“PISA:It’s Poverty Not Stupid” – maybe.

I have just finished reading Mel Riddile’s analysis of the 2009  PISA results published in the NASSP blog “The Principal Difference’ in 2010.

His argument basically is that if we divide the USA population of tested students according to levels of poverty and then compare them with other countries with similar levels, we find we are not doing too badly. He argues that US schools with less than a 25% poverty rate score a creditable PISA score of 551 for the less than 10% population and 527 for the 10% – 24.9% population) – better than any of the other countries with similar (overall) poverty numbers. I’m no statistician, but it seems to me that comparing a select group from the USA (only those schools with less than 25% poverty rate) with an entire country with a poverty rate of less than 25% is not comparing like populations. He concludes that the problem with the US reading scores is basically caused by poverty.

This misses the point – that growing levels of poverty may well be the result of problems with education. Classic chicken and egg stuff. The success story of Finland began forty years ago when poverty levels were far different from what they are today. The restructuring of the education system went hand in hand with a growing social equity.

We know this to be true – education is the path out of poverty. It follows that famine, pestilence and natural disasters aside, a growing level of poverty suggests a failure of education.

An extensive analysis of results in the light of social equity can be found in the report “PISA 2009 Results:  Overcoming  Social Background Equity in Learning Opportunities  and Outcomes (Volume 2).

OECD analysis of their test results leads the report to state:

“GDP per capita influences educational success, but this only explains 6% of the differences in average student performance. the other 94% reflect the potential for public policy to make a difference”.

You might protest that growing income inequality in the USA makes a measure such as GDP per capita an unfair yard stick, and in a sense you might be right. But why is there such income disparity? Because a growing segment of the population does not have the educational opportunities to access higher incomes through better paying jobs. Once again poverty and schooling are inextricably linked.

My conclusion?

It’s not poverty. It’s certainly not ‘stupid’. It’s a complex interplay between schooling and poverty, an interplay in which schooling is letting down too many of our kids and leading to an increasing number of them facing futures of poverty.

Mel Riddile says “Instead of looking to low-poverty countries like Finland for direction, we should be looking to take what we already know about educating students in high-performing, high-poverty schools …”. I respectfully disagree – in part. Indeed we DO need to look at countries where a long term vision has created social equity in education where it once did not exist. We must look beyond our boundaries, to resist the “curse of riches” and learn from others.

And yes, we must stop labeling schools as failing. Instead we must recognize that it is the system that is failing and any remedy will be systemic, not school by school. Finland has developed a SYSTEM that ensures there will be no failing schools. We are trying to fix the problem by looking at one school at a time.

We need systemic change.





Filed under Teacher education, Testing, Thinking

11 responses to ““PISA:It’s Poverty Not Stupid” – maybe.

  1. Bonnie Griffith

    If a student is retained more than once, he or she has a 90% chance of not completing high school. This means they will have fewer opportunities and make less money. So when we see retention as an intervention, we are in fact perpetuating the cycle of poverty. These children need intensive remedial instruction, not one of many messages of failure. And yes, as the middle class becomes more crippled and the rich become richer, we can expect all manner of societal ills including a lower tax base and more poorly funded schools. Everything is connected.

    • Once again we can learn from Finland where children simply don’t get as far as high school as failures. Intensive support is given to every child needing it AS SOON AS THEY SHOW THEY ARE STRUGGLING. They don’t wait to assess and judge AFTER they have failed. They work to prevent failure altogether.

      Thank you for your comments. Excuse my upper case shouting, but I feel strongly about this.

  2. I grant you this key point: This would be a more accurate comparison if the data were dis-aggregated for other countries, too. However, the point you make above about intervening the moment the struggle becomes evident is moot if you cannot afford the personnel to provide the support. Policies that are implemented by states such as New York are resulting in ever more schools being unable to provide these supports as a result of cuts necessitated by declining state aid to higher needs communities.

  3. Thanks for your comments Viola. While funding decisions may prevent schools doing what they should be doing, that doesn’t make the need for them to be doing these things ‘moot’. We are spending money on the wrong things.

    • Viola

      Certainly. The need for these things is not a moot point: it is the inability to “provide” that makes the call for systemic change ring hollow. While the language and rhetoric in the piece (see link) is powerful and heartfelt it also conveys a frustration that many educators in the trenches feel. The scapegoating that poses as meaningful change is especially hard to take in districts that have been forced to cut access to large segments of their staffs and many of their resources. Being forced to do so in response to aid cuts in the face of increased needs and poverty in the student body adds insult to injury. http://www.salon.com/2013/06/03/instead_of_a_war_on_teachers_how_about_one_on_poverty/

      • I certainly understand the frustration. But I still maintain that money is not the answer. Nor is the relentless focus on blaming teachers. We are simply doing the wrong things with the money we are spending on education in the USA. Using simple PISA data is dangerous when comparing educational outcomes, but it can be very useful data too. According to The OECD report in 2011 (which admittedly looks at 2008 financial data), the USA is by far the highest spending country per student yet gets very lackluster results for its dollars.

      • Viola

        Not having looked at the data to answer this, but I wonder if studies have been done to disaggregate the spending statistics? Looking at overall spending and not disaggregating the spending by poverty levels may be as deceiving as the statistical faux pas you pointed out in your critique. For instance I don’t consider myself a particularly poorly paid educator, however teachers teaching the same number of years as I have, but in communities that are located in my own state, communities that are quite affluent, make double what I make plus $20,000. I have a feeling this skews statistics.

      • Hmmmmm. Statistics are certain.y not my forte either. The OECD reports on PISA are a wealth of data and analysis and deserve a lot more consideration. Sadly we are so fixated on league tables and competition that many get no further. I do recall the report stated that only 6% of performance difference could be attributed to poverty. They come to this conclusion after examining the socio-economic data of both rich and poor countries and setting it against their performances on PISA. Some countries that spend far less per capita on education do far better than the USA. We should look at what they are doing more closely.

      • Viola

        You are correct and it’s all very fascinating. Having done a Fulbright teacher exchange and a teaching assistantship in a couple of other countries, I would say that there are so many directions that this inquiry could take. The questions range from the expected contributions of families and what their role is in the data compiled for education spending, to the other social supports that are provided but are not considered educational expenses. For instance families in Germany provide their own textbooks and their textbooks are much smaller then the tomes that our schools buy from large corporate entities here in United States. It would also be worth seeing how students compare more practical application-type measures, comparisons which I know are exceedingly difficult to undertake. I don’t want to be in apologist for the American public education system but I do think that the various interests that have created a so-called reform movement are dictating terms that are oxymorons in and of themselves. I am very tired of hearing that I need to figure out how to do more with less.

  4. It seems to me there are a few alternatives: try to do more of the same with less (and expect different results? Insane), try to do more of the same with more (ditto), or try to do different.

    I moved from being a classroom teacher and then a school principal in Australia to being a school principal in the USA. I was appalled by what I saw in my school district at the time. My reading over the past six or seven years and since I have returned to Australia, persuades me that what I experienced was common but perhaps not universal in all school districts.

    What frustrated me in particular was a perceived reluctance to look outside the USA for solutions. I have written before about what I call the “curse of riches”. When you have so much you come to think you have everything.

    The solution to the educational woes in the USA will lie outside the country, and I do not believe money will be the solution. Until education is separated from the influences of Big Business and returned to the hands of the people, via a democratic governance, the system will lurch from problem to problem.

    I know we are all sick of hearing about Finland, but keep in mind that ALL education is owned by the people ie state controlled. It is illegal to charge fees for any education from kindergarten to university. Education is free for every citizen. It is not subject to the manipulations of big publishers for example.

    I was astonished to discover the extensive use of text books in my US primary school. We virtually never use text books at that level in Australia. What a huge waste of money. And I had storerooms full of printed materials from a previous program (Success for All) that had been tried, cost a small fortune, and dropped because it hadn’t worked, (as was Cortez Math, because it didn’t work either). Another waste of money as I tried to dispose of the stuff so we could free up some extra teaching spaces.

    This stumbling from hoped for magic bullet to magic bullet is wasteful and costing precious time as well as dollars. We need to STOP and re-evaluate what we are doing and how we are doing it. We need to learn more from other countries who are doing it so much better. It’s not all about the money.

    And yes, you can probably hear my frustration too.

  5. Alan

    Unless you know what poverty is, how it feels, what the daily toll it takes….then you should just stop. Your chicken/egg argument is ludicrous. There are countless measures of income distribution that clearly show a direct link between income and academic achievement…..it is indisputable. The idea that poor schooling is a cause in the poverty is adding insult to injury. The politicians who endlessly advocate for the top 1%, manipulate the tax laws, court Wall St., and beat down minimum wage laws are a big part of the cause. Stop shipping factories overseas, stop beating down unions and stop promoting the “Right to Work” (for less) philosophy. Fund public education, stop porking the student loan borrower, stop the idea that Trickle Down economics actually works and start paying a decent wage.

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