A fascinating blog post, “Does Poverty Cause Low Achievement?“, by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute cautions researchers against using poverty or family income when crunching numbers to come up with education policies. He argues that poverty in and of itself doesn’t cause low achievement. And flawed educational research conclusions have been made by using poverty in data analyses. For example, a famous Heritage Foundation No Excuses study, found that low income kids can do extraordinarily well at school. But these low-income children were mostly the kids of Harvard and MIT grad students who just happened to qualify for free lunches while their parents were getting PhDs.
Instead of poverty, Rothstein says that education researchers should be trying to encapsulate a more complicated mixture of factors, such as multigenerational low income, that we think of as low social class. Rothstein thinks a good statistic would be mother’s educational attainment, but that information isn’t always available. In Rothstein’s own research, he has used “number of feet of shelf space devoted to books” at home. Using that standard, he found that kids from families without books in the U.S. perform just as badly as kids without books in other countries.
“…there is a social class achievement gap in every country, and it is of roughly similar size, even in countries which purportedly have much superior school systems. This should suggest that school improvement alone will not narrow that gap in the absence of addressing its social and economic causes.”