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Posted at 10:11 AM ET, 12/ 9/2010

How poverty affected U.S. PISA scores

By Valerie Strauss

Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, wrote the following, which was posted on the Schools Matter blog.

The results of the 2009 administration of the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, were released this week, and showed American 15-year-olds doing generally average in reading, science and math as compared to 65 other countries [including members and non-members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which puts out PISA] and other education systems. There was angst in education circles, with calls for even more of the same kind of reforms that we've been implementing for nearly a decade (which haven't done anything to help U.S. PISA scores). Krashen takes a different look at the numbers.

By Stephen Krashen
“Two countries with similar levels of prosperity can produce very different results,” Ángel Gurría, the O.E.C.D. secretary general, said in a statement on Tuesday. “This shows that an image of a world divided neatly into rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly educated countries is now out of date.” (The New York Times, "Western Nations React to Poor Education Results," Dec. 8).

I have not yet seen an analysis of the impact of poverty on overall PISA scores (I have sent for the full set of data; they tell me it will come in 10 days or so). But data available now tells us that poverty, as usual, had a huge impact on PISA reading test scores for American students. American students in schools with less than 10% of students on free and reduced lunch averaged 551, higher than the overall average of any OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country. Those in schools with 10% to 25% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch averaged 527, which was behind only Korea and Finland.

In contrast, American students in schools with 75% or more of children in poverty averaged 446, second to last among the 34 OECD countries.

This makes sense. Among other things, high poverty means less access to books at school, at home and in the community (e.g Krashen, 2004, The Power of Reading). Less access means less reading, and less reading means lower performance on tests such as the PISA.

The PISA data can be found on page 15 (table 6) of Highlights From
PISA 2009
, available on the Internet.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 9, 2010; 10:11 AM ET
Categories:  Research, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  pisa, pisa results, pisa scores, school reform, standardized tests, stephen krashen  
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"...high poverty means less access to books at school."

Such a case is inexcusable, especially when so many community and school libraries are giving away (or selling for one dollar) books to make way for new books. Book drive in the finer parts of town? Why not? For the younger ones, story time in classrooms or school libraries should happen daily and to do otherwise is akin to educational negligence. Listening ability is ahead of reading ability and it is very easy to slip in a word or two to explain a tough word while reading to kids so that all can more easily follow along. Individual time with students (one-on-one the best) hearing them read is a must. Time consuming, sure - ask for volunteer retired teachers, parents, off-duty officers/EMTs, and college students. Children should have access to their own school libraries and be able to select and check out books - even daily. Classrooms can maintain a small stash of revolving books too. Biographies, especially in areas of science and history are wonderful and can teach character too. All of the standardized tests on the planet are worthless if the powers that be say there isn't time or opportunity (access) for books.

Posted by: shadwell1 | December 9, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

This is a gross oversimplification. You could make a stronger case that the underperforming poor in America, as a group, value education less than the rest of our society. You say they can't afford books, but that's just because books come lower in their priorities than air conditioning, 2 or 3 cars, HD TV, cell phones, etc.

Many immigrants have arrived in this country virtually destitute. Many - especially those from Asian and MidEastern backgrounds - become successful and well-educated within a generation. Why? Because they know the value of hard work and a good education.

Posted by: CrotchetyGeezer | December 9, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

crotchetygeezer wrote: Many immigrants have arrived in this country virtually destitute. Many - especially those from Asian and MidEastern backgrounds - become successful and well-educated within a generation. Why? Because they know the value of hard work and a good education.

I've worked at an inner city school that had a large population of Asian, Middle Eastern, and African immigrants - all as poor as poor can be. Crotchety's statement is spot on - the underperforming poor are poor because they don't value education. Simple as that.

Posted by: peonteacher | December 9, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

She must be referring to "educational poverty." Educational poverty is mostly self-inflicted pain.

We have children AND adults with access to a variety of print that ignore, or are incapable of using the material provided. I'm not convinced we have schools without libraries. If there are then certainly we need to address the shortage, but to pin all the education woes on economic issues fails the test.

We have children and adults with access to libraries all around my city/county. Paid for by tax dollars, free to anyone who will sign for a card. It takes only a signature. Rarely do I find a line at the checkout counter. Every school in my city/county has a school library. Simply by way of being a student there is access to books.

One of the simpler documents and least costly is newsprint. Readership is down across the board. Internet use is free. A relationship between the two? I'm not sure. Many stores sell the paper yet many wind up being thrown away. We provide paper to the schools. Few children take it home with them.

This is educational poverty, or learning poverty, or affix some academic name to it, but it is certainly choice. We can't make it any cheaper for access to a book.

Posted by: educ8er | December 9, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

To add to the points made by geezer and teacher, the "culture" of poverty that is preventing students from using the opportunities in the public schools to get ahead is exacerbated by the media and entertainment industries. The stupid game shows that make it appear money falls off trees or spinning wheels, the false notion that a sports scholarship is a ticket to the big money sport leagues, the popularization of violence and overconsumption, all are detrimental to modeling and informing the successful paths to a better life. I would suggest newer immigrants are more successful in utilizing educational opportunities because they haven't yet fallen under the eroding influence of popular American "culture."

Posted by: speakuplouder | December 9, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Some of the comments that have been posted resist the idea that lack of access to books is a central reason for low test scores in reading for high poverty students.

The evidence is pretty solid. Scholars have examined school libraries, classroom libraries, availability of bookstores, and public libraries and consistently conclude that there is a vast difference between middle class and poor neighborhoods for all of these. I'll be happy to post references.

There are also interesting case histories of those who have succeeded despite poverty, and who give books and reading the credit. In every case, they had a source of books that was generally not available to others in their situation. Two recent cases are Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harvard Children's Zone, and Liz Murray, author of Breaking Night. Again, I will be happy to post details.

Is providing access to books enough? Probably not in all cases. But it certainly is necessary.

Posted by: skrashen | December 9, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Education research should do a better job of distinguishing between rural/suburban poor and inner city urban poor in making broad claims about students and education. In suburban areas like mine where over 50% of students may be in poverty there is the same access to publicly available reading materials yet the achievement gap has remained at over 20% between the achievement of low and high SES students despite intense school district effort to target low performing students.

I would also add that it takes more than access to the printed word and language decoding skills to do well on current reading assessments. Comprehension is critical on these tests and mastery spills over into test results in other subjects like math and science.

The background knowledge needed for high levels of literacy and academic success cannot be acquired without sustained, coordinated exposure in classrooms and/or a great deal of individual motivation and mentoring.

Posted by: speakuplouder | December 9, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Once again, people simply cannot accept that something as simple as a book can make a difference.
Access to books and a properly staffed library is essential to student success. If you look at data from a school with a well-staffed library and an up-to-date book collection you will find that students outperform those in impoverished areas where libraries are ill-stocked and understaffed (if staffed at all).
A good librarian can pique the most reluctant reader's interest-- I'm a firm believer that a kid who hates to read just hasn't found the right book. So often, though, in areas where poverty is a real problem, there aren't certificated librarians in the schools to help create interest.
I work in a school where poverty is a real issue. But, we have seen huge gains in our achievement (as measured by the federally-mandated standardized tests) over the past 10 years. During this time our circulation has soared to more than 5 times the previous levels.
You can draw your own conclusions, but I know that reading and access to books makes a difference. I see it all the time.
My school administration made a commitment to expand our hours so that our students without access to computers and books at home would not be penalized for their economic disadvantages. We open at 7:30 AM and close at 4:30 PM. We could easily open at 6:30 in the morning and get a crowd and it is often difficult to get them to leave at 4:30. We serve more than 100 students each afternoon and nearly that many in the morning before school.

The old slogan, Read to Succeed, continues to be very true although many refuse to believe that something this simple is the answer but it really is that simple.

Posted by: jmillam | December 9, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

I encourage those who write about poverty and school performance, etc. would find a way to integrate maps into their articles. Demographics can be mapped, as can locations of poorly performing schools. We do that at and

Our goal is that those interested in helping kids living in poverty will use the maps to see where they are most needed, and to find places in those neighborhoods where they can help as a volunteer, leader, donor, etc.

Any public official, media reporter, business leader, etc. can include these types of maps in their own leadership, to help mobilize and distribute resources and to show where they have had an impact.

If voters and shoppers give extra attention to leaders using maps to show where they are making a difference, then more leaders will use these and kids in poverty areas will begin to have more of the support they need and that is taken for granted in areas with more economically diverse populations, or with smaller numbers of people living in high poverty areas.

Posted by: tutormentor1 | December 9, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Poverty is a red herring. There are students in poverty all over the world who apply themselves to study and who demonstrate respect and docility before their teachers. Books and labs and new schools are all good, but application is better.

One can be certain that in Shanghai, with a sample distribution so large, any students who early do not take school seriously are not sitting in chairs. China is assessing the diligent.

We have a fiction in our country that all students will achieve. This outcome may correlate with socio-economical characteristics, but these can be disregarded. The variable that should matter--to the child, the family, and the society--is whether there is a serious commitment from the student to study.

Posted by: franzfelix | December 10, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

skrashen wrote: "Some of the comments that have been posted resist the idea that lack of access to books is a central reason for low test scores in reading for high poverty students."

Let me suggest an experiment for Dr. Krashen. Fill a few of these classrooms with books, but don't do anything else; that is, don't try to change the culture of learning in the classrooms. I predict you will find that the culture is much more a factor in poor reading performance than lack of immediate access to reading material.

Posted by: CrotchetyGeezer | December 10, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

I work as a librarian in a suburban school with a 93 % free lunch student demographic. On a daily basis I observe the difference in academic aptitude between avid readers and reluctant readers. No comparison. Our top students are not struggling to pass the cashee(7th grade math and 9th grade english level). Instead they are busy filling out applications,writing personal statement essays to Scrips, Stanford and Yale . Due to an overall obsession with test scores,the current educational policy makers of our country overlook the intrinsic value of literacy. Parents of poor kids know that it is important for their children to read in order to "get smarter". Access to a wide variety of interesting books and resources made available to these students and their parents will stimulate intellectual development, imagination and creativity. Skeptics may decry various cultural and economic factors that contribute to illiteracy in this country. Unfortunately statistics prove that these explanations are the direct result of subjective false and prejudice opinion. Victor Villasenor wrote the autobiography "Burro Genius". He describes the frustration of growing up Latino in an English-only American school in the 40s. His teachers assumed because he was Latino, he was also poor. Despite teachers who beat him because he could not speak English, this highly gifted and imaginative child clung to his dream of becoming a writer. He is now considered one of the great writers of our time. I guess he must have learned to read and write eventually. How narrow is our view of educational success? How easily do we assume the concepts of "poor, uneducated and unmotivated" are directly related?

Posted by: AnnetteScherr | December 10, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

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