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PISA For Our Time: A Balanced Look

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Lou, your comment represents the kind of honest discourse that we should be having about the poverty/education relationship, which runs beneath the surface of almost every education conversation occurring today. And I understand what you’re saying. In my posts, I tend to raise the poverty issue only when it is inappropriately ignored (as in the case of PISA). However, I also acknowledge that I believe that addressing education without addressing poverty, or vice-versa, is addressing neither very effectively. But you’re still correct that it shouldn’t be a distraction, and I think almost everyone agrees – most of the discord is misunderstanding, and there is blame to go around. Just as you interpret my discussion of poverty in a way that I did not anticipate or intend, teachers interpret the “reform” message in a way that the messengers don’t anticipate or intend. The miscommunication is not usually deliberate, and almost never out of malice, but it happens every day (on both sides). Think about it – you don’t believe (I hope) that I intend to use poverty as a distraction, but your “gut reaction” says otherwise. I have the same experience all the time. For my part, when I raise the poverty issue, I try to make it clear that, while background factors are the dominant factor overall, economic circumstances do not explain away educational performance, and vice-versa (keep in mind that this was one of my conclusions in this post). Apparently, I do not always achieve this clarity, but I’ll keep trying (no excuses!). Thanks, I hope you keep reading and letting me know when I get on your nerves. <smile> MD</smile>

Thanks for posting a detailed analysis. Regarding child poverty, what's your definition of child poverty? Households living below $21.2k for a family of 4? Remember that being poor in America is a lot better than being poor in many other countries - even in OECD ones. The percentage of families in poverty in Britain may be lower than in the US, but everything they have to buy (food, clothes, transport) costs them a lot more (in real terms and when adjusted for PPP). You mentioned that a large percentage of children in the US are English learners. That's true, but they have an more resources at their disposal in the US to help them learn more quickly. For example, broadcast television is free in the US. Many of my friends in non-English speaking countries became fluent in English by watching old subtitled American TV shows. In many OECD countries people must pay an annual fee for broadcast television, or else face draconian fines. (The TV licensing bureaus use triangulation to find unlicensed televisions). Also, the US has the best network of public libraries I have ever seen. They are free to use, and offer books, audio tapes and internet access to help people who need to learn English. Also, while you raised the English-learning issue in the US, you forget that many OECD countries require children to learn at least one non-native language. So in addition to beating the US in maths, science and reading, many foreign children will learn English too. In fact, some countries (e.g. Switzerland) teach children to be *fluent* in more than one language. American children are typically not burdened with the challenges of learning another language. In theory, they get to focus more time and energy on the things that the PISA test scores reflect.

Thanks for your comment, Antun. I used the OECD child poverty variable, which most certainly, as you point out, means different things in different nations due to institutional and other types of variation between countries. I’ve actually done a lot of non-education work on one of these factors, which you mention (and so do I, in the post) – cross-national differences in welfare states (exciting, I know). I agree with the thrust of your arguments. Actually, they reflect one of the primary points of this post: that cross-national comparisons are fraught with complications, even with the best data, and we therefore need to be careful about making sweeping overall comparisons without qualifications. With my little analysis, I was trying to show how even a minimal accounting for these differences can change the conclusions one draws. That’s also why I made an (almost annoyingly repetitive) effort to caution against making too much of my results – because of, among other things, the bias from omitted variables and institutional differences between nations that you point out. Your argument about other nations’ requiring multiple languages – and how it might be seen as giving an advantage to American children who need learn only one – is one that I haven’t heard before. Thanks again, MD

I have an overall general bias in favor of not highlighting poverty so much in the education conversation. It almost has the feel that if we could only eliminate the kids subject to poverty from our results, we would look much better and thus feel much better about ourselves. I know you and others don't mean it that way but that is how it lands on me. I know that being poor has very distinct disadvantages. I also know of the strong correlation that has for years existed and been recognized between achievement and poverty. My concern is the constant focus on poverty as an explanation almost makes it a red herring. Most of the commentary of this nature will usually end with the obligatory we can do better stuff. But it still feels like you are telling me "if you were not on my back, I could do a whole lot better." Instead, the sentiment should be "you are my brother, and we are in this together." I also understand your point regarding how some with a special interest always seize upon this type of data and spin it for their narrow purposes. And I can't blame you for defending a position as you see it. It is just that I started from very humble beginnings and education was my tool for personal improvement. And, it can work the same for many, many others that are currently in my old shoes. I would hate to see poverty become a distraction. Thanks for listening.

Thanks for your reply Matthew. My comment that American kids were typically not "burdened" with the challenges of learning another language was partially tongue-in-cheek. One could argue that encouraging kids to learn foreign languages is beneficial to their performance in other subjects. My own child starts kindergarden next year, and we're leaning towards an immersion program for him, so I wouldn't need any convincing on that point.

One more point on poverty: The correlation between individual and community poverty and student achievement is higher in the U.S. than in most other OECD countries. This is, at least in part and perhaps almost in total, because of how we and they choose to fund schools. In the U.S., school funding is largely a result of local / state tax systems, which often are built on land taxes. Students going to school in affluent areas (ex., Montgomery and Howard counties, Maryland), often have twice or more spent on their public educations as students in high poverty contexts (almost any district in Mississippi, for example). By contrast, in the Netherlands, every child, nationwide, gets a fixed national investment in their education, with exceptions being given for poverty (a child's school gets and additional 25% for that child) or speaking a second language in the home (more than 50% extra). This is the opposite of what we do, and it results in national statistics showing less relationship between being born poor and academic achievement.

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