Changing the Subject in Considering Poverty and Education

In the ongoing arguments between those who argue that the high rates of childhood poverty in the U.S. explains much of the disparity in comparisons of international achievement test scores (particularly when so many other developed nations have much lower rates of childhood poverty)and those who believe that we simply have worse schools and teachers comes this round:

Researchers from Harvard recently released the “Not Just the Problems of Other People’s  Children” study in which they claim to present data showing that all children, not just those from low-income and “minority” households, lag behind students in other countries.

Yet as David Berliner points out in his detailed response, the Harvard researchers use parental education, not income in their data.  And as Berliner points out, many parents with college degrees are now working relatively low wage jobs and living in neighborhoods with lower-resourced schools.  Changing the analysis from income to education level is simply changing the subject.

I give the “win” on this round to Berliner.

Thirteen Economic Facts About Social Mobility and The Role of Education

The Hamilton Project has released this short, readable, but data-packed report  on growing income  and wealth inequalities and growing achievement gaps between low and high income children.

They cannot provide data that more high-wage jobs would be created to employ the newly educated should we find the political will to close those educational gaps, but reports like this are a good way to broaden understanding of how growing inequalities are ending the American Dream of opportunity for all through success in school.

Lies Corporate Reformers Tell Us

I get emails from former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.  The Foundation is one of many conservative organizations supporting charter schools, “personalized” on-line learning, and now, the Common Core Standards.  I’ve copied today’s email here:

Education in the United States is number one in one area: Spending.
A recent report confirms that education spending across the United States averages $15,171 per student each year. This is 50% higher than the average Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country spends per student. Even when accounting for regional differences in costs, the United States still spends 15% more than the average country based on GDP.
For that hefty sum, we should expect to have equally high educational outcomes. But sadly, the United States has a mediocre high school graduation rate, with 1 in 4 entering high school freshman failing to ever cross the stage with a diploma.
An even gloomier picture emerges when you look at what students are learning—or aren’t learning. Looking at the same group of countries, the United States drops from its 1stplace ranking for spending all the way down to 14th for reading comprehension. And formathematics attainment, the drop is even more dramatic, down to 25th.
Higher academic standards are needed to bring us back to first place in the world. As taxpayers, all of us should be concerned with how our money is being spent. And as Americans, we should be concerned about the future of our country. We should no longer accept the mediocre standards being used in classrooms across our states. Instead, it’s time to expect more of our students, and ensure our money is being spent wisely.
The majority of our states have decided that education should be taken seriously and have made the effort to raise their academic standards. These higher standards are necessary to compete in the world and to maintain our country’s prosperity.
To read the full OECD report on education spending, visit:

Join the Movement for Higher Standards

Please forward this email to your friends who might be wondering what the truth is about the Common Core State Standards initiative. Encourage them to sign up for our email updates. In coming days and weeks we will be sharing more facts and information about the movement to raise academic standards.

The double drumbeat of claiming that US schools both spend too much while producing too little is getting old.

That $15, 171 that he claims the US spends per pupil?

That includes all spending from from primary school through “tertiary” — or education after high school, including research and development spending in universities. Those figures are right there on the link to the OECD report, but the writers of this email either doesn’t understand this data , or are instead counting on their supporters to not understand it and are outright lying.

Spending on higher education has *nothing* to do with what’s being learned in K-12 schools or the need for new Common Core standards.

Emails like this instead have everything to do with work to discredit public education at every turn so that charters, e-learning providers, test makers, and other for-profit entities can come sweeping in to save poor children.

US budgets for education include substantial funding for health care for school employees.  It includes funding for ELL learners and special ed students.  It includes an enormous amount of money for testing. It includes transportation costs in huge school districts.

But including spending for higher ed in an argument for higher K-12 Standards, all on in the name of advocacy for  the poor children  lagging behind in all of these assessments?

If they have to lie to make their case, how strong a case can it be?

John Dewey and Lead

Alice Mercer has written a wise post summarizing her response to the recent multi-turn dialogue  about reform (and particularly the effects of standards- based reforms on poor children)  between teacher Anthony Cody and representatives of the Gates Foundation.  “Saying that you believe in John Dewey”, she writes, “does not stop the effects of endemic exposure to lead in Oakland …”

At the end of this dialogue, Irvin Scott of Gates fell back on the tired assertion that teachers who push back against Gates’ vision of school are racist and classist:

Simply, I believe all children can learn. I believe low-income children of color can learn when they have great teachers who believe in them, and treat them with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that they would treat their own children.  …   I want to believe that Mr. Cody believes this same truth about students, yet in each post he carefully marshals an assortment of facts and statistics which seems to suggest that he believes that children living in poverty cannot learn and that until the status quo changes we should lower our expectations for poor children.

Mercer succinctly summarizes what Scott really is saying when he says “all children can learn”:

When “reformers” say they believe all kids can learn, what they are saying is, “I believe all kids can learn a set of standards based solely on their chronological age, within a finite time-frame, by using a common version of curriculum and instructional methods, as measured by a single standardized test.”

The whole compelling dialogue between Cody (and scores of teachers who commented on the posts) and the Gates people is compiled  here.

What strikes me reading the dialogue, and Mercer’s succinct response to the cliched “teachers just don’t believe that children can learn” is that actual children are almost invisible.

It’s too common now for “reformers” to do this quick pivot from an intellectual argument to a moral one and to then smugly claim the high ground.

Too few teachers are taking the same pivot.

What if we made the argument moral?  What if scores of teachers told detailed and compelling stories of the harm being done to children in the dailiness of our classrooms — and the learning that is happening in spite of the “reforms”.   What if we were telling stories of the hundreds of times in a given day that teachers buffer children – through their own emotional labor, their own resourcefulness, their own skill at working the gaps in the scripted curriculum.

What if teachers told the many many stories that they have to tell about the enormous energies they’re now putting into the work of protecting children from the “reforms” of people who proclaim –from the vast distance of their wealthy foundations — they they are protecting poor kids from the teachers standing there in front of them.

Mercer is right: The teacher push back is about pedagogical scripts written by people in corner offices.

What if we told the stories of the ways we’re protecting kids from those scripts?  Where are the photos, the videos, the compelling *moral* narratives of the day-to-day harm being done to children, not only in their lead tainted homes but in their classrooms?

Shall we start telling our stories of teaching?

Parsing the Achievement Gap

Teachers Leaving By the End of the Year

My students commonly  insist that family support and family values are major determinants of success in school.  I can’t really argue with that.  We might hope that all kids go home to families who encourage them to  learn and to dream big.

Yet I ask them what would happen if, somehow, we did attain this. If all parents checked homework every day and left college brochures on their children’s  pillows, would children then experience equal outcomes in school?  A new report released by ETS, Parsing the Achievement GapII (pdf attached below) documents that relative to middle-class children and white children, low-income and minority children:

  • are less likely to be taught by certified teachers
  • are more likely to attend schools with high teacher absenteeism and teacher turn-over
  • learn in bigger classes
  • report issues of fear and safety in school
  • be taught by inexperienced teachers

Data is also reported on low birth rates, access to the internet, exposure to mercury and lead, and hunger.  Low-income and minority kids are at the losing end on all counts.

If learning is highly correlated with values, it would seem that we might do well to  value these children enough to invest in equitable childhoods.  Perhaps we could divert at least some of the energy that we collectively invest in fretting over undone homework worksheets to these bigger questions of basic  health and basic educational quality.

Next year, my students will be reading his report.

Parsing the Achievement Gap (pdf)

Failing Families, Failing Schools

Two studies on education and poverty are getting press this week.

In the first, the Educational Testing Service reports that a state’s performance on federal 8th grade reading tests can be accurately predicted by only four factors, none of which can be controlled by schools: The percentage of children living in single parent homes; the percentage of eighth graders who miss at least three days of school a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger read to by their parents every day; and the percentage of eighth graders reporting that they watch at least five hours of TV a day.

Reporting on the study, Michael Winerup of the NYT advises caution. The child watching hours of TV, for example, may have parents who have too little time at home because they are working two jobs. The study notes significant gaps in the quality of day care available to poor and privileged children. In other developed countries, the NYT article reminds us, mothers have paid leave after their babies are born.

It’s curious, then, that the title of study (The Family: America’s Smallest School”) and the NYT article’s headline, (“In Gaps in School, Weighing Family Life”), make no mention of these policy factors, as if this were all simply a matter of parenting style.

Meanwhile, the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment reports that students’ socio-economic background affects achievement more profoundly in the United States than in other high- achieving countries. Education Week ‘s (you may need to register ) Sean Cavanagh reports:

The exam’s results are not surprising, given research showing that the U.S. system tends to provide underprivileged students with less demanding curricula, poorer-quality teachers, and fewer educational resources than their peers in wealthier U.S. communities, said Ross Wiener, the vice president of program and policy for the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group in Washington.

“We give students less of everything that makes a difference in school,” Mr.Wiener said. If the public is inclined to believe “we’re doing as well as we can for these students,” he added, the international data “demonstrates we’re simply not.”

Both studies challenge NCLB’s assertions that we can close achievement gaps primarily within classrooms decontextualized from their communities.

Both negate NCLB’s promise that the best that we can offer children left behind by regressive social policies are underpaid teachers, toiling away in poorly-funded schools.