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A poor argument

Adam Newman | Monday, November 19, 2012

Poverty is one explanation commonly used – most notably by NYU historian Diane Ravitch, who spoke at Notre Dame Law School last year – for the plight of American education. Ravitch is a “traditionalist,” someone who believes that focusing on socioeconomic factors such as poverty through anti-poverty programs are the best ways to improve student outcomes.

On the other side of the debate are “reformers.” Reformers believe that the best way to improve student outcomes is to provide students with effective teachers and schools, regardless of their background. They choose not to focus on factors such as poverty because they cannot control or measure them.

Reformers back up their argument with mounting evidence of the importance of good teachers. Research conducted by Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, suggests that if every low-income student had a quality teacher in the top 15 percent four years in a row, the achievement gap between low-income students and their peers would be virtually eliminated. A recent study by Harvard and Columbia economists followed one million children in an urban school system from fourth grade to adulthood. It found students assigned to highly effective teachers were more likely to attend college, attend higher ranked colleges, earn higher salaries, live in better neighborhoods and save more for retirement.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, often note the performance difference between affluent students and non-affluent students to show poverty is the most important factor in a child’s education. But comparisons of America’s affluent students to the average student in other countries suggest disturbing conclusions. A study conducted by Hanushek, Paul Peterson of Harvard and Ludger Woessman of the University of Munich compared American students who have at least one college-educated parent to average students in other developed (OECD) countries. Using data from the highly respected Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), only 44 percent of American students with at least one college-educated parent were proficient in math, placing us 17th amongst average students in developed countries.

Another study conducted by Arkansas education professor Jay Greene examined how average students in affluent American cities compared to average students in other OECD countries. The results were shocking: Even average students from wealthy areas do not compete well against average students from other industrialized countries. Most notably, an average student from Beverly Hills, Calif., was in the 53rd percentile; from Palo Alto, Calif., the 56th percentile; from Naperville, Ill., the 67th percentile; and from Gross Point, Mich., the 56th percentile. These results weaken the traditionalists’ “poverty” argument, because poor American students are not only the only ones not doing well relative to international competitors – affluent students are not performing well either. This suggests that American education is failing all students, not just poor ones.

As traditionalists blame poverty for the poor performance of American education, many schools with high levels of poor students produce jaw-dropping results. My favorite story is Harlem Success Academy in New York. During the 2009-10 school year, 94 percent of the school was proficient in math and 86 percent was proficient in reading. Its local competitor, PS 149, spent more per student, had smaller class sizes and, most importantly, had the same percentage of students on free and reduced price lunch (70 percent) – but only 34 percent of the students was proficient in math and 29 percent in reading. Harlem Success uses a lottery for admission, meaning that it does not “cherry-pick” smart students. Harlem Success Academy is just one of many schools where the leadership does not accept poverty as a barrier to producing remarkable outcomes.

Poverty may limit opportunity, but it has been used by the education establishment to lower the expectations of what schools and teachers can achieve while preventing accountability and reform for far too long. This has created an ineffective American education system that has failed both poor and affluent students. Even as this injustice exists, traditionalists like Diane Ratvich will continue to use any other excuse. This may have worked before. But as Americans see competitiveness decline, joblessness and wages stagnate and the American Dream begin to fade, traditionalists will fall into obscurity because of the simple truth that one does not need a Ph.D to understand there is no better anti-poverty tool than a high quality education.

Adam Newman is a senior political science major. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.