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Daniel Akst: Biggest problem with U.S. schools is poverty

  • Newsday
  • Published Friday, August 31, 2012, at 6:26 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Sep. 4, 2012, at 6:54 a.m.

Beating up on public education is practically our national sport. I often do it myself. But overlooked in the ongoing assault is strong evidence that U.S. schools actually are world beaters – except for the problem of poverty.

When it comes to reading, in fact, our schools may well be the best in the world. As Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond points out, U.S. 15-year olds in schools with fewer than 10 percent of kids eligible for free or cut-rate lunch “score first in the world in reading, outperforming even the famously excellent Finns.”

This 10 percent threshold is significant because in high-achieving countries such as Finland, few schools have more poor kids than that. In other words, if you look at American schools that compare socioeconomically, we’re doing great.

But wait – it gets better. U.S. schools where fewer than 25 percent are impoverished (by the same lunch measure) beat all 34 of the relatively affluent countries studied except South Korea and Finland. U.S. schools where 25 to 50 percent of students were poor still beat most other countries.

These results are from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, a widely followed effort to compare educational outcomes. PISA scores inspire a good deal of hand-wringing in this country – overall, we were 14th in reading – but I suspect we’ve been taking away the wrong message by not adjusting for poverty.

That’s odd, because most people know there’s a connection between poor families and poor school performance. The link is reflected in various sources, including the SAT, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the Trends in International Math and Science Study.

So the connection, which exists in most countries, is clear. But somehow the implications haven’t been, and it’s worth thinking this through. If American kids who aren’t poor are doing so well, maybe our problem isn’t bad teachers or inadequate school spending or indifferent parents or screen-besotted children. Maybe the problem is simply poverty – and the shameful fact that we have so much more of it than any comparable country.

How much child poverty are we living with? A study released this year by UNICEF found a U.S. child poverty rate of 23.1 percent – way beyond any other economically advanced nation except Romania. In Spain, which is in a depression, the figure was 17.1 percent. In Canada it was 13.3 percent. In Finland, 5.3 percent.

If poverty is the problem, families in middle-class school districts needn’t worry much about their kids’ schools. But they should be worried about the society in which they live, for even if we have hearts of stone, we do not have heads made of the same material. Economic growth – to say nothing of a healthy democracy – depends on an educated citizenry, and we cannot afford to let a large segment of the populace embark on adulthood seriously underschooled.

Some education reformers, such as Diane Ravitch, understand poverty’s effects on our schools. Geoffrey Canada has launched the Harlem Children’s Zone Project to provide poor children with a comprehensive set of programs addressing both poverty and education. It’s an effort well worth watching.

If the problem with education in this country really is poverty, it will not be easy to fix. Yet that is no reason for kidding ourselves about what’s actually wrong.

Daniel Akst is a columnist for Newsday.

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