Are Low U.S. Scores on International Tests Caused by High Child Poverty or Bad Schools?

Early in November, the NY Times published what seemed to me an inconclusive and confusing commentary by Eduardo Porter on what is causing children in the United States to score below other developed nations on international tests of academic achievement.  Porter discusses research findings of respected academics—one study by Martin Carnoy and colleagues from the education department at Stanford University and another study by Jane Waldfogel at Columbia University and international colleagues—which demonstrate that the primary cause of lower scores on international tests by American children is significantly greater childhood poverty in the United States.  Porter contrasts the point of view of these researchers with the opinion of Andreas Schleicher who runs the international PISA test.  Schleicher claims that PISA’s research demonstrates that American society does not really tolerate such a relatively high rate of childhood poverty at all and that the problem is located in our public schools.

Seeming unable to reconcile such contradictory views, Porter satisfies himself by calling for school improvement: “Whatever the failings of the rest of society, it still seems clear American schools can do better.”  Of course we must expect schools to do the best they can and there exists a need for school improvement, but I found myself dissatisfied with Porter’s analysis. The international data that I have seen clearly demonstrate that the U.S. has far higher child poverty than the nations that outscore our children on international school achievement tests.

Then there are the decades’ of research confirming that poverty, inequality and growing residential segregation by income all affect school achievement.  Most striking is the relatively recent research of Sean Reardon of Stanford University whose longitudinal data confirm the connection of school achievement gaps (among children in the United States) to growing economic inequality across the United States and to the fact that residential patterns have rapidly been segregating by income across America’s large metropolitan areas. Reardon’s research does not track international comparisons, but it conclusively connects income inequality to school achievement. Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon shows that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In an analysis that speaks directly to the issue of comparative international child poverty, just this month the Russell Sage Foundation published an exploration of the very question that Porter leaves unresolved: Is poverty for American children really so bad compared to poverty in other countries?  In his very readable introduction to Issue 2 of the Russell Sage Foundation’s new Journal of the Social Sciences, Severe Deprivation in America: An Introduction, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond explores the many ways childhood poverty affects the lives of America’s poorest children—their child and adolescent development, their health, their academic potential, and their life prospects. Desmond begins with the story of Crystal, a premature baby born after her mother was stabbed.  Crystal’s father is imprisoned; she is molested as a preschooler, placed, at age five, in foster care where she begins a life with “dozens of group homes and sets of foster parents.” Crystal drops out of school at sixteen, ages out of foster care at eighteen, and after a litany of other problems, becomes a homeless adult.  Desmond continues: “Should we say Crystal is ‘poor’? She certainly is that—but living in mere poverty would be a tremendous blessing for Crystal. Poverty is defined officially as an income cutoff, a threshold.  But there are many depths below the poverty line.  Poverty is qualitatively different from ‘deep poverty’ (half below the poverty line), which in turn is a world apart from ‘extreme poverty’ (living on $2 a day).  There is poverty, and then there is poverty.  Recent debates about poverty measurement have focused largely on its material attributes…. These debates are necessary and productive, but a relatively small income is but one of any obstacles preventing Crystal from living a full, productive, and healthy life.  Like many people from disadvantaged families, she experienced setbacks at a very young age (even before birth) and never fully recovered from them.  Poverty is more than a material condition.”  Surely we need to improve our public schools, but just as surely we need to learn how to identify and address challenges like Crystal’s.  Today, we pretty much talk as though we expect school teachers to be able, on their own, to turn such children’s lives around.

Desmond’s piece is written for scholars of sociology, but his admonishments are just as relevant for politicians and the rest of us who are relatively blind to the deeper challenges even as we blame school teachers: “(T)he very language of ‘poverty’ can be fuzzy and imprecise… Our current terminology groups all families below a certain income threshold into a single category: the poor.  But doing so can flatten crucial differences in how material scarcity and psychological turmoil are experienced.”  Desmond sets out to unpack the meaning of “severe deprivation”—the kind of “economic hardship that is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent.”

“Acute hardship,” writes Desmond is, “life far below the poverty line, characterized by a scarcity of critical resources and material hardship.  No rich democracy matches the United States in the depth and expanse of its poverty.  As of 2015, almost 50 million Americans lived below the federal poverty line… In 2010, 20.5 million people in the United States lived in deep poverty—that is, on incomes below half the federal poverty threshold—up by almost 8 million since 2000.  That same year one in every fifty Americans reported living in a household with an income consisting only of food stamps.”

“Compounded hardship…. speaks to the clustering of different kinds of disadvantage across multiple dimensions (psychological, social, material) and institutions (work, family, prison).” “The essence of poverty is not simply an economic condition but the linked ecology of social maladies and broken institutions.”

“Persistent hardship,” writes Desmond, is “often stubbornly impervious to change. This component of our definition focuses attention on three interrelated matters.  The first involves the lasting effects of early-life trauma, including abuse, hunger, and violence experienced as a child or even as a fetus… The second matter is deprivation experienced over long stretches, even lifetimes… The third element of persistent deprivation deals with generational poverty passed down from parents to children.”

Speaking directly to Andreas Schleicher’s contention, as reported by Eduardo Porter, that American child poverty isn’t really so bad, Desmond declares: “When Americans compare the poverty of their fellow citizens with the desperation that grips the slum dwellers of Lagos or Caracas, or with the swollen-bellied families in the villages of rural India or inland China, they sometimes conclude that American poverty would be considered downright abundance in other parts of the world, that ours is an unfortunate but ultimately lesser hardship. On some key measures, this is undeniably true.  But this line of thinking can cause us to overlook just how desperate the situation is for those Americans living at the very bottom.  Sometimes such comparisons lead to the presumption that nobody in the United States lives ‘that bad.’… This is tragically far from true…. (T)he number of American children who experienced chronic extreme poverty, living on no more than $2 a day for seven months or more, has increased by over 240 percent since 1996.”

I urge you to read carefully Desmond’s report that explores the factors that have contributed to growing poverty across the United States.  One of those stands out: “The severe deprivation perspective calls attention to what might be called ‘policy skimming’: simultaneously increasing aid for working families and withdrawing some forms of support for the very poor.  In 2012 the federal government spent $54 billion on the Earned Income Tax Credit and $17 billion on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)… Spending on welfare programs for the poor has increased substantially, but the beneficiaries of this spending have been the working poor and families just above or just below the federal poverty line.  Three decades ago the poorest families in America received most (56 percent) of the transfers going to families with private incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold; in recent years, those families received less than one-third (32 percent) of the transfers.”

Desmond concludes: “Today the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor carries with it a real cash value.  Some parts of the safety net have been patched with cloth taken from other parts.”  Think about the impact on our society’s children as welfare has been redesigned to reward  primarily the “deserving” parents.


6 thoughts on “Are Low U.S. Scores on International Tests Caused by High Child Poverty or Bad Schools?

  1. Jan, this is a powerful piece of writing on this topic of poverty in America. Thank you for this valuable article. I know I will refer to it often. I’m also wondering if the low test scores on international tests are a signal that we have been impeding professional teachers from doing what they are supposed to be doing for an educational generation of children. When so much of the past decade and a half has been spent forcing teachers to teach their students how to fill in the bubbles in test booklets, and only teaching what got tested, and having public schools replaced by charters, vouchers and virtuals, which weren’t providing the education they crowed they were providing, is it any wonder the test scores are low?

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