Reality Distortion Field

This is the story of how wishes come true in the strange, upside-down world of education.

Edu-pundits like Diane Ravitch like to say that America’s education problems have everything to do with poverty. This is actually a debate that goes back centuries in American schools. It takes different forms at different times, but it almost always follows the same equation: poverty (or race) is a problem so intractable that schools cannot be expected to overcome it. (Fun fact: the same debate was used to defend low-performing, segregated public schools in New York City in the 1960s. Check out this New York Times story from 1963.)

Interestingly, this is not the kind of talk you hear in places with higher-performing education systems. In those countries, the very same countries that Ravitch says should be models for US schools, educators also think poverty is a big problem. But they think it is their problem. They think it is a problem so intractable that our schools must be outstanding in order to help overcome it. See the difference?

Of course, if we think about it calmly for more than 5 minutes, we can probably agree that poverty interacts with schools, like a chemistry experiment. Bad schools make poverty worse, and great schools make it possible to overcome poverty. In fact, great schools are among the most effective anti-poverty measures known to humanity. Neither schools nor poverty work in isolation.

And yet this debate rages on, with a stunning lack of sophistication. To show you what I mean, let’s consider the latest talking point.

Ravitch and others have been saying over and over again that America’s low-poverty (i.e. affluent) schools do even better than Finland. “Low poverty schools, low poverty districts in the US perform just as well in the US as schools with similar demographics in the top nations in the world. They’re number 1. In fact, our children are number 1 in the low poverty districts.”

So if we took away our pesky poverty problem, we’d rank at the top of the world! This point is meant to defend all schools, but mostly it makes upper-income parents feel better about their own kids’ schools.

Too bad it’s not true.

The most respected international tests of teenagers around the world (PISA) has consistently shown that our most-affluent kids do not perform as well as the most-affluent kids in the highest-performing countries around the world (even though our rich kids are richer than their rich kids). PISA measures students’ economic, social and cultural status to get a sense of their socio-economic background. In reading, American kids’ best subject, our most affluent students still rank behind the most affluent kids in six other countries. (Even though we spend far more money per student than all of those countries.)

Rich Kids Ranking (PISA Reading 2009)

1. New Zealand

2. Korea

3. Belgium

4. Finland

5. Canada

6.  Australia

So where is Ravitch coming from? She is, after all, a professor at New York University. Surely she can’t just make these things up, right?

Here’s what’s happening. Bear with me, because it is revealing.

Ravitch’s claim can be traced back to a small table on page 15 of a government report that broke down the PISA results based on the percentage of kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. When you do that, you see that kids at U.S. schools where less than 10% of the students qualify for free/reduced-price lunch score on average very high—indeed higher than the average for, say, Finland.

But then she makes the magical leap. She says that since Finland has less than 10% poverty, and those schools do, too, then…ta da! Our low-poverty schools are best in the world—when you compare rich kids to rich kids.

Here’s the problem: she is using 2 different definitions of “poverty.”

The free/reduced-price lunch figure measures the number of kids from families making 185% of federal poverty line, right? So that means a family of 4 needs to make less than about $40,000 to qualify. Under this measure, roughly 40% of American kids qualify as “poor.”

OK. Then the other measure is the measure usually used in international comparisons of poverty. That is the percentage of kids from families earning less than 50% of the median income in that country. (In the US, this comes out to about 22%. NOT 40%.)

In other words, Ravitch is comparing the test scores of kids from families that earn more than $40,000 in the U.S. to the scores of all kids in Finland (where the median household income is about $40,000).

I don’t have tenure, but even I know you can’t mix and match data like this. Unless you are really, really desperate to find a certain answer, that is. [Edit: After this post went up, an alert reader informed me that Ravitch does not have tenure either; NYU confirms that she is a nontenured “research scientist.”]

Conversely, PISA’s own measure of socio-economic background, the one you can find detailed in Table II.3.1 in PISA Volume II, offers a more valid comparison. And yet Ravitch does not cite it—because it does not show what she wants it to show.

I have been to Finland, Korea and Poland working on this book, and I have the luxury of spending hours reading PISA results. Most writers do not. They just repeat what Ravitch and others say. And so the magical thinking continues.

On Friday, David Sirota repeated this myth in Salon. And it ran again yesterday in the Oregonian.

As 2011 draws to a close, we can confidently declare that one of the biggest debates over education is — mercifully — resolved. We may not have addressed all the huge challenges facing our schools, but we finally have empirical data ruling out apocryphal theories and exposing the fundamental problems.

We’ve learned, for instance, that our entire education system is not “in crisis,” as so many executives in the for-profit education industry insist when pushing to privatize public schools. On the contrary, results from Program for International Student Assessment exams show that American students in low-poverty schools are among the highest achieving students in the world.

What interests me is not so much that fiction gets reported as fact. That is an old story. What interests me is why so many people—particularly liberals—seem to want to believe that poverty is even more intractable than it is…  Why would this be?

EducationAmanda Ripley