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The current mantra of the anti-education reformers is poverty… poverty…poverty!  I recently commented on a blog post which was taking to task a Chicago teacher for suggesting that poverty isn’t going away, thus focusing too much on poverty can potentially undermine the educational success of children who actually live in poverty.  This, of course, is an unpopular viewpoint with the anti-education reformers.  So, in an otherwise safe forum for fed-up teachers to lament about the Common Core, high-stakes testing, charter schools, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, uninvolved or too involved parents, politicians, and, of course, POVERTY, this teacher was attacked as being lazy (he had not read a book by the blog author) and an administrator wannabe (code for traitor).

While the teacher in question was calling for a more nuanced discussion that would acknowledge that the problems in education are NOT one-dimensional, the hue and cry from the poverty crowd was read the book…read the book…read the book!  The teacher was wisely suggesting that poverty is out of the control of the teacher, so teachers should work to serve their students using the weapons in their arsenal; you know, focus on something over which you actually have control.  The opposition, on the other hand, suggested he must not be a very good teacher (snark, snark, snark) because he had not…well…read the book.  These condescending educators refuse to admit that their hostility toward any opinion different than theirs squashes legitimate, healthy debate; debate that could otherwise move the conversation forward and affect change in a positive way.  It also alienates people like me.  I’ve chosen to give up on public school for now.  Possibly forever.

Having grown up with the educational deck stacked against me – a family with a history of alcohol and prescription drug abuse, a mother with mental health issues, and living in low income conditions – I know firsthand how important having high expectations of ALL students is for their success.  Giving kids who come from poor and dysfunctional homes a pass, or having low expectations of them, is the absolute worst thing a teacher can do to those children.  Children understand patronization and pity as well as adults even if they don’t know how to verbalize it.  So, it was very refreshing to hear a teacher really going to bat for the at risk kids he was teaching and suggesting that teachers had tools to help them other than simply lobbying government to eliminate poverty.  Our country started on this downward slide when its citizens learned how effective – in the short term – and easier it is to lament and lobby rather than roll up their sleeves and work hard.  Sadly, Education leaders have followed the lead of Wall Street.

My personal theory is that current reading and math curriculum has a significant impact on how well children are learning for long term success regardless of income.  Of course, poor curriculum negatively impacts low income children in a disproportionate way, especially if the objective is to raise their scores not just from their depressed levels in 1970 but to be equal to those scores of children in higher socio-economic groups today.

No one is denying that there is a link between poverty and standardized test scores within the United States (and within other countries), but that does not mean that poverty causes low test scores, at least not directly.  Anti-reformers will not acknowledge that poverty levels do NOT explain the differences in testing scores between countries taking the same international benchmarking tests or why we have not significantly improved test scores within our own country even for privileged Whites after having spent so much money on education.

To put an even finer point on the matter, my theory is that the current curriculum used in many schools requires too much parent involvement outside of school, does not stress mastery, relies excessively on “group” work, and does not employ enough teacher directed instruction (O.K., those last two are just different sides of the same coin, but you get the picture).  The end result is that all children are being shortchanged, especially those that do not receive help at home.  I believe that the curriculum used in most public schools is only imitating success.  If not for those parents who are spending several or more hours each night helping with homework, drilling on math facts, editing writing assignments, paying for outside tutoring, and the list goes on, I suspect scores would not have improved at all and might have even declined.

I know firsthand how much extra effort parents are putting into their children’s education.  And it is not just because they know how important education is, though that is certainly a factor, but because they are being told by schools that it is part of their job.  Parents who do not or cannot help after school are considered “part of the problem” with education.  I think parents are between a rock and a hard place.  To rebel is to undermine their child’s future.  To go along is to spend all your limited free time teaching at home.  Many, many parents are disturbed by this trend.  They understand not just how poorly our students are performing on international tests (embarrassing) but also how dismally unprepared our high school graduates are for college.  Even if we do not all agree on the reasons or the solutions, we understand that there is, in fact, a problem.

I have decided to look at my curriculum theory in light of what I observe through a close inspection of testing, specifically NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores. These NAEP scores are the ones that anti-reformers like to focus on to suggest that public education in the United States is fine if you don’t consider the kids living in poverty.  They conclude this because they focus on the fact that NAEP scores have been increasing steadily since the 70s.  Of course, if you try and point to certain negative trends from these same tests, then the talking points change.  Testing is bad and does not prove anything.  As a matter of fact, many educators suggest that testing, in general, has no informative value whatsoever and is detrimental to learning because teachers are forced to teach to the test (this phrase deserves a blog post all its own).  If there is one thing that the anti-reformers would be willing to let usurp the POVERTY alibi for poor student performance, it is the TESTING defense.

The truth is that NAEP scores for Math and Reading (the subjects most highlighted in this debate) have increased…for 9- and 13-year-olds.  The other truth is that they have barely budged for 17-year-olds in over 30 years.   This does not make sense when considering how much more money is spent on education today compared to the 1970s, how many more advanced and honor subjects are taught at the high school level, and how much more time, energy and money parents put into the education of their  elementary and middle school children.  My peers – children of the 70s – had no experience with their parents providing the crazy level of educational assistance they are expected to give to their own children today.

While the data from 17-year-old scores jives with what we are hearing from college professors (e.g., kids arriving at college not being able to succeed at basic math and with horrible or nonexistent writing skills), it does not explain how gains in the scores of 9- and 13-year-olds do not translate into increased scores of 17-year-olds or even an optimization in their college readiness.  So, it really is important to look at the trends closely.

Before looking at actual test data, however, it is important to know that there are two NAEP studies conducted.  One is the Main NAEP and the other is the Long Term Trend NAEP.  The professionals at the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) tell us we should not compare Main NAEP scores year-to-year because the tests change (about every ten years), yet they go and break their own rule by seeming to do just that in their most recent (2013) report card…just sayin’.

The Long Term Trend NAEP for all three age groups tested (9, 13 and 17 years), the most recent of which was conducted in 2012, is designed to keep the tests the same as they were 30 years ago so that they presumably are measuring apples to apples.  Another difference between the two tests is that the Long Term NAEP students are chosen by age rather than by grade level; the latter being how the Main NAEP participants are chosen.  NCES says that some of the same questions that are on the Long Term tests today were there in the first tests.  A third difference is that the Main NAEP delineates scores with proficiency levels while the Long Term NAEP does not.

Long Term Trend Results

Following are some of the important and/or interesting data sets from the 2012 Long Term Trend study.  But first, graphs showing total recent participants and the current and historic percentage rates of test takers by ethnicity, grade level in school, and public versus private school are presented.total participants 2012

It surprises me how few students actually “count” in the Long Term Trend study.  I assume that the numbers are low, because in order to be included on the Long Term study, participation at the schools must reach a threshold participation rate of 70%.  This is purportedly to keep schools from only administering the test to those they think will perform the best. I suggest that 70% still leaves plenty of room for schools to cull the poorest performing students from the sample. Is it possible that the picture is even worse than the data shows?  Just a thought.

race tables

This data is relevant to the extent that it can aid in explaining how each group can raise or lower their scores individually by more or less than the entire group changes its score together and what potential effect individual groups have on the whole group in general.

reading trend 2012 LTT

So, what say you, reader?  Do the anti-reformers have a valid point that education is a success because of what we see in the graph above?  Are you significantly impressed with the test score gains in the last 40 years?  Are you blown over by the scores, themselves, which are out of a possible total score of 500 points?  Is the largest score increase (9-year-old reading) of 13 points, or 6%, adequate?  Is this educational triumph reflected in the scores of 17-year-olds, scores that are statistically the same as they were 41 years ago?  Is any of this adequate given that over the ensuing years the amount per pupil spent on education has increased over 130% and PTOs and local educational foundations are kicking in even more cash that was not there in years past?  These are all very good questions for the American public to ask themselves and those in charge.

FYI, the overall scores for 2012 include scores from Catholic schools and previous years’ scores include those from private schools that met the minimum participation rate in those testing years.  This is kind of important for later.

So, what do these numbers really mean outside of their being printed on a page?  Well, let’s take a look at reading scores on the Main NAEP in 2013 translated into proficiency rates and plotted on a map of the United States.  Then we will move back to the Long Term Trend study.

state performance reading 2013

Only thirty-four percent of students performed at or above Proficient in reading in 2013 at both grades 4 and 8, with the percentages in the states ranging from 17 to 48 percent. Fifteen states/jurisdictions had higher percentages at or above Proficient than the nation at both grades 4 and 8, and 14 had lower percentages at both grades. (The Nation’s Report Card)

So, while the numbers have been increasing, the numbers say we are not proficient as a nation in reading.  It is similar for math.  Only forty-one percent are considered proficient at grade 4 and thirty-four percent at grade 8.  Woo-Hoo!  Yippee!  Meanwhile, poverty rates in this country are not explaining these educational outcomes.

poverty rates

Yes, poverty rates have increased for children over the past 30 to 40 years from approximately 15% in 1970 to 21.8% in 2012, but poverty has increased for everyone else, too, except for the elderly.  The latter are the ones who have really improved their position by digging out of 25% poverty in 1970 to 9.1% in 2012.  Wow.  Maybe the elderly would consider sharing some of their gains with the children.

Anyway, poverty does not explain why only 34% of students are proficient in reading.  This is not compared to other nations, mind you, but is based on our own internal test that we have been giving for the past 30 to 40 years.  According to the poverty chart, 78.2% of children are NOT living in poverty yet 66% of students (the majority of whom are NOT living in poverty) are NOT proficient in reading.  Even if every single child living in poverty is in the group not performing at proficiency level, that still leaves 44.2% performing below proficiency for some reason OTHER THAN poverty; same for math.

I suppose I could have just ended this blog post here as I think it punches sufficient holes in the “It’s Poverty, Stupid” slogan, but I want to delve further in Part II.

Note:  If you click on the pictures, you can enlarge and get a clearer view.  Also, here is a link to the NCES site where the NAEP reports can be viewed or downloaded.