Mike the Mad Biologist

Last week, I wrote about the effects of poverty on educational performance, and, in particular, science education. I received many responses, both in comments and by email. One reason I wrote this is that our current wave of educational ‘reform’ seems utterly focused on teacher managerial issues. I’m willing to cede that part of the poverty effect could–and I emphasize could–be due to some poor schools serving as warehouses for horrible teachers. Yet the amount of variation in test scores that is correlated with poverty is so overwhelming: I really didn’t think it would be that high, even though apparently it’s declined somewhat, although this could simply be a result of different student populations.

The effects of demography, including income, if a recent analysis of Tennessee’s Project STAR is to be believed, seem to be much greater than measures of teacher quality (at least by my reading anyway*).

So what do we do? As I noted about health ministers who have to choose ‘second best’ strategies, reducing poverty itself is very difficult, although policies that move us towards full employment would be a good start. But there are many things we can do to alleviate the effects of poverty.

We could make sure that, after the school year ends, children still get the food they need. We can have enrichment programs that ensure that the ‘summer decline’ is not so large for poor students. We can make sure that all students have buildings, facilities, and supplies that are conducive to learning. While the pull of demography is very strong, it is not inviolate, thankfully. We should also be looking at those schools which are successfully educating their students and figuring out what they are doing.

These, and many other interventions, won’t make up for some things, such as parental education, or having parents with poor English skills. And some families are so screwed up, if you can just keep the kids out of jail, that qualifies as a partial victory.

But a child who is sleep-deprived because her parents work the late shift, a child who is hungry, a child who has to move from place to place because she is intermittently homeless (or about to become homeless), a child who day after day experiences the depressing realization that his school is not as nice as those other schools, a child who does not receive adequate healthcare (physical and mental), a child whose parents do not have the time or the wherewithal to provide educational reinforcement, this child can not be expected to perform well.

And these are things we can remedy, even if not perfectly and not for all children, all of the time. Not only can we remedy these problems, but these problems have been remedied. But, instead, we target the shibboleth of teacher quality, even though it plays a small role in outcomes, relative to poverty.

*So far, my prediction about this being used to bolster ‘reform’ hasn’t panned out. I’m glad I’m wrong.

Comments

  1. #1 grrljock
    August 3, 2010

    Hear, hear. When I’m in my most cynical mood, I think that teachers are targeted as they’re a pillar of the public education system (i.e., as another step in dismantling this system and gearing up a for-profit private education system). In my most optimistic mood, I think that targeting teacher quality is a hell of a lot easier than figuring out how to reduce poverty.

  2. #2 joemac53
    August 3, 2010

    I wish the talk about “the achievement gap” would simplify into the “zip-code gap” and try to ensure that the students from poor backgrounds get the same opportunities affluent students get. I don’t want the affluent to get less, I want the poor to get more educational opportunities than they do now. I want them to think school is the coolest place to be and I want someone to help them get there and stay there.
    My cynical side agrees with grrljock.

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