Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence and Policy Responses

Policies such as expanded parent choice, promoting competition between schools and test-based evaluation of teachers are misguided according to one of the leading scholars of education reform in the United States. Professor Helen Ladd claims that these policies fail to address the key problem of the achievement gap between rich and poor and that addressing this educational challenge will require a broader and bolder approach to education policy than the recent efforts to improve education in the US.

Professor Ladd is professor of public policy and economics at Duke University and a renowned scholar on education policy issues. She gave the Presidential Address to the Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management in Washington DC last month on the topic of Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence.

In her address, Professor Ladd said that the current policy focus in education is misguided because it either denies or ignore a basic body of evidence showing that students from disadvantaged households on average perform less well in school than those from more advantaged families. She said that current policies do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students. They have contributed little—and are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm.

Family background is a strong influence on educational outcomes
She said that study after study shows that children from disadvantaged households perform less well in school on average than those from more advantaged households. This empirical relationship shows up in studies using observations at the levels of the individual student, the school, the district, the state, the country. It also shows in cross-country studies. Regardless of the measures used and the sophistication of the methods, similar patterns emerge.

Research documents a variety of symptoms of low SES that are relevant for children’s subsequent educational outcomes. These include poor health, limited access to home environments with rich language and experiences, low birth weight, limited access to high quality pre-school opportunities, less participation in many activities in the summer and after school that middle class families take for granted, and more movement in and out of schools because of the way the housing market operates for low income families.

Differences in outcomes between high and low SES families may also reflect the preferences and behaviours of families and teachers. Compared to low SES families, for example, middle and upper class families are better positioned to work the education system to their advantage by assuring that their children attend the best schools and get the best teachers. They are also more likely to invest in out-of-school activities that improve school outcomes such as tutoring programs, camps and travelling.

The behaviours of teachers are also a contributing factor in that many teachers with strong credentials tend to be reluctant to teach in schools with large concentrations of disadvantaged students than in schools with more advantaged students.

Professor Ladd said that raising average achievement levels is often justified in terms of the need to prepare graduates for a knowledge-based society and need to remain economically competitive. But, even more important, is that a well-educated populace is essential for a functioning democracy and for nurturing a culturally rich and innovative society. Reducing achievement gaps recognizes the importance of education to the life chances of individuals and the fact that the U.S. as a whole has a stake in assuring that all citizens can participate fully in the economic and political life of the country.

Current education reform policies have failed
However, the current policy focus in the US ignores the impact of socio-economic factors on education outcomes and concentrates on making schools work better. This policy response starts from the perception that the U.S. education system is rife with inefficiencies and that the inefficiencies can be eliminating by better use of information and incentives. The intent is to get better outcomes with few, or no, new resources.

This is the logic behind the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. It was built on the denial of the contribution of family background to education outcomes. By measuring, reporting and, in many cases, attaching positive consequences to strong performance and negative consequences to weak school performance, policy makers provide incentives for schools and school districts to focus attention of what is being measured and to work either harder or “smarter.”

Professor Ladd said that the evidence shows this to be a deeply flawed policy. The evidence suggests that NCLB has not succeeded in raising student test scores, as measured by the nation’s report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. At best it has raised the average math scores of 4th graders by a small amount while the effects on 8th grade math are not clear, while there are no effects for reading scores at either the 4th or 8th grade levels.

Other policies are not working either. According to Ladd, the best US evidence to date indicates that providing financial incentives for teachers to raise test scores does not lead to the desired results. The focus on test based evaluation of teachers also provides incentives for them to narrow the curriculum to the tested subjects of math and reading, and to direct teacher attention to basic skills away from student reasoning skills.

Teacher evaluations that place heavy weight on student test scores are likely to do more harm than good because they start from the assumption that teachers are shirking rather than the assumption that they need support and constructive counselling. Peer assistance and review programs that combine support with accountability appear to be a more promising alternative to the current system.

Another policy high on the school reform agenda of those seeking more efficient schools is charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools operated by non-profit or private companies that have significantly more autonomy than the traditional public schools. Once again, the evidence is that, on average, charter schools are either less effective or no more successful than traditional public schools. There is little evidence that charter schools in practice are providing better schooling options on average for disadvantaged children. Indeed the movement could be harming the options for some children by draining funds from the traditional public schools that continue to serve the bulk of disadvantaged students.

Policies to address educational challenges faced by low SES students
Professor Ladd outlined important policy responses needed to reduce the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children.

One key response would be to pursue policies to reduce the incidence of poverty or other contributors to low SES. That might be done, for example, through macro-economic policies designed to reduce unemployment, cash assistance programs for poor families, tax credits for low wage workers, or an all-out assault “war on poverty” as pursued by Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. This approach would appear to be a particularly desirable policy response in the present period given the current high unemployment rates and also the dramatic increase in income inequality in this country since the early 1970s. Inattention to these inequalities is likely to lead to even greater achievement gaps in the future.

She noted that past efforts to address poverty and socio-economic inequalities appear to have played some role in reducing achievement gaps, especially those between black children who are disproportionately represented among low income families and white children who tend to come from more affluent families. In combination with other policies including civil rights initiatives, for example, anti-poverty programs during the 1960s appear to have contributed to some of the significant reduction in the black white test score gaps during the 1960s and early 1970s. However, she said that she is not optimistic that such policies will be revived in the current political environment in the US.

Another key response is for education policy makers to work with other agencies and community groups to pursue strategies specifically designed to reduce the adverse impact of low SES on educational outcomes. Ladd said that such an approach must be an essential component of any serious effort to reduce achievement gaps and to raise student achievement. This includes the provision of early childhood and pre-school programs as well as school-based health and social services.

She noted that many other countries are far ahead of the US in addressing the health and developmental needs of their children. In Finland, for example, all children are required to have health examinations at ages two and five. These examinations assess the child’s developmental level as well as physical health, and the records follow the children into school. In this way, schools and parents can address the developmental needs of children early. School welfare teams composed of school nurses, social welfare counsellors and teachers meet on a regular basis to discuss and address the challenges of individual children. Nearly one-third of Finnish students are identified in the early years of schooling as needing special services, and that the proportion needing special attention declines as children progress through school.

Policy makers must also assure that children in schools serving large proportions of disadvantaged students have access to high quality teachers, principals, supports for students, and other resources. Research studies consistently document that high poverty schools typically have teachers with lower qualifications along many dimensions than schools with more advantaged students.

The challenge is to find ways to make schools serving disadvantaged children more attractive to high quality teachers than they currently are. Ladd said that education policy makers can do so by implementing school assignment policies designed to balance the socio-economic and/or racial mix of students across schools; making sure that high poverty schools have strong school leadership and the support services such as nurses and social workers required for teachers to be successfully with their students; and by using financial incentives to attract and retain teachers in schools with large proportions of challenging-to-educate children.

In conclusion, Ladd said that the US should terminate the No Child Left Behind legislation with its focus on competition and choice. In its place, the federal government should implement strategies designed to help state and local governments address in a more constructive and positive manner the educational needs of low SES children and to assure that poor children have equal access to quality schools. Ideally, the longer run agenda should also include a major effort to reduce child poverty.

Trevor Cobbold

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