Book Club: Poverty Doesn’t Explain Poor American School Performance

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It’s an enduring mystery: The U.S. spends more per pupil on education than all but four countries in the world. And yet our teenagers perform unimpressively on the most respected international test of critical thinking. They score below average for the developed world in math and average in reading and science, a pattern that hasn’t changed in over a decade.

We all have our theories about why this might be: Maybe our country is much too big to compare to South Korea, too diverse to compare to Finland. Maybe our teachers’ unions are too powerful … or perhaps our education budgets too anemic?

Each theory has its merits and limitations. But the most pervasive theory, the one I hear wherever I go in the United States, is that we are too poor. Sometimes I hear it from parents or from teachers. “Our parents don’t have the know-how to raise their children,” one Washington, D.C., teacher in a low-income school told me. Or I read it in blogs and opinion pieces, where principals, parents and education pundits insist that we have a poverty crisis, not an education crisis.

The problem with this theory is that it’s not as true as we want it to be. We have a poverty problem, beyond a doubt. Our child poverty rate — nearly 22 percent in 2012, which is actually an increase over 2007 — is shamefully high compared to the rest of the developed world, and that reality makes educating (and parenting) our children far more challenging than it should be.

But other things are true, too. American students are actually better off overall than students in other developed countries. Our parents are better educated on average, too. In fact, if we consider only our most affluent kids, the top quartile of American 15 year olds by socio-economic status, we see something startling: our most privileged kids still score below their privileged peers in 26 other nations on a test of critical thinking in math.

If our problem is really just poverty, why do our richest kids do relatively poorly? These kids have books and computers at home—and many attend schools that look like high-tech learning spas compared to schools I’ve seen around the world. (This test data includes private-school students, by the way.) We have relatively well-off students overall—so why do we have a smaller percentage of kids doing advanced thinking in math, reading and science than 16 other countries?

This complexity has gotten lost in America’s polarized debates over education. Again and again, people insist that our affluent schools outperform the whole world. They cite dubious claims like this one, which compares average test scores for certain high-income American schools to average scores for entire countries—and conclude that our best schools are fantastic.

Those comparisons are not statistically valid, as Diane Ravitch admits in her latest book, since they compare some U.S. schools to all schools elsewhere. As the analysts who crunch those numbers have told me, the average scores for low-poverty U.S. schools were meant to be used for domestic comparisons only—since equivalent data for other countries does not exist. But that reality does not stop people (including Ravitch) from repeating this claim over and over again.

There is just one valid way to compare how students from different socio-economic backgrounds do on this same international test. And that’s to look at the scores for kids at different income levels, data the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) routinely collects. What we see from the data is that our poorest kids perform worse than their peers in other countries—and so do our richest kids. Even our middle-class kids score worse than middle-class kids in Germany, Finland, New Zealand and Korea, among other places. Our kids do better in reading than in math or science—but they don’t tend to score at the very top of the world in any subject.

Countries with significant levels of child poverty now outperform the U.S. on international tests (Canada, Estonia, Poland and Vietnam, for example). So the urgent question is not whether we must fix poverty before we fix schools (or fix schools before we fix poverty). The question is, What did these other countries do to help mitigate against the toxic effects of poverty? And what can we learn from them?

I think most Americans are capable of understanding that income, parenting, teaching quality, spending decisions, curriculum and other factors interact—for good and for ill—to shape education results. From there, really useful conversations can happen.

To me, the value of the international educational comparisons is not to prove who is right or wrong; it is to see what is possible, to find the outliers and try to learn from them. Poland, which has a 16 percent child-poverty rate and spends dramatically less than we do per pupil, had worse PISA scores than we did in 2000. Today, Polish 15-year-olds outscore their American peers in math, reading and science. Poland has more teenagers performing at an advanced level in math than Finland (which has a mere 4 percent child poverty rate). Meanwhile, other countries have very low levels of child poverty but end up with worse education outcomes than Poland (Norway and Sweden come to mind).

What puzzles me about the blame-poverty crowd is that I don’t hear these same folks making this claim about other complicated American systems. They would not, I suspect, argue that America’s health care crisis is really a poverty crisis. As with education, we Americans spend more than most places in the world on health care—and get consistently mediocre results. But most people seem to accept that our health-care crisis is more complicated than that: poverty is a part of our problem, but it isn’t the only one.

This matters because many Americans blame the poor themselves for being poor. So while some people point to poverty as the bane of our education system because they genuinely want policy makers to work harder to reduce poverty, other people welcome this same narrative to ignore or give up on hard problems. They figure their children’s schools are just fine, and the problems for other people’s children are either unsolvable — or deserved.

The truth is complicated, maddeningly so. But we will never disrupt this cycle of blame and backlash until we can look — clear-eyed — at the evidence and have an adult conversation about our strengths and weaknesses. The truth is, American schools have remarkable potential: over 80 percent of our teenagers say their teachers are interested in their well-being, compared to only 59 percent in Japan. Our kids do relatively well in reading, particularly in the elementary years. We also have more cash to spend on education than most other countries (even if it doesn’t feel like it). And despite all of our problems with income inequality, 15 percent of the variation in our PISA scores is explained by socio-economic background — compared to 20 percent in France.

Let’s agree that things could be much worse — and they could be better. And then let’s get to work.

Amanda Ripley is a journalist and the author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way and an Emerson Senior Fellow in Washington, D.C.

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