Do U.S. Principals Overestimate Poverty?

One of the more baffling findings in the OECD’s latest survey of teachers and principals suggests that our school leaders are overestimating poverty in their own schools. As the OECD's own Andreas Schleicher explains in a recent blog post, about two-thirds of our principals say more than 30% of their students come from disadvantaged homes. But an OECD survey of actual U.S. students, which includes fairly detailed questions about parent education, technology in the home and other reliable indicators of socioeconomic status, estimates the number of disadvantaged students at 13% (slightly better than average for the developed world).

Are our principals seeing poverty where it does not exist? That would be fairly terrifying, since child poverty is bad enough as it is – and exaggerating it can tempt adults to lower their expectations for kids and settle for mediocrity sooner than they should.  

I suspect that the real explanation is not that sinister (though the effects could be just as toxic). U.S. principals may be using a different definition of poverty than principals in other countries. That OECD survey defined “disadvantaged” for the principals this way: “‘Socioeconomically disadvantaged homes’ refers to homes lacking the basic necessities or advantages of life, such as adequate housing, nutrition or medical care.” 

That is probably not how U.S. principals answered the question, however.

That’s because our principals routinely equate poverty rates with the rates of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Every U.S. principal I’ve interviewed has this number memorized. But in fact, the lunch number is definitely not the same as a poverty rate, and educators in other countries don’t think of poverty this way.

Kids who qualify for lunch subsidies in the U.S. come from families who earn up to 185% of the federal poverty line. So in 2013, a child in a family of four qualified if the family’s annual income was no more than $42,643. In some U.S. towns, $42,643 would not be enough for a family of four to live on. But in others, it would be. The criteria is the same in the 48 contiguous states, which is sort of nuts given the variance in cost-of-living between, say, New York City and Norman, OK. In any case, the lunch cut-off is explicitly not the same as the poverty line.

The free-lunch number is useful, of course. It does give us a rough approximation of poverty, even if it is higher than what other people in other countries might consider “poor.” But researchers agree that the number is seriously flawed as a measure of child poverty.

Most sophisticated analyses of poverty now include multiple measures such as parental education, employment status, single parenthood, medical conditions—not just income. After all, we know that neglect and deprivation have many causes, not only (and not always) low incomes.

To make matters worse, researchers have found that the current free-lunch rates suffer from troubling inaccuracies. (A 2007 federal report found that about 15% of students who had been granted lunch subsidies were actually not qualified; another 8% who were refused the benefit were in fact eligible.) More and more schools are now automatically qualifying all their students, making the free-lunch figure even less reliable.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Education is currently trying to come up with a better estimate of poverty to replace the free-lunch figure. That's a wise idea. A more accurate figure could be lower in some schools and higher in others; no one really knows for sure what we’d find if we used a more serious measure of socio-economic status. But at least we'd be closer to the truth than we are now.

In the meantime, it does appear that U.S. principals are overestimating poverty compared to principals in other countries. Does it matter? It depends on the principal. No matter how you measure it, child poverty is high in the U.S. compared to other developed countries, so the problems are real and present in many U.S. schools. But hyper-awareness of poverty can make a mediocre principal worse—by providing a compelling explanation for education failures that conveniently shifts much of the blame to the home and society at large. And when combined with the reductionist, blame-poverty narratives propagated in many U.S. education colleges, books and blogs, this mindset can excuse all manner of in-school failures.

One of the things I noticed while interviewing principals and teachers in other countries is that they were not nearly as conscious of poverty stats as their American peers. In every country I visited (including Poland and South Korea, which have higher poverty rates than, say, Finland), I asked principals roughly what percentage of their kids would be considered disadvantaged. None of them could tell me off the top of their heads.

In a strong system, that obliviousness can be an asset. One Finnish teacher who had a significant number of refugee students in his class explained it to me this way: “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much. I don’t want to have too much empathy for them because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”

EducationAmanda Ripley