Washington Post study on poverty


I read this report recently and it stirred me deeply. You have to wade through some heavy analysis of statistical data, but the conclusions are piercing.

Consider the concluding paragraph, and you get a sense of the gravity of the article.

It is not pleasant to contemplate, but when poor children go to public schools that serve the poor, and wealthy children go to public schools that serve the wealthy, then the huge gaps in achievement that we see bring us closer to establishing an apartheid public school system. We create through our housing, school attendance, and school districting policies a system designed to encourage castes—a system promoting a greater likelihood of a privileged class and an under class These are, of course, harbingers of demise for our fragile democracy.

When a writer says that we are being brought closer to “establishing an apartheid public school system” and that we have school policies “designed to encourage castes” he is saying it as sharply and convictingly as he knows how.  That it was said by a writer for the Washington Times is also interesting to me.  A couple more of my thoughts are at the end, but look at the closing paragraphs of this article.  You can see the entire article here:

Famously, [an article referred to earlier] found quite small school effects on student achievement, finding instead, quite large family effects. The conclusion was that family poverty and wealth mattered much more than did schools in determining the life chances of America’s youth.

Schools, it seemed, had little power to affect the destinies of children because family overwhelmingly determined life’s outcomes.

But this new analysis refutes that conclusion quite convincingly. Using newer statistical models unavailable to the earlier investigators, the recent conclusion is that the effects of a school’s average level of family resources was more than 3 times that of the effect of family resources.

Although using different data sets and different statistical models for analysis, the American data and the Australian data reach similar conclusions. Family resources are important, school resources are important and have quite dramatic effects, and the joint effect of the social and fiscal resources found in families and schools appears to be much greater than either alone!

The United States has a great deal of housing segregation by income. It also has many small school districts serving relatively homogenous populations of middle class, or poor, or wealthy students.

Because of these two factors, it is more likely that in the United States of America, compared to some of our competitor nations, poor children go to school with other poor children and wealthy children go to school with other wealthy children.

Thus the approximately ½ standard deviation difference we might expect to see on indicators of achievement for upper and lower social class students, and the approximately ½ standard deviation difference we might expect to see between schools that serve either poor or wealthy students, actually gets magnified by the school and housing policies we promote in our nation.

Already substantial differences in achievement because of school and family resources become huge, almost insurmountable differences, as an achievement gap of 1 ½ standard deviations opens up between poor students in schools that serve poor students and wealthy students in schools that serve wealthy students.

It is not pleasant to contemplate, but when poor children go to public schools that serve the poor, and wealthy children go to public schools that serve the wealthy, then the huge gaps in achievement that we see bring us closer to establishing an apartheid public school system. We create through our housing, school attendance, and school districting policies a system designed to encourage castes—a system promoting a greater likelihood of a privileged class and an under class.

These are, of course, harbingers of demise for our fragile democracy.

Often the topic of poverty brings up questions that seem like they can’t be answered, and people give up before they ever start.  But I think the Washington Post is onto something.  This article uses heavy statistics to make a simple case: family and schools are perhaps the two most important and intertwined systems that entrap people in generational poverty. They are also the two most important systems for alleviating and ultimately eliminating poverty.

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