Friday, October 19, 2007

Poverty, not race, not ethnicity

It’s not race, it’s not ethnicity. It’s poverty. Yes, minority students score lower on tests and do not do as well in school. But it is not because they are minorities, it is because they are poor. This was confirmed by two separate analyses in Darling-Hammond (2007), analyses that also show that teachers make a difference.

Darling-Hammond carried out two multiple regression analyses to determine which factors predict low scores on high-stakes state exams in South Carolina (percent who scored below basic) and Massachusetts. Multiple regression allows researchers to determine the impact of one predictor at a time, with the others held constant, that is, as if all the others had the same value.

In South Carolina, the strongest predictor was poverty. Other significant or near-significant predictors were the percentage of teachers with substandard teaching certificates, the percent of teachers teaching outside of their area, and teacher salary. The percentage of African-American students was not a significant predictor, nor was the student-teacher ratio.

A similar analysis in Massachusetts produced a similar result: The strongest predictor of performance on language arts and math was poverty. The percentage of minority students and percentage of English learners who were tested were not significant predictors. And once again, the teacher factors were important: As in South Carolina, teacher certification and teacher salary were either significant predictors or near-significant. School spending was also a significantly predictor, but student-teacher ratio was not. For math, the only differences were that paraprofessional qualification was a significant predictor and teacher qualification was not.

What this all means is that the reason minority children do worse in school is not because they are minority but because so many live in poverty. Darling-Hammond (2007) also provides data showing this is true, citing data showing that 73% of African-American children and 59% of Hispanic children attend schools in which more than half of the students are eligible for free or reduced-prince lunch. Only 23% of white students do. According to a Cornell University study (Lang, 2005) in 2000, 33% of African-American children and 27% of Hispanic children were living in poverty, compared to only nine percent of white children.

Not mentioned in Darling-Hammond’s analysis, however, is the fact that one aspect of poverty makes a dramatic impact on school performance, one that is relatively easy to deal with: Access to books. Poor children have far less access to books than do children in high-income families and have much less access to book at home, at school, and in their communities (Krashen, 2004). The solution, of course, is improved libraries.

The finding that the percent of English learners was not a predictor of test scores when poverty is considered might be surprising to some, but we found similar results: High SES English learners did about as well as, and in some cases better than, low SES fluent English speakers on a number of tests (Krashen and Brown, 2005). Social class (poverty) is indeed a powerful factor.

Darling-Hammond, L. 2007. The flat earth and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. Educational Researcher 36 (6): 318-334.
Krashen, S. 2004. The power of reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann and Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Krashen, S. and Brown, C.L. 2005. The ameliorating effects of high socioeconomic status: A secondary analysis. Bilingual Research Journal 29(1): 185-196.
Lang, S. 2005. Working mothers, and particularly single mothers with jobs, are helping reduce U.S. child-poverty rate, Cornell study finds. Chronicleonline.

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