How Do We REALLY Elevate Student Performance and Success? (Fix the Community First! - The Socioeconomic Factor)


News Flash:

"RI test scores continue to lag"(Projo)
"In a Global Test of Math Skills, U.S. Students Behind the Curve" (Washington Post)
"Math + test = trouble for US economy" (CSMonitor)

      I assume these types of headlines are familiar. If Rhode Islanders were to rely solely on the Providence Journal and other mainstream sources for their news about our students' international and national performance, it is easy to assume that our citizens would have a dire outlook about our future. In fact, given these common headlines, it is no wonder that many public leaders are proposing various reform proposals for our education system. Unfortunately, much of the basis for these reforms is unfounded and truly misses the main problem.
    This report outlines some of David Berliner's paper, Our Impoverished View of Education Reform. While Berliner's report focuses on our national predicament, this paper attempts to also include a closer look at Rhode Island education, as well. Until our nation truly eradicates poverty and its debilitating effects on our schools, no reform program such as No Child Left Behind will be successful. We need to fix the community first. Until this is done, school reform will consistently be muted in effect.

The Real Problem:

    "Noninstructional factors explain most of the variance among test scores when schools or districts are compared. A study of math results on the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that the combination of four such variables (number of parents living at home, parents' educational background, type of community, and poverty rate) accounted for a whopping 89 percent of the differences in state scores" (Alfie Kohn - What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated? pg. 54) Jean Anyon wrote in her book, Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban School Reform, "[a]ttempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door."

    The real problem is that our nation has not done enough to fight poverty and income inequality in this country, especially among children. A child is going to worry about hunger more than he is going to worry about homework. A child is going to be depressed and unreceptive to teachers when the effects of poverty become a factor. Until our nation fixes the socioeconomic problems many of our children face in our country, education reform measures will continue to fail in the long run.

Report: Our Impoverished View of Education Reform

    David Berliner, of Arizona State University, recently published a report called "Our Impoverished View of Education Reform". In this report he argues that our nation has been looking in the wrong places to find a way to truly improve our education system so that all students perform to their potential. Berliner uses the following analogy that does a nice job of putting things into perspective:

    "[B]iologist Richard Lewontin (1982), who discussed how two genetically identical seeds of corn, planted in very different plots of earth would grow to very different heights. In the plot with good soil, sufficient water, and sunshine, genetics accounts for almost all of the noticeable variation in the plants, while environment is much less of a factor in the variation that we see. On the other hand, when the soil, water and sun, are not appropriate, genetics do not account for much of the noticeable variation among the lower-growing and often sickly plants that are our harvest. Genes do not have a chance to express themselves under poor environmental conditions."

    David Berliner then goes on to cite Eric Turkheimer's (National Collaborative Perinatal Project) study of almost 50,000 women and their children followed from pregnancy (See chart below).  Berliner summarizes the results by saying, "[t]hat is, among the lowest social classes, where the mean IQ is quite a bit lower than that of those in the higher social classes, only 10 percent of the variation we see in measured IQ is due to genetic influences. Thus, the environment accounts for almost all the variation in intelligence that we see." IN MORE SIMPLE TERMS: Children who grow up in poor environments are at a huge disadvantage to affluent students. Like the corn grown in poor soil, children raised in impoverished neighborhoods are much less likely to succeed academically. So, if we fix the environment these poor children are raised educationally, it is likely that ALL of our children will perform better. Which, of course, would mean that our nation needs to take a serious look at poverty and devise policy in eradicating it.


Test Scores: Affluent Students v. Poor Students

    It's not hard to imagine the difference or disparity between a child who grows up in a rich family in an affluent neighborhood versus a child who grows up in a poor family in an impoverished neighborhood. For example, if an affluent student has difficulty in his math class, a tutor can be hired and extra textbooks and computer software can be purchased. In addition, his parents are more likely to have a college degree and understand the concepts in order to help him. On the other hand, a poor child is likely to have to rely solely on what his school has to offer. His parent(s) are less likely to have a college education. He is more likely to come from a single parent home where his mom or dad has to work an extra job to pay the bills. (Source)* Tutoring, unless offered for free and with transportation, is unlikely. In addition, malnourishment is also more than likely a factor, which can lead to neurological implications among other deficiencies detrimental to positive school performance. (Source)
    As far as the differences in neighborhoods go, the affluent child is likely to attend a school for which the most talented or sought after teachers choose to apply. The neighborhood school is likely to offer many different extracurricular activities and have an active parent organization. Most of the affluent child's fellow students are destined for college as is expected within the community. Crime is likely to be low and the streets safe. On the other hand, the poor student is likely to attend a dilapidated school where only a few students go on to college and see it all the way through. Extracurricular activity money more than likely has gone to pay for things such as metal detectors and crime is more than likely a common problem. When the community's future expectation for a job is Wal*Mart versus a lucrative white collar job, it is not surprising the drop out rate is so much higher in the impoverished neighborhood. More importantly, it is not hard to imagine how performance on a state test is really not a priority.
*2004 RI Kids Count ó Rhode Islandís share of single parent households grew by a quarter in the last decade and has now reached 29%.

    EXAMPLE (Poor Students v. Rich Students): Schools that have a high percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch (in other words, poor) performed much lower than affluent schools on the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Notice the discrepancy! Imagine if we eradicated poverty in our country!

Other Examples: Given that there is a correlation between race/ethnicity and poverty, it is relevant to look at the difference between white students' scores and those of African American and Latino (Hispanic) in the U.S. (Source: U.S. Census Report) In other words, schools with a higher amount of African American or Latino students are statistically more likely to reside in impoverished neighborhoods. Consider that 24.7% of Blacks are poor, 21.9% of Hispanics are poor, yet only 8.6% of whites are poor in this country. (Source)
    The scores below indicate a wide disparity between white students and students of color. *When our news media in this country compare our scores to other countries, they compare the average scores. If our nation combated poverty effectively, it is not hard to imagine that African American and Latino scores would be where white students stand. Therefore, U.S. scores would be more competitive internationally.

    These are the 2000 results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is part of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

            2000 PISA Mathematics Scores                                                           

2000 PISA Literacy Scores

 2000 PISA Science Scores

A Rhode Island Example: If you compare affluent communities like Barrington, East Greenwich, and Block Island to the towns/cities that contain a greater population of people living in poverty, such as Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket, it is easy to notice the disparity in school performance. This trend is common in all states across our country.

Should We Reform Our Schools or Our Communities as a Whole? - The Time Factor

    School-age children "only spend about 30 hours of their waking hours a week in our schools, and then only for about 2/3rds of the weeks in a year." (Source) If there are 8,760 hours in a year, and about 1200 of them are spent in school (see chart below), and 3,650 hours are spent sleeping (Recommended), then there are about 3,900 hours left over for family and playtime. In addition, "The average high school student spends 10 to 15 hours per week on extracurricular activities, mainly sports, but also on band, orchestra, drama and other clubs." (Source) Of course, the problem here is that impoverished children are unlikely to have the money to attend piano lessons, karate, dance, and other expensive activities that broaden a child's learning experiences and character. These socioeconomically disadvantaged students are relegated to spend their time in their poor neighborhoods, many times, unsupervised.  In other words, poor children do not have the opportunities that more affluent students enjoy, so these poor children spend an abundant amount of time in unsupportive environments.
    Should we then increase school hours? Time spent with family and playing is essential for the development of healthy children. A nurturing, loving, and supportive environment is critical psychologically and provides a foundation for a child to grow to adulthood. To only propose extending school-time to include more advisory-like roles is to institutionalize our nation's children. Isn't it more important to give families the chance and time to raise their own children rather than working incessantly and relying on a school for that critical role? Most importantly, shouldn't the wealthiest country in the world be able to eradicate poverty within its own borders?

Why Do We Need To Fix The Community? - How the United States Stacks Up Compared to the World in Fighting Poverty?

    David Berliner's report, Our Impoverished View of Education Reform, details how horribly our nation stacks up against other industrial nations in fighting poverty. Think of it: "The US has the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world, with a per capita GDP of $40,100" according to the 2004 CIA World Factbook. But, out of our 296+ million citizens, at least 37 million (12.7%) of them live in poverty. Moreover, 17.8% of children under the age of 18 live in poverty. And, for the record, in order to be considered poor, a single person needs to make less than $9,570 per year. Who can live on that?
    The United States economy ranks 2nd to Finland by the World Economic Forum (Source), but ranks second to last above Mexico when considering child poverty. (See Unicef chart below) Mexico only has a GDP Per Capita of $9,600 (a 30,530 dollar difference from ours in this country!). This is shameful!

The Poor In The U.S. Are Becoming Poorer

    If you look at the chart below, you see that more of our country's poor are living at half of the poverty level. It is one thing to establish a poverty level or figure that determines whether or not a person is impoverished, but it is another if more and more of those citizens are living far below that level. We only hear that a certain amount of our nation's citizens are at or below the poverty level. When the data is scrutinized, it paints a bleak picture for our nation. For example, the poverty level for a family of four is $19,350. If a family of four is living at half of this level, they must subside on $9,675 a year. The graph below demonstrates that over 40% of our nation's citizens are living in these conditions.
    *While some people might argue that this is much better than the $2 a day that half of our world's population live on, we also need to consider our cost of living and the fact that we have the richest economy in the world!

The U.S. Also Keeps People In Poverty Longer Than Other Nations.

    Ideally, governments design policy and create programs that work to help people get out of poverty. For example, our "Welfare to Work" programs are designed specifically to get people off welfare and into the workforce, leaving poverty and becoming economically successful. Obviously, our actions are not that effective given that compared to the other industrialized nations of this world, we rank first in keeping people poor. [see chart below]
    The prevailing ideology in this country is that we are a nation where a citizen is likely to go from rags to riches with hard work and perseverance. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Economic Policy Institute studied U.S. Census data on income figures and found that "during the 1970s and 1980s, over 60% of families who were in the lowest fifth in 1969 were still in the same income level a decade and two decades later. (Source) Our income inequality in this country exacerbates the problem. In other words, the income quintile charts below show how in recent decades the rich have gotten much richer than when the progressive taxation system of post-WWII was in place. So, granted, a few of our population become millionaires and stay millionaires, but the majority of our country falls further and further behind.
The New York Times recently published a series called "Class Matters", which documents income inequality and mobility in our country. [NYTimes Interactive Graphic showing Income Mobility]

The chart below demonstrates that the United States ranks as having one of the worst records among other industrialized nations in keeping its citizens poor. It is one thing to lose a job and suffer poverty for a year until another decent job is found, but it is entirely another thing to be permanently poor. Notice how the United States has the highest percentage of permanently poor citizens.


How Does Our State Fit Into This Picture? - Impoverished Students in Rhode Island

    Frequently, the news agencies in our state report that Rhode Island schools don't stack up against our neighbors, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The argument generally assumes that since we all share similar regional geography, we should also share the same performance levels. The problem with this line of thinking is that it ignores the more important demographic differences. For example, out of all of the New England states, Rhode Island has the highest level of poor citizens. [see Persons in Poverty 2004 chart below] Also, "childhood poverty in Rhode Island is significantly higher than in all other New England States." (State of Working Rhode Island) According to the One Rhode Island Coalition, "Rhode Island has the fastest growing child poverty rate in all six New England states. More than one in three [see Poverty Rates in New England States chart below] of Rhode Island's children lives in a low-income family with income below 200% of the federal poverty threshold (less than $36,000.)" (Source)

    More troubling for Rhode Islanders is the fact that "[o]f the top 20 occupations with the fastest expected growth from 2002-2012, sixteen require only short-term or moderate-term on the job training." Basically, this means that most future citizens in our state can expect to work in low-wage service sector jobs with minimal benefits, therefore increasing our poverty numbers and children without health insurance [see chart "Children Without Health Insurance, Rhode Island 1995-2003 below]. (Source: State of Working Rhode Island) If one looks at the earnings for workers by education level in Rhode Island, it is disturbing to think that many future jobs are only going to require minimal educations. Currently in RI, 44.7% of our residents have earned a high school diploma or less, which places these workers at median income levels of $18,400 or less per year. (see Earnings and Employment by Educational Attainment, 2003-2004 chart below) Remember, the federal poverty level for a family of four is $19,570 per year.


    Consistently, the issue of poverty and disparity in this country has been ignored by most of our media. The myth that our nation has streets paved with gold and all citizens are likely to go from rags to riches, like that of a Horatio Alger's novel, is unfounded. The United States is supposed to be a beacon of hope and a place where dreams come true to the rest of the world. Our immigration numbers are a testament to that dream. Yet, if you look at the statistics over time, this myth is dispelled, and amazingly, our media and our politicians have not adequately addressed this problem.
    David Berliner argues in his report, Our Impoverished View of Education Reform, that our myth of rugged individualism has fueled the school reform locomotive. He writes about "our almost absurd belief that schooling is the cure for whatever ails society." (pg. 7) We as a nation have difficulty accepting the fact that poverty can't be fixed by our schools. Berliner goes on in disbelief writing, "[a]nd yet when we now have research establishing analogous connections between poverty and educational attainment we ignore them. Instead we look for other causal mechanisms, like low expectations of teachers, or the quality of teachers' subject matter knowledge, to explain the relationship." Editors of the Providence Journal balk at the levels of money we have allocated to our inner city schools, yet our Rhode Island city districts have not improved as expected. So, instead of admitting that schools alone might not be enough, and that poverty and our socioeconomic issues are truly the culprit, these editors insist it must be the teachers. More specifically, they argue that it must be our teacher unions. (For more background on the cause of this line of reasoning, click here)

Author: Ted Mitchell    Editor: Cynthia Ballard