Complicating Poverty

In Academic State Champs: Michigan’s Top 25 School Districts, Michigan’s Bridge, an on-line magazine, has come out with an attempt to rank schools in a way that factors in the variable of poverty.

Any attempt to rank schools that factors in the concern of poverty must be better than most, right?

I guess so, if you accept that the competitive, market driven model of ranking schools is acceptable, or that rankings based on achievement data is in any way useful.

And if you accept that poverty can be considered without also considering the ways in which race functions in our society and schools.

And if you accept that the real way to change children’s education is by addressing in-school factors while avoiding the impact of out-of-school factors.

I, on the other hand, accept none of these.

Allow me to explain.

But before doing so, let me applaud this attempt by the Bridge.  I think it is a genuine dive into the issue of poverty.  At least they accept that poverty has an impact on education. However, by accepting the myths I outline below, Bridge continues that failed narrative of “failing schools,” which hurts all of us, especially our kids, by misdirecting good intentions.

Myth 1- standardized tests measure learning.

In determining its rankings, Bridge makes the fundamental assumption that test scores measure learning.  They don’t. Bridge recognizes that, “To a frustrating level, school test scores track the socioeconomic status of the children who walk through the doors.”  Yes, there is a strong correlation of “achievement” to socio-economic status.  However, the problem goes even deeper.  As just a cursory look at testing, for example,  if we understand that learning is a function of growth, of some kind of difference in a student’s understanding between time A and time B, these tests scores, as they are static, don’t measure learning.  They are a tool that freeze frames a fluid process and focuses on where a student “is” as opposed to any growth. As a whole, we greatly confuse “achievement” with “learning.” And all too often, in these days of so-called ed reform, achievement simply means “ability to perform well on tests that measure superficial knowledge.”

Alfie Kohn, as usual, gets to the root of the matter when he writes:

“Even allowing for variation in the design of the tests and the motives of the testers, however, the bottom line is that these instruments are typically more about measuring the number of facts that have been crammed into students’ short-term memories than they are about assessing understanding. Tests, including those that involve essays, are part of a traditional model of instruction in which information is transmitted to students (by means of lectures and textbooks) so that it can be disgorged later on command.”

Standardized test, like the ones that Bridge uses for its comparative data, do not necessarily measure the increase of anything of value that can be singularly recognized as caused by a student’s school experience.  Instead, this data simply is a static representation of regurgitated information on the part of students.  It mistakes correlation with causation, and the correlation is too often to regurgitated, superficial information. If regurgitated information is important and what we want in our children’s school experience, then tests work well in their purported task.  If we’re after something more, then I urge us to consider Diane Ravitch’s caution:

“We measure only what can be measured. We measure whether students can pick the right answer to a test question. But what we cannot measure matters more. The scores tell us nothing about students’ imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity. If we continue the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations in education, we will not only NOT get higher scores (the Asian nations are so much better at this than we are), but we will crush the very qualities that have given our nation its edge as a cultivator of new talent and new ideas for many years.”

But for now, let’s just ignore the meaninglessness of wasting so much time and energy on pretending that these tests somehow relate to learning so we can get to myth #2.

Myth 2- poverty can be taken into consideration without factoring race into the equation.

The fact of the matter is that poverty functions differently according to race.  To put it another way, poor white people still have the privilege of being white.  This is not to deny the difficulty of their poverty. It is merely to say that for people who are poor and black, poverty is compounded by race. Educator Paul Gorski writes,

“What we see–what I see–is a society in which white people on average gain substantial benefits from their whiteness. Actually, this is not just what I see. This is very well documented and based on that documentation (rather than on ignoring entire systems of oppression when trying to understand what’s happening in our society) it is irrefutable. Every system and structure in the US–law enforcement, criminal justice, education, every single one–protects and benefits white people at the expense of people of color. Irrefutable.”  (Please see Gorski’s invaluable, Complicating White Privilege.)

And because this is irrefutable, considering poverty without considering how it is affected by race gives only a partial picture.  We can’t just talk about poverty, as Bridge does, without considering the impact that race has on how poverty is experienced.  We can’t justifiably consider two differing conditions of poverty and call them equal in these comparisons.

You might be wondering, just how does poverty function differently according to race?  For one way, see Gorski above.

For another, we have to recognize that because of our history of race in this country, poor African-Americans are much more likely to experience poverty in a way that is encapsulated by race.  That is, the neighbors of poor blacks are very likely to also be poor and black.  The schools that their children attend are very likely to have high rates of children who are also poor and black.  Writing about this disparity in Down and Out, Jamelle Bouie points out, “A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation affirmed this fact. According to the foundation, only 50 percent of black children live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate below 20 percent, compared to a national average of 74 percent. Of course, the other way to say this is that 50 percent of black children live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of greater than 20 percent.”

What does this mean?

Bouie continues:

“Once you grasp the staggering differences between black and white neighborhoods, it becomes much easier to explain a whole realm of phenomena. Take the achievement gap between middle-class black students and their white peers. It’s easy to look at this and jump to cultural explanations—that this is a function of black culture and not income or wealth. But, when we say middle-class black kids are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, what we’re also saying is that they’re less likely to have social networks with professionals, and more likely to be exposed to violence and crime.”

Detroit Demographics

Understanding how poverty functions differently for blacks and whites is important, yet it is completely unaddressed by The Bridge.

It’s as if race just doesn’t matter.

As if only the variable of poverty matters.

And this means that as a whole, predominately poor black schools will be rated below predominately poor white schools, especially when comparisons only consider the factor of poverty to the exclusion of race. (Of course there will be predictable exceptions , which by their exception prove the rule.  And this rule obscures other factors that are bound up within the charter school movement.) And if poverty is the only factor, then we are left reaching for explanations that the methodology doesn’t allow for.

Structural racism is obscured.

Myth 3- the way to change outcomes is to address school quality while ignoring out-of-school factors.

Now, let me start by being crystal clear.  Teachers matter, and in-school factors make a difference.  Got it.  I’ve staked my career on the fact that as an educator, I matter.

The problem is, all of the evidence shows that out of school factors matter more.

From David Berliner’s Poverty and Potential: Out of School Factors and School Success, (,

“Because America’s schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier children, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed.”

See.  Fundamentally, Berliner and Bridge agree that poverty impacts education. Yet, Bridge’s report manages to consider the out-of-scho0l factor of poverty as a means of directing attention back to factors within schools. It’s a magical trick of brilliant contortion.

What we all really need to consider is the question of, where do we put our energy? Into addressing in-school factors, where control is very difficult to quantify and thus know the effects of? Or in addressing out of school factors, which clearly would have an impact, though are difficult politically to make happen? Clearly, both are important. And yet the function of the current ed reform movement, whose narrative of testing Bridge is buying into, misuse in-school factors (i.e., “achievement data) is to direct attention away from out-of-school structural factors, which have a greater impact.

Berliner suggest that, “Efforts to improve educational outcomes in these schools, attempting to drive change through test-based accountability, are thus unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the OSFs that negatively affect large numbers of our nations’ students. Poverty limits student potential; inputs to schools affect outputs from them.”

To be fair, Bridge seems to recognize this.  In their statement that explains their methodology includes, under the category of “disadvantages” of the methodology, “Disadvantages: It includes any disadvantages of the standardized tests and does not incorporate other factors that can affect performance, such as cultural differences, pre–K education, and neighborhood factors.” ( )

Those seem like fairly significant disadvantages.  And they are the same disadvantages inherent in  any methodology that compares and ranks schools using achievement data.

Which of course, begs the question, why?

Why compare using standardized tests when these disadvantages are recognized?

And why, if we agree that poverty impacts education, write a story that looks at how to raise test scores that are themselves fundamentally highly questionable when we could make it all bit easier by considering  how we can actually address poverty (and race) directly?


One response to “Complicating Poverty

  1. Pingback: Bridge Rankings of School Districts | Superintendent's Notes

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