dr. Benjamin Franklin Goodrich, launched the rubber industry in 1870, sleeps with the fishes this morning. Or, I guess more accurately and less dramatically, Goodrich Corp. is now part of United Technologies.

I’m sure that few in Akron — and fewer still who read this blog — care about this one way or the other. And honestly, I’m not so sure that I care either. But I figured I was obligated to mention it, since I spent 29 years of my life working at that company when it was known mostly — and in later years incorrectly — as a manufacturer of tires and rubber products.

Interesting, at least to me, is how the story of this United Technologies acquisition didn’t cause a ripple of comment in the Akron Beacon Journal. I read about it early this a.m. in the New York Times and Charlotte Observer. And that’s how it should be, since Goodrich is headquartered in Charlotte these days.

Still, there is a story in the dead tree edition of the Akron Beacon Journal and online this morning about the growing poverty in Akron and surrounding communities. This isn’t unique to Northeast Ohio. The number of individuals and families living in poverty is expanding throughout the nation — as more and more find themselves either without jobs or as part of the working poor.

Wonder if that is because there aren’t all that many companies like the old BFGoodrich these days? You know. Companies that made things and hired plenty of people who could make decent livings, raise their families in a comfortable lifestyle, contribute to their schools and communities, and purchase goods and services that contributed to economic growth.

Take away the manufacturing and many of the white collar jobs from companies like Goodrich, Firestone, Goodyear and General Tire and  a city like Akron takes on a totally different employment base and economic outlook.

And for those trying to understand why more people are falling into poverty — even those with jobs — maybe there is an answer here.


AIG execs — poverty and more great PR

Standard advice is that you should warm-up before running. You know. Take a few minutes to stretch. I never follow that advice. I’ve found that a pot of strong coffee works just as well. But I guess you could apply the same advice to writing. Warm-up before you get to the heavy lifting. Here goes.

It appears that the executives of American Insurance Group Inc. (AIG) are having a grand old time now that they are the wards of U.S. taxpayers. The Captains of Industry at this firm just returned from an $86,000 hunting trip in England. That follows the $440,000 junket to the resort in California. And of course it all follows the more than $130 billion bailout the company received from the U.S. Treasury. Who says this isn’t a great country?

This, of course, is another PR disaster, coming on the day when the Dow tanked another 7 percent. And it’s not that the Titans of Capitalism don’t get it. They don’t care. I wonder if AIG has a public relations staff? If so, good luck to them.

And good luck to John McCain. I actually managed to stay up for most of the debate last night. And I remain convinced that McCain is a decent, honorable man who would have been a great president if elected eight years ago. Unfortunately, we ended up with W. — and the rest is history. McCain made his points last night. He was aggressive and at times irritated. Barack Obama was presidential. That’s good because in January he is going to be president.

And Obama is going to be president because it’s about the economy. On the day of the debate, following the latest Dow disaster, The New York Times reported that the next casualty in the financial debacle is going to be household incomes. Consider this:

What, then, will the next stage of the downturn be about? It is likely to revolve around the worst slump in worker pay since — you knew this was coming — the Great Depression. This slump won’t be anywhere near as bad as the one during the Depression, but it also won’t be like anything the country has experienced in a long time.

Income for the median household — the one in the dead middle of the income distribution — will probably be lower in 2010 than it was, amazingly enough, a full decade earlier. That hasn’t happened since the 1930s. Already, median pay today is slightly lower than it was in 2000, and by 2010, could end up more than 5 percent lower than its old peak.

And here’s from the Associated Press:

NEW YORK – The number of U.S. jobs paying a poverty-level wage increased by 4.7 million between 2002 and 2006, according to a new analysis of census data released Tuesday.

A report by The Working Poor Families Project, based on an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, found conditions worsened for the working poor in the four years ending in 2006, as the number of low-income working families increased by 350,000. The project is funded by the Annie E. Casey, Ford, Joyce and C.S. Mott Foundations.

The report defines a low-income working family as those earning less than twice the Census definition of poverty. In 2006, the most recent year for available data, a family of four earning $41,228 or less qualified as a low-income family.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, 300 people, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm, are this week eating like food stamp recipients to put the spotlight on poverty.

That means they can spend a total of, ah, $5.87 a day per person. Did I hear someone yell, “double low-fat latte”?

Well, you get it. The guys at AIG are off hunting in England with expenses paid by the U.S. taxpayers. The worldwide financial meltdown continues, taking with it now the income of working Americans. And people are living in Michigan, and most likely elsewhere, on $5.87 a day.

It’s the economy, stupid.

And gee. Too much effort warming up. No time for any heavy lifting today.