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What the United States’ Inordinately High Poverty Rate Means for Education

desks, classroomTeachers have been calling attention to the effects of poverty on students and the achievement gap for years. Now new analyses are offering new evidence of what educators have known all along—socioeconomic factors play a big role in children’s educational success, and international comparisons are often impacted.

U.S. students do not, on average, score highly on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that tests 15-year-olds in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Hand-wringing about how our nation compares to higher-scoring countries leads some to point fingers, labeling students, schools, and educators as failures.

A new report featured in The New York Times story, “School vs. Society in America’s Failing Students,” calls attention to the lack of fairness of these international comparisons. Reporter Eduardo Porter writes,

“In a report released last week, Martin Carnoy from the Graduate School of Education at Stanford, Emma García from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and Tatiana Khavenson from the Institute of Education at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, suggest that socioeconomic deficits impose a particularly heavy burden on American schools.

“‘Once we adjust for social status, we are doing much better than we think,’ Professor Carnoy told me. ‘We underrate our progress.'”

The researchers started by comparing test scores in the United States with those in France, Germany, Britain, Canada, Finland, South Korea, Poland and Ireland. On average, students in all those countries do better than American children.

Then the researchers divided students into groups depending on the number of books in their homes, a measure of the academic resources at families’ disposal. This adjustment significantly reduced the American deficit, especially among students on the bottom rungs of the resource ladder.

American students from families with the least educational resources, as it turned out, scored better on the PISA math test than similar children in France and about the same as Britons, Germans and Irish.

Porter says that studies like this one could increase awareness about the role poverty plays in students’ performance and  change the policy debate from the current tendency to blame schools for socioeconomic factors.

Not everyone shares that point of view. Porter also quotes Andreas Schleicher, the OECD official who runs the PISA tests.

“There is no way you can blame socioeconomic status for the performance of the United States,” Schleicher said. “When you look at all dimensions of social background, the United States does not suffer a particular disadvantage.”

Boston Globe reporter Evan Horowitz doesn’t agree. In his article, “A proven way to reduce poverty? Give poor people money,” Horowitz writes,

“Virtually every developed nation has a lower poverty rate than the U.S. That’s not because all their citizens have jobs and earn a decent living. It’s because they provide direct assistance to those at risk, in the form of cash, housing subsidies, pensions, and child benefits.”

If it weren’t for government-funded support programs, many more citizens of European countries would be below the poverty line. “One in every three people in France and Germany would be living in poverty, one in four in Sweden and Denmark. And by this measure, the United States fits right in, with a poverty rate of 28 percent,” says Horowitz.

When you factor in government programs everything changes. The United States’ actual poverty rate is 50 percent greater than that of the United Kingdom and Canada, and three times greater than Denmark’s.

These analyses certainly seem to indicate that, to increase students’ educational success, we need great community and social programs that support our neediest citizens.

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