Willingham: About poverty and school success
By Daniel Willingham
If you follow education you have doubtless heard someone express the following sentiment: We can’t educate every child until something is done about poverty.
Two things about this idea bother me. First, it is insulting at the individual level, carrying the implicit message, "If you are poor, we cannot expect that you will achieve what the wealthy will."
Second, it is defeatist in the aggregate. "Solve poverty, then we’ll talk about teaching poor kids," is too close to a cop-out.
If you hold this attitude, I’ll admit that you’re in good company. An article in the venerable magazine The Economist, made this point in double-talk. The article included this graph. The Gini coefficient is a measure of wealth disparity--large values mean large gaps between the rich and poor.
The graph was featured to make the point that Britain has a large disparity of wealth, and that disparity is enduring---sons tend to have incomes similar to their fathers’ incomes. (Note that the same is true in the United States.)
But the article was about education and so the graph invites this conclusion: Income inequality drives educational inequality which drives the perpetuation of income inequality.
Readers could hardly be blamed if they drew that conclusion, but it’s not supported by the data.
If it were true then we would see the same relationship between income disparity and education outcomes that we see in the graph above. Where there are large disparities of income, poor kids don’t learn, dragging down the mean for the whole country. Where there are smaller disparities of income, everyone learns.
I examined the correlation between the Gini index and five tests taken by kids around the world: math and science for the PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment, taken by 15 year olds), eighth grade TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Study), and fourth grade PIRLS (Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study) scores in reading. Test scores were the most recent administration available. I used the United Nations Gini index--I’m not sure which one the Economist article used.
None of the correlations was statistically significant, nor was any pattern evident; two of the correlations indicated that higher inequality was associated with lower mean scores, but three of the correlations indicated the reverse.
In fact, some of the countries with the largest Gini coefficients (Hong Kong and Singapore) have some of the highest average test scores. So it’s not the case that "large income disparities mean that overall learning will be low."
Income disparities affect test scores in every country. The rich always have an advantage over the poor. The reasons for this are doubtless many, and vary from country to country. But some countries do a better job than others in leveling the educational playing field.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which administers the PISA, collects data from each student to get an estimate of their socio-economic status and then report on the relationship between this measure and student test scores within each country.
For the 2006 administration of the PISA, they reported these data for the science test. Nowhere do poor kids outscore rich kids, but in some countries the impact of income on educational outcomes is much greater than in others.
Despite the implication from The Economist, the United Kingdom was actually not terrible in this respect, at least on this test. Of the 29 industrialized countries for which data were available, the UK was in the middle of the pack--it had the 14th highest relationship between socio-economic status and scores. The United States had the fifth highest relationship (behind Luxembourg, France, Belgium, and Germany).
In 2003 the data from the math test were analyzed in this way. Of 25 countries, the United States was the fourth worst, behind Belgium, Germany, and France. No data were reported for the UK that year.
Some countries have successfully minimized the disparity in educational outcomes between rich and poor. According to the PISA, the countries doing the best job include Iceland, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Canada, and Finland.
What I find notable is that this finding runs counter to the narrative Americans like to tell themselves about their own country.
Mobility is supposed to be the cornerstone of our system: If you work hard you can make it, however humble your beginnings. That appears to be more true of other countries than of ours, at least when it comes to educational outcomes.
Here, if you’re poor and you get a good education, it’s despite the educational system, not because of it.
I don’t know how other countries have addressed this problem. It may be curricular. It may lie in how they fund schools. It may be that social services are better distributed so that, despite the large wealth disparity, kids don’t come to school hungry, or with a toothache because they’ve never seen a dentist.
I don’t know how they are doing it, but I think we would be wise to learn how other countries teach poor kids because they do it better than we do. And we can’t wait until poverty is eliminated.
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| May 3, 2010; 10:59 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Equity, Guest Bloggers, Research | Tags: Daniel Willingham, equity, guest bloggers, poverty and academic achievement, poverty and schools, the achievement gap
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