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Posted at 10:59 AM ET, 05/ 3/2010

Willingham: About poverty and school success

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a pyschology professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Why Don't Students Like School?"

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.


willingham graph and poverty.jpeg


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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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Comments

Thank you, Dan, for this column. It is quite clear and persuasive--although, to be honest, with me you are preaching to the choir.

Some countries have figured out how to make poverty less of an educational handicap than we it is in this country, and it makes sense to learn from them.

However, we have educators who know how to make poverty less of a handicap in this country as well. The problem in the United States is that such educators tend to be isolated and not in the mainstream of teacher education programs or centrol office districts. It seems to me obvious that we need to find those educators and mine them for the wisdom they have.

Posted by: kchenoweth | May 3, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I can't help but wonder if other countries fund their schools differently. Schools with high rates of poverty seem to do better with more resources--simply because those students need them more. I'm talking about resources such as lower class sizes, more support teachers for smaller group instruction, tutoring, longer school day and possibly a longer school year or a summer program.

Sadly poor communities often cannot afford to fund their schools at the necessary levels to have these resources.

Posted by: musiclady | May 3, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I don't see why the disparity score is so important. Why aren't we looking at median income of the country? We could look at that within the U.S., county by county. Is there a pos. correlation there? Do wealthier counties produce kids with higher scores on these tests? Is it better to be a poor kid in a county where everybody is poor (no disparity) or to be a poor kid in a county where 25% of the people are really rich (high disparity)? It seems like the second situation is better.

Posted by: drl97 | May 3, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

I don't see why the disparity score is so important. Why aren't we looking at median income of the country? We could look at that within the U.S., county by county. Is there a pos. correlation there? Do wealthier counties produce kids with higher scores on these tests? Is it better to be a poor kid in a county where everybody is poor (no disparity) or to be a poor kid in a county where 25% of the people are really rich (high disparity)? It seems like the second situation is better.

Posted by: drl97 | May 3, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

"Some countries have figured out how to make poverty less of an educational handicap than we it is in this country, and it makes sense to learn from them."

Karin(sp) please provide more information /studies on this.

Posted by: edlharris | May 3, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

According to one book, it's not poverty, it's inequality that's the problem.

If you read "The Spirit Level - Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett you'll see similar graphs showing a near perfect correlation between results in various international tests and the levels of inequality in 23 of the 30 richest countries in the world. (They knocked out a few small population countries and others with no relevant statistics out of the 30.)

A good read with statistics most of us can readily understand.

Posted by: amgnificent | May 3, 2010 9:20 PM | Report abuse

" Is it better to be a poor kid in a county where everybody is poor (no disparity) or to be a poor kid in a county where 25% of the people are really rich (high disparity)? It seems like the second situation is better. "

Sorry, meant to include this before. The authors do the same for states of the USA as they do for the international comparisons. And more inequality within a state gives poorer results than an average low income for that state. And it's not just for education.

Posted by: amgnificent | May 3, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

If it is true that some countries do a better job than others in educating high poverty children, yes, we must find out how they do it.
A reasonable hypothesis is that countries with high poverty schools that do better have succeeded in mitigating those aspects of poverty that impact learning: They provide nutrition, a safe and clean environment, and access to a great deal of reading material. Another reasonable hypothesis that these countries do not simply impose more "rigorous" standards and more tests.
[In an analysis of California schools, I found that despite the claims that many high-poverty high-achieving schools exist, I found very very few (Krashen, S. 2002, Don't trust Ed Trust, Substance 27,6). http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/dont_trust/index.html]

Posted by: skrashen | May 4, 2010 3:19 AM | Report abuse

Back in the days of the great immigration during the early 20th century, urban urban schools had large numbers of children who didn't speak English, whose parents didn't speak English, whose parents were illiterate, whose parents were barely managing financially, or who had to leave school or work after school to help keep the family afloat. Did they do a better job of educating these kids? Did we expect less of all students then? Did th school seem better because the "problem students" were able to drop out? One difference was that the schools used a semester system so they could promote a student at mid-year if he caught up with his class. Wha W

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 4, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Willingham,I see a whole lot of lining up at my childrens' school. Much, much more than I remember from my school days. They line up to exit, enter class, walk from one area to another. On and on. I estimate over thirty minutes per day the kids spend in a line. Do upper class children still have the competency to negotiate their selves around their schools unregimented? I just wonder, how does the other half live? Seriously though, Dr., if you know, please tell.
"Mobility is supposed to be the cornerstone of our system: If you work hard you can make it, however humble your beginnings." Maybe even sadder, many people also believe the converse- If you're poor you've never worked hard. The rugged individual myth is alive and well, within the minds of middle class teachers and taught to poor kids in public schools daily. (The myth of Rosa Parks for example.)

Posted by: WorriedParent | May 6, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

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