Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Poverty is key factor to improve US education

The popular 2010 education documentary Waiting for Superman suggests that teachers can perform miracles (as seen in movies such as Freedom Writer and Dangerous minds). Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee said, "... even in the toughest of neighborhoods and circumstances, children excel when the right adults are doing the right things for them."

On the other hand, there is evidence that the key factor influencing US education is not teachers (or teacher unions) but students' socio-economic status (a.k.a. poverty). Michael Marder is a professor at the University of Texas and co-director of the university's UTeach program. In 2009, Marder published an article which suggested that "educational outcomes for students from wealthy and poor families are very different in Texas (get article here 

More recently, Reeve Hamilton conducted an interview with Michael Marder in the Texas Tribune article titled "Is Poverty the Key Factor in Student Outcomes? (Get article here Quote Marder (2011) (Get article here "For the short term, preparing teachers in mathematics and science is a wise and useful step toward improving schools. . . . . .[But]. . . As quickly as possible, we must understand the link between poverty and educational outcomes in the US, devise solutions, and test and implement them. Britain briefly tried to substitute public relations for aircraft safety and paid with the loss of its commercial aviation sector. I hope the United States can avoid a similar error, that proponents of teacher quality and charter schools will recognize the weakness of the evidence before it is too late, that we will not damage public education, let down our most vulnerable students, and lose technical leadership we take for granted."

Joe Nocera, a columnist for the New York Times, discusses the influence of poverty on education in his article "The Limits of School Reform".

If poverty is key to educational success, why are education reforms focusing on all other kinds of issues (for example charter schools, teacher unions, student-performance-based teacher salaries, standardized testing, etc.)? I see two reasons: First, poverty might be a key factor to education, but improving the US education system needs a multi-level approach that improves students' socio-economic situation and includes teachers, principals, teacher unions, and policy makers. Second, improving poverty is a problem beyond the range of education reforms on a limited budget. Poverty is a fundamental problem of the US society. Nearly 20 million US children now receive free or reduced-price lunches in the nation's schools, an all-time high, federal data show (Read more here) (In the US, free or reduced-price lunches are used as an index for low socio-economic status of students' families). A large body of research shows that an individual student who is eligible for free or reduced price lunch is at risk for academic failure (Read more here).

Unfortunately, poverty is such a large, complex, and loaded problem that few US politicians dare to address it (as it is strongly related to minority issues and because politicians want to run projects that produce results within their term). Hopefully, the US government, parents, teacher unions, the education research community, and non-profit organizations will increase their existing efforts to improve the situation of students and their families who live in poverty.

1 comment:

  1. Beat Schwendimann,

    Very nice entry. My own Marder advertisement is on my blog "Hake'sEdStuff" at .

    Richard Hake