Archives for category: Poverty

If you think that international test scores are a valuable indicator of educational success (I don’t), you should read this article. When poverty is recognized as an important variable, the scores of U.S. students are among the best in the world.

I don’t consider international test scores to be an accurate meassure of school quality. I am persuaded by Yong Zhao’s work that high test scores may be the result of relentless test prep, which distorts education and discourages creativity.

The report released today–titled “Schools in Context”– by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League tells a different story about international comparisons by looking at a broad range of indicators, not just test scores.


One part of the report is called “The Iceberg Effect,” and it shows what happens when you look only at the tip of the iceberg–test scores. A more complex and more interesting portrait of schools and society emerges when you look at the whole iceberg, not just the part that is easily measured by a standardized test. See the pdf here.


The full report of “Schools in Context” may be located in this pdf file.


The countries included in this contextual study are the United States, China, Canada, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.



The National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League released  a report called “School Reform in Context,” based on data about children, schools, and the social context of schooling in the U.S. and other nations. This study challenges the conventional claim that our education system is falling behind the rest of the world. Seen in context, our school system has performed admirably in creating the world’s most highly educated workforce, but faces ongoing challenges of high levels of child poverty, inequity, and violence in society.



New study finds U.S. has the world’s most educated workforce—but students face unparalleled levels of poverty, inequity and violence


Washington, DC. January 20– A new study released today challenges the practice of ranking nations by educational test scores and questions conventional wisdom that the U.S.educational system has fallen badly behind school systems abroad.


In their report, School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect, the Horace Mann League (HML) and the National Superintendents Roundtable examined six dimensions related to student performance—equity, social stress, support for families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes—in the G-7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) plus Finland and China. They then examined 24 “indicators” within those dimensions.


Of the nine nations, the United States remains the wealthiest with the most highly educated workforce, based on the number of years of school completed, and the proportion of adults with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees.


“Many policymakers and business leaders fret that America has fallen behind Europe and China, but our research does not bear that out,” said James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.


Despite high educational levels, the United States also reflects high levels of economic inequity and social stress compared to the other nations. All are related to student performance. Measures included rates of childhood poverty, income inequality and violence. For example, in American public schools today, the rate of childhood poverty is five times greater than it is in Finland. Rates of violent death are 13 times greater than the average for the other nations, with children in some communities reporting they have witnessed shootings, knifings, and beatings as “ordinary, everyday events.”


The study is a unique analysis, which for the first time compares K-12 education internationally on an array of social and economic indicators, not just test scores. The goal was to look at the whole iceberg, not just the tip—and provide a clearer snapshot of each country’s performance, including its wealth, diversity, community safety, and support for families and schools.



Some key findings:


  •   Economic Equity: The United States and China demonstrate the greatest gaps between rich and poor. The U.S. also contends with remarkably high rates of income inequality and childhood poverty.
  •   Social Stress: The U.S.reported the highest rates of violent death and teen pregnancy, and came in second for death rates from drug abuse. The also one of the most diverse nations with many immigrant students, suggesting English may not be their first language.
  •   Support for Families: The U.S. performed in the lowest third on public spending for services that benefit children and families, including preschool.
  •   Support for Schools: Americans seem willing to invest in education: The U.S. leads the nine-nation group in spending per student, but the national estimates may not be truly comparable. U.S. teachers spend about 40 percent more time in the classroom than their peers in the comparison countries.
  •   Student Outcomes: Performance in American elementary schools is promising, while middle school performance can be improved. U.S. students excel in 4th grade reading and high school graduation rates, but perform less well in reading at age 15. All nations demonstrate an achievement gap based on students’ family income and socio-economic status.
  •   System Outcomes: The U.S. leads these nations in educational levels of its adult workforce. Measures included years of schooling completed and the proportion of adults with high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. American students also make up 25 percent of the world’s top students in science at age 15, followed by Japan at 13 percent.
  • “Too often, we narrow our focus to a few things that can be easily tested. To avoid that scoreboard mentality, we need to look at many measures important to shaping our future citizens. Treating education as a horse race doesn’t work,” said HML President Gary Marx.
  • A call for more nuanced assessments
  • American policymakers from both political parties have a history of relying on large, international assessments to judge United States’ performance in education. In 2013, the press reported that American students were falling behind when compared to 61 other countries and a few cities including Shanghai. In that comparative assessment—called the Program for International Student Assessment—PISA controversially reported superior scores for Shanghai.
  • “We don’t oppose using international assessments as one measure of performance. But as educators and policymakers, we need to compare ourselves with similar nations and on a broader set of indicators that put school performance in context—not just a single number in an international ranking,” said Harvey.
  • “Our study suggests the U.S. has the most educated workforce, yet students confront shockingly high rates of poverty and violence. Research shows that those larger issues, outside the classroom, are serious threats to student learning,” noted HML Executive Director Jack McKay.
  • The report, a summary and a video are available at: and

About the sponsors

The Horace Mann League ( is an association of educators


committed to the


principles of public education. Its members believe the U.S. public school system is an


indispensable agency for strengthening our democracy and a vital, dynamic influence in


American life.


The National Superintendents Roundtable ( is a learning community of school superintendents who learn, discuss and meet regularly with worldwide experts,

 sharing best practices and leading for the future.

National Superintendents Roundtable Contact: Rhenda Meiser
(206) 465-9532


Horace Mann League Contact: Gary Marx, President
(703) 938-8725

Yohuru Williams, professor of history at Fairfield University, has written a brilliant and powerful piece about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the current effort to privatize large sectors of public education, especially in urban districts.


He scoffs at the idea that turning public schools over to private management is “the civil rights issue of our time,” as so many “reformers” say. He cites a number of statements by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that claim the mantle of civil rights for policies that actually exacerbate segregation.


He cites Dr. King at length to show that he would  not have supported the use of standardized testing as a means of “reform.”


Dr. Williams writes:


“We must remember,” King warned, “that intelligence is not enough . . . Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” He asserted, “The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”


King saw the goal of education as more than performance on high-stakes tests or the acquisition of job skills or career competencies. He saw it as the cornerstone of free thought and the use of knowledge in the public interest. For King, the lofty goal of education was not just to make a living but also to make the world a better place by using that production of knowledge for good. “To save man from the morass of propaganda,” King opined, “is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” The notion that privatization can foster equality is fiction.


Dr. King understood the dangers of privatization, writes Dr. Williams:


King saw how school privatization was used to maintain segregation in Georgia. He witnessed the insidious efforts of Eugene Talmadge’s son, Herman, a distinguished lawyer, who succeeded his father in the governor’s office. Herman Talmadge created what became known as the “private-school plan.” In 1953, before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Talmadge proposed an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to empower the general assembly to privatize the state’s public education system. “We can maintain separate schools regardless of the US Supreme Court,” Talmadge advised his colleagues, “by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision.” The plan was simple. If the Supreme Court decided, as it eventually did in Brown, to mandate desegregation, the state would close the schools and issue vouchers to allowing students to enroll in segregated private schools.


What we are seeing in the name of “reform” today is the same plan with slight modifications: brand schools as low-performing factories of failure, encourage privatization, and leave the vast majority of students in underfunded, highly stigmatized public schools.


This effort will create an America that looks more like the 1967 Kerner Commission’s forecast, two societies separate and unequal, than Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community.


Dr. Williams says that the corporate education reform movement is the opposite of what Dr. King sought:


For King, the Beloved Community was a global vision of human cooperation and understanding where all peoples could share in the abundant resources of the planet. He believed that universal standards of human decency could be used to challenge the existence of poverty, famine, and economic displacement in all of its forms. A celebration of achievement and an appreciation of fraternity would blot out racism, discrimination, and distinctions of any kind that sought to divide rather than elevate people—no matter what race, religion, or test score. The Beloved Community promoted international cooperation over competition. The goal of education should be not to measure our progress against the world but to harness our combined intelligence to triumph over the great social, scientific, humanistic, and environmental issues of our time.


While it seeks to claim the mantle of the movement and Dr. King’s legacy, corporate education reform is rooted in fear, fired by competition and driven by division. It seeks to undermine community rather than build it and, for this reason, it is the ultimate betrayal of the goals and values of the movement.


Real triumph over educational inequalities can only come from a deeper investment in our schools and communities and a true commitment to tackling poverty, segregation, and issues affecting students with special needs and bilingual education. The Beloved Community is to be found not in the segregated citadels of private schools but in a well-funded system of public education, free and open to all—affirming our commitment to democracy and justice and our commitment to the dignity and worth of our greatest resource, our youth.





The Southern Education Foundation reports, based on the latest federal data, that the majority of students–51%–in American public schools qualify for free/reduced price lunch, which is the federal definition of poverty. There is a large difference between reduced price lunch and free lunch, in terms of income, as you will see if you look at the federal guidelines. Under these guidelines, a family of four qualifies for free lunch if its annual income is $23,850. A family of four qualifies for reduced price lunch with an annual income of $44,123. It is always useful when comparing the demographics of schools to see what percentage of the students are “free lunch,” which means that family income is very low, as compared to “reduced price lunch.” The Southern Education Foundation counts students who qualify for either  free or reduced price lunch as “low income,” which is appropriate.


In 40 of the 50 states, low income students comprised no less than 40 percent of all public schoolchildren. In 21 states, children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches were a majority of the students in 2013.


Most of the states with a majority of low income students are found in the South and the West. Thirteen of the 21 states with a majority of low income students in 2013 were located in the South, and six of the other 21 states were in the West.


Mississippi led the nation with the highest rate: ­71 percent, almost three out of every four public school children in Mississippi, were low-income. The nation’s second highest rate was found in New Mexico, where 68 percent of all public school students were low income in 2013.


Here is the full report. Here is the description of the report in the Washington Post. Here is the summary in the New York Times.


“Reformers” think that testing and charter schools are the best way to combat poverty. They often say that we must “fix” schools before we address poverty. They say we must create many charters and voucher programs so that students can overcome poverty on their own. Yet the evidence is clear that charters and vouchers do not, on average, outperform public schools, and often are worse in terms of test scores. “Reformers” also say that if students have low test scores, their teachers must be held “accountable,” i.e., fired, based on the assumption that the teacher is the cause of low test scores or low growth scores.


None of the reformer policies make sense. Scores on standardized tests are highly correlated with family income. The best way to improve test scores is to address the root cause of low scores, which is family income–or lack thereof. Children who live in poverty are less likely to have regular or timely medical care, less likely to have educated parents, less likely to live in a stable neighborhood, more likely to miss school because of illness, more likely to be hungry, more likely to be homeless. Taking tests more frequently, taking tests annually, having intense test prep, does not change the conditions of their lives.


Certainly, schools matter, and teachers make a difference in the lives of children. We must do whatever we can to help children of every background succeed in school. Because test scores are lower in schools where most children are low-income, these children are likely to have an intense regimen of test prep and testing and less likely to have the arts, physical education, field trips, projects, and the kinds of school experiences that make kids want to come to school. All children too need the opportunity to play in a band, dance, draw, sing, make videos, participate in exercise and sports, learn a foreign language, and use their imaginations. Yet test prep eats up the time, making it less likely that children of low-income will have these opportunities.


Some low-income children will succeed no matter what the obstacles in their lives, but they are outliers. Sending more low-income students to college is a wonderful goal, but it does not address the persistence of poverty and deepening income inequality as a structural feature of American society. High expectations are important, but they can’t take the place of jobs and social supports for families in need. Sadly, our policymakers are unwilling to tackle the biggest problem in our society today, which is poverty and inequality. Anyone who truly puts “students first” would insist on reducing poverty; anyone who acts “for the kids” would demand action to improve the conditions of their lives. More testing will not reduce poverty;  it is a dodge and an escape from responsibility.





Peter Greene poses a question in this post. If poor children get low test scores, does that mean that all those who teach poor children are bad teachers?


Peter is always funny in the way he presents the “a-ha!” moments in educational research, which are usually either obvious or dumb. Here he looks at a study in Education Next that considered a teacher evaluation program in Chicago. It worked best for the reading scores of advantaged children. It had zero effect on the reading scores of impoverished children. One conclusion might be that poverty matters. But the researchers instead reach a different conclusion.


Peter writes:


“Even though the data points to poverty as the big flashing neon sign of “Hey, here it is!” Steinberg and Sartain walk right past the blinking brightness to select again the teachers and principals as the cause. This is not so much mis-reading data as simply ignoring it. I’m not sure why they bothered with the big long article. They could have just typed, one more time, “Poor students do worse on standardized tests, therefor we conclude that the only possible explanation is that all the bad teachers in the world teach in high-poverty schools.” Also, I’ve noticed that whenever a building is on fire, there are firefighters there with big red trucks, so if you never want your building to burn down, keep firefighters and big red trucks away.

For the past dozen years or so, the New York Times has been a cheerleader for corporate education reform, especially testing. Its editorials have faithfully repeated the talking points of the corporate reformers who slam “failing public schools” because they have low test scores.


But something miraculous happened today: The New York Times has a strong editorial reflecting reality. Let’s be grateful for sound logic, based on fact and evidence.


The editorial gives advice to Governor Cuomo, who has recently adopted the idea of charter schools as his version of reform, while threatening teachers with punitive evaluations based on junk science and threatening their pensions:


If he is serious about the issue [education], he will have to move beyond peripheral concerns and political score-settling with the state teachers’ union, which did not support his re-election, and go to the heart of the matter. And that means confronting and proposing remedies for the racial and economic segregation that has gripped the state’s schools, as well as the inequality in school funding that prevents many poor districts from lifting their children up to state standards.


These shameful inequities were fully brought to light in 2006, when the state’s highest court ruled in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York that the state had not met its constitutional responsibility to ensure adequate school funding and in particular had shortchanged New York City.


A year later, the Legislature and Gov. Eliot Spitzer adopted a new formula that promised more help for poor districts and eventually $7 billion per year in added funding. That promise evaporated in the recession, spawning two lawsuits aimed at forcing the state to honor it.


A lawsuit by a group called New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights estimates that, despite increases in recent years, the state is still about $5.6 billion a year short of its commitment under that formula.


A second lawsuit was filed on behalf of students in several small cities in the state, including Jamestown, Port Jervis, Mount Vernon and Newburgh. It says that per pupil funding in the cities, which have an average 72 percent student poverty rate, is $2,500 to $6,300 less than called for in the 2007 formula, making it impossible to provide the instruction other services needed to meet the State Constitution’s definition of a “sound basic education.”


These communities and others like them are further disadvantaged by having low property values and by a statewide cap enacted in 2011 that limits what money they are able to raise through property taxes. And last year the New York State United Teachers union said that the cap had been particularly harmful to poorer districts.


These inequalities are compounded by the fact that New York State, which regards itself as a bastion of liberalism, has the most racially and economically segregated schools in the nation. A scathing 2014 study of this problem by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, charged that New York had essentially given up on this problem. It said, “The children who most depend on the public schools for any chance in life are concentrated in schools struggling with all the dimensions of family and neighborhood poverty and isolation.”


Any serious effort to improve education must direct more resources to districts that need them and must address the racial segregation in New York’s schools.

Ken Previti draws a connection between Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and President Obama’s education policies.

Dickens raged against the powerful who ignored want and ignorance. Dickens spoke truth to power.

Previti writes:

“One hundred seventy-one years later in the wealthiest nation in the world, President Obama made some startling statements about high stakes test scores (attached to Common Core State Standards) that profit well-connected financial investors who get the money from education taxes…..

“Dickens’ voice in the character of the Spirit of Christmas Present says it all.
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

CommonSenseNY blogger is appalled at how little state officials understand about the defects of the state evaluation system.

He or she writes:

“Chancellor Tisch made an astonishing and appalling statement quoted in this Democrat and Chronicle article about 95% of New York teachers being rated ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’ under Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) process. While it is true the entire process is bogus, she is wrong about the reason. A link to a Carol Burris summary of the problems with APPR can be found here. She is an award-winning principal.

“Here is what is appalling about Ms. Tisch’s understanding of the current evaluation process. She states, “The ratings show there’s much more work to do to strengthen the evaluation system. There’s a real contrast between how our students are performing and how their teachers and principals are evaluated.”

“Chancellor Tisch continues to either misrepresent, misunderstand or demonstrate little knowledge about the connection between student achievement and socio-economic and other education factors. Let’s take a quick look at the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) since it illustrates the point well and creates a similar context.

“If you believe the critics of American public education, our students perform miserably on PISA assessments. We’ll use math as an example. The claim is “we’ are 35th for so in the world in math. Not too good. However, when controlling for poverty – we happen to have a lot of concentrated poverty in comparison to other developed nations – we move up to sixth.

“The problem with student achievement in New York is high concentrations of poverty, particularly in urban areas. Blaming a bogus and poorly implemented (similar to the implementation of the Common Core) evaluation system for student achievement issues is just wrong.”

It seems that the most “effective” teachers work where the affluent kids live. If they cane to work in one of the state’s big cities, they would probably turn into an “ineffective” teacher.

The lawsuit of a veteran fourth grade teacher in Great Neck was postponed while the state tries to figure out how to explain the rating system. She went from effective to ineffective in one year even though nearly 70% of her students passed the new state tests (more than double the state average) in both years. Something is wrong here.

Alan Singer suspects that the reason so many school “reformers” keep promoting dramatic stories about miracle schools is that it relieves society of any responsibility to attack fundamental issues like poverty, segregation, and unemployment.


He writes:


Pathways in Technology Early College High School or P-Tech is a small high school with 330 students in Brooklyn, New York. Its student population is 85% African American and 11% Hispanic. Three-quarters of the students are eligible for free lunch and one-in-six is considered special education. Because of a partnership with IBM and the City University of New York to prepare students for 21st century careers in technology, it has been presented as the academic wave of the future, including in the 2013 State of the Union Address by President Barack Obama, who also visited the school in October 2013.


For proponents of P-Tech, the message is clear. The United States does not need to put more money into public education. We don’t need to rebuild inner city minority communities. We don’t need a full employment jobs programs. We don’t need to tax companies that are masking profits by shifting income overseas. All we need for a bright and rosy future in the United States are private-public partnerships to jumpstart more P-Techs for Black and Latino students.


P-Tech Brooklyn is so highly regarded that New York State Governor Andrew Como has pledged $28 million in state aid over the next seven years to open sixteen new P-Tech programs and another ten programs are planned down the line. There are new P-Techs in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens and Cuomo has promised P-Techs for Geneva, Poughkeepsie, and Yonkers. Meanwhile, IBM is taking the P-Tech model nationwide and hopes to help create 100 new P-Techs by 2016. Five P-techs are already in operation in Chicago and P-Tech’s Brooklyn principal Rashid Davis has become a national spokesperson for the program, traveling to Idaho in 2013 where five P-Techs were being developed.


To their credit, New York State Commissioner John King and Board of Regents’ Chairperson Merryl Tisch have been wary of the hype around P-Tech. Singer reviews test score data and can’t figure out why all the hoopla.


He writes:


Overall, P-Tech ranked 951st out of 1079 high schools in New York State on student math and reading scores. This placed it in the lowest 12% of state schools. My intent is not to denigrate the students of P-Tech or their teachers. It is to challenge the idea that the P-Tech model being promoted by politicians and business leaders is a magical solution to problems plaguing the American economy and inner-city minority schools.


What do all the numbers mean? If you neighborhood P-Tech successfully attracts students who are already performing above the academic norm, they will continue to score above the norm and your P-Tech will be declared a miracle school. But if your local P-Tech becomes home to students who are struggling academically, they will continue to struggle academically and your P-Tech will perform below expectations.


On a deeper level the performance of students at the Brooklyn P-Tech means State Education Departments, corporations, foundations, and the federal government have no idea how to improve the educational performance of inner-city minority students and that they are selling the public a fairy tale.


The “P” in P-Tech certainly does not stand for “performance.” It may well stand for “phony.”


I don’t think anyone should put down the hard-working educators in schools like P-Tech. It is not their fault that politicians are overhyping their success. There is a moral to the story, however. Schools alone can’t compensate for the social and economic problems of our society. We need a government that will stop pretending that school reform will end poverty and close income gaps. It won’t. We must work for the day when politicians take responsibility for problems that only social policy can address and stop spinning tales of miracle schools.


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