Thomas Edsall’s NYTimes op ed piece poses the question “Does Moving Poor People Work?”, and the bottom line answer is “Yes BUT…”
In the article Edsall reviews several longitudinal studies involving the effects of relocating poverty stricken families from public housing. In a study done by University of Chicago researcher Jens Ludwig that triggered the essay on housing vouchers, the researchers found “mixed results”. While some measures of well being improved,
“…a housing voucher that allowed recipients to move into a “low poverty” area – had “no consistent detectable impacts on adult economic self-sufficiency or children’s educational achievement outcomes, even for children who were too young to have enrolled in school at baseline.”
Ludwig’s findings were challenged by “some of the nation’s most prominent social science researchers”, notably William Julius Wilson who contended the study was flawed because those
“…who left public housing moved into segregated neighborhoods nonetheless, far from employment opportunities and with equally bad schools – often the same schools.”
Robert Sampson, a colleague of Wilson’s in the sociology department at Harvard, expressed additional concerns with the study, noting (with my emphasis added) that:
“…many of the adults in the program had lived in extreme poverty for decades and that the children, who were on average 11 years old when they entered the program, had spent their early years living in adversity. “The result,” he wrote, “is that developmental effects are difficult if not impossible to study in the research design,” which does not reveal the “lagged effects of severe disadvantage.”
Moreover, James Heckman, who has studied cognition in depth, concludes that by age 11 the opportunity for cognitive growth is limited. This makes any conclusions about the effects of this voucher program on academic performance questionable.
While the results of the Ludwig study were mixed, a study by the Rand Foundation done I’m Montgomery County demonstrated that moving poverty stricken families into decidedly middle class neighborhoods and schools DID make a difference:
The low-income minority children from public housing all started with similar math scores. But after seven years, those who went to schools where fewer than 20 percent of their classmates were poor shot ahead of those who went to schools where 20 to 80 percent of their classmates were poor. This difference in trajectories is shown in Figure 1 (below), in which the green line tracks math scores for poor children (defined as those receiving “free and reduced-priced meals” – a.k.a. FARM recipients) in relatively affluent schools, and the red line tracks math scores for poor children attending schools with much higher percentages of fellow students receiving FARM assistance.Edsall concludes his article with this paragraph:
We have to figure out a better way to approach intervention, whether it’s education-based or neighborhood-based or both. Otherwise how can we interrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage we are only beginning to understand?
Edsall didn’t note in the article that any decision to locate public housing in relatively affluent neighborhoods is likely to be contentious… nor did he note that “education-based” interventions will require additional revenues. My take on this: we already understand what we need to do to “… interrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage”… we just don’t have the political will to do it.
Today’s NYTimes features an interview with Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon who immigrated from China and has written extensively contrasting the Chinese education system to ours. The article should be read in its entirety, for it reinforces many of the assertions set forth in this blog and the blogs of progressive educators. Namely:
- The focus on test scores results in a narrowing of the curriculum
- The focus on test scores damages the self-confidence of many students
- Test scores measure “…something very different from the quality of education… parents, educators and children desire.”
- “The Common Core State Standards Initiative has been pushed to many states, creating de facto national standards in math and English language arts. So American education today has become more centralized, standardized and test-driven, with an increasingly narrow educational experience, which characterizes Chinese education.”
- “We need an education that enhances individual strengths, follows children’s passions and fosters their social-emotional development. We do not need an authoritarian education that aims to fix children’s deficits according to externally prescribed standards.”
Zhao describes the difficulty China is encountering in transforming its authoritarian system. He states that in order to make the kinds of changes he advocates will require “…the people and leaders to consider different pathways, different voices and different values without automatically assuming evil intentions in dissenting opinions.”
We do not have a culture of authoritarianism in our country, but we do have a culture of competition, a “winner-take-all” culture that, taken to its ultimate conclusion, can result in de facto authoritarianism. Corporations do not operate on democratic principles and are frustrated when democratically elected officials enact regulations that limit profits and/or expect the kind of public disclosures that are necessary in a democracy. All of this led me to leave this comment;
The convergence of US and Chinese education systems mirrors the convergence of US and Chinese economic systems. Opportunities for economic advancement are diminishing in our country because opportunities for educational advancement are diminishing. We cannot claim that every child has an equal opportunity to learn until every child in our country experiences the kind of education program offered in our most affluent public school systems. Setting high standards and administering rigorous tests will only move us further down the path of authoritarianism China is striving to escape.
As noted frequently in this blog, the public sees our schools as factories and, consequently, strives to have them operate “efficiently”. We use standardized tests to sort and measure the progress of students who are “efficiently” batched in age cohorts, ignoring the reality that not all children mature at the same rate and not all children enter the “factory” with the same backgrounds. Because of this our definitions of “failing schools” are flawed given the practical reality that children raised in poverty often begin school with a weaker “academic” background than children raised in affluent homes. We’ve administered standardized achievement tests for decades and we know that schools serving children raised in poverty have lower get scores than schools serving children raised in affluence. When will we acknowledge that POVERTY is the underlying cause of this “failure” on the part of schools and NOT the teachers or the “government monopoly”? When? When “…the people and leaders to consider different pathways, different voices and different values without automatically assuming evil intentions in dissenting opinions.” You see, we ARE already like China!
Nick Kristoff’s Sunday op ed column witten with Sheryl WuDunn, “The Way to Beat Poverty“, reinforces the ideas put forth in earlier posts on this blog. Kristoff cites anecdotal evidence and research evidence supporting the notion of providing support to parents who face adversity in child rearing as a result of their own suffering in childhood and the suffering brought about due to poverty. He also cites evidence on how diet, alcohol consumption smoking, and exposure to lead paint during pregnancy and a child’s first years of life adversely affect children.
He then describes how a visiting nurse program can reduce the effects of poverty at a relatively low cost. This program, which has been researched a replicated, consists of nurse visits from the time an at-risk child is born until the child turns 2, “…with the nurse encouraging the mom to speak to the child constantly, to read to the child, to show affection. Later there are discussions of birth control.” In a later paragraph he writes:
The visits have been studied extensively through randomized controlled trials — the gold standard of evidence — and are stunningly effective. Children randomly assigned to nurse visits suffer 79 percent fewer cases of state-verified abuse or neglect than similar children randomly assigned to other programs. Even though the program ends at age 2, the children at age 15 have fewer than half as many arrests on average. At the 15-year follow-up, the mothers themselves have one-third fewer subsequent births and have spent 30 fewer months on welfare than the controls. A RAND Corporation study found that each dollar invested in nurse visits to low-income unmarried mothers produced $5.70 in benefits.
So here we have an anti-poverty program that is cheap, is backed by rigorous evidence and pays for itself several times over in reduced costs later on. Yet it has funds to serve only 2 percent to 3 percent of needy families. That’s infuriating.
Any reader of progressive blogs will likely point fingers at conservatives who don’t want to have birth control the part of any poverty program and/or who don’t want the government intervening in the lives of parents. There are, however, other culprits. School districts are often in complete support of these programs as long as they don’t take money from them… and universities and colleges who rely on government spending are also leery of supporting a program that might reduce their spending levels. Kristoff acknowledges this reality, and comes down on investing where the dollars will make the greatest difference, and offers a better place for the Federal government to find money:
We certainly would prefer not to cut education budgets of any kind, but if pressed, we would have to agree that $1 billion spent on home visitation for at-risk young mothers would achieve much more in breaking the poverty cycle than the same sum spent on indirect subsidies collected by for-profit universities.
He concludes his article with this challenge:
We wish more donors would endow not just professorships but also the jobs of nurses who visit at-risk parents; we wish tycoons would seek naming opportunities not only at concert halls and museum wings but also in nursery schools. We need advocates to push federal, state and local governments to invest in the first couple of years of life, to support parents during pregnancy and a child’s earliest years.
Here’s what’s really infuriating: this isn’t going to happen unless the advocates get behind a candidate outside the existing sphere of the two political parties… because while both political parties claim they support early intervention, NEITHER party will seek additional taxes to fund it, and NEITHER party will recommend the diversion of the indirect subsidies for-profit colleges receive, and last but not nearly least, NEITHER party is willing to state the obvious: one billion dollars is chump change compared to the trillion dollars we’ve spent thus far on the misbegotten wars in the East.
A recent post by Marty Solomon in Kentucky.com, the Lexington Herald-Leader online publication provides a concise overview of the points Diane Ravitch makes in her book Reign of Error, concluding that poverty, not ineffective teaching is the problem with US test scores:
The U.S. public school system is among the best in the world for middle class children; but for kids from poverty, there is a problem. The problem is that most children from poverty suffer almost insurmountable hurdles.
While middle-class children generally start school knowing letters and numbers, even words and some arithmetic, far too many from poverty have none of these skills. They are often from single-parent families and have inadequate vision, hearing and medical care. Words spoken in the house are only a fraction of the vocabulary in middle-class families. They start school so far behind that most can never catch up. And while both middle-class and poor children progress in school, the gap persists.
Two recent NYTimes articles led to me posing this question: a September 4 op-ed by Helen Gao describing “China’s Education Gap” and a Sinosphere blogpost from September 10 by Didi Kirsten Tatlow describing what it’s like to go “Back to School, To New Marching Orders”. Both articles reinforced my theory that the US and China are regressing toward a mean whereby both governments are plutocracies and both economies are command capitalism.
Gao’s article includes these descriptions of schools in China:
While China has phenomenally expanded basic education for its people, quadrupling its output of college graduates in the past decade, it has also created a system that discriminates against its less wealthy and well-connected citizens, thwarting social mobility at every step with bureaucratic and financial barriers.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve read many of my posts that are tagged “vicious cycle of poverty” posts that contain links to articles that describe how zip codes determine destiny in our country and how a college education is increasingly unattainable because of the costs associated. Unlike our country where affluent districts often border districts that serve children in poverty, in China the divide is rural/urban:
A huge gap in educational opportunities between students from rural areas and those from cities is one of the main culprits (contributing to inequality). Some 60 million students in rural schools are “left-behind” children, cared for by their grandparents as their parents seek work in faraway cities. While many of their urban peers attend schools equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and well-trained teachers, rural students often huddle in decrepit school buildings and struggle to grasp advanced subjects such as English and chemistry amid a dearth of qualified instructors.
Again, this has a familiar ring except that in our country the divide is based on the income of the parents and not their locale. China IS behind us in one respect: they still have jobs for those students who don’t go onto higher education.. and in some cases those jobs look more enticing than pursuing a costly degree:
“Rural students stand virtually no chance when competing academically with their urban counterparts,” Jiang Nengjie, a friend and independent filmmaker who made a documentary on the left-behind children, told me. As a result, he said, most young people from his hometown village in central China head directly to factories in Guangdong Province, on the southern coast, after finishing middle school, because “the return is larger than going to a third-rate college.”
This sounds like something I heard in Bethel ME in the late 1970s when disaffected students told me they had a job waiting for them in a paper mill or working in the woods with their family business. Unfortunately for those students, the paper mills have moved north of the border to Canada and their back-breaking but relatively lucrative work in the woods has been taken over by machines. At some juncture, the race-to-the-bottom mentality will move those relatively high paying jobs from the rural countryside of China to a rural or urban landscape somewhere else in the world. At that juncture, China will become even more like our country.
The balance of the article describes the consequences of the “meritocratic” system, which involve parents making every effort to establish residency in those communities with good schools— including bribery, enrollment in study centers, and living in small, inhospitable spaces.
The Tatlow article describes the ultimate example of extreme measures parents are willing to take relative to school enrollment: parents getting Cesarian sections to enable their child to enter school a year earlier.
‘‘Every year at the end of August this happens,’’ Wang Yanli, the head of obstetrics at the Shijiazhuang No. 3 Hospital in Hebei Province, said in the report. The hospital sees two to three times the average number of births in the weeks before Sept. 1, she said.
‘‘This year it’s even clearer,’’ Dr. Wang said of the trend. China has the highest rate of C-sections in the world, the newspaper China Daily reported, at 47 percent of births.
The article also described the steps parents need to take to demonstrate residency to government officials and the marching drills that occur on the first day of school, drills design to quickly separate children who didn’t know their right from their left but also to develop the “…social and personal discipline” their President deems to be vitally important. All of this marching and sorting and development of personal responsibility sounds a lot like the “no excuses” approach advocated by many for-profit charter schools.
So… what’s the answer to the question about our desire to emulate China? I hope the answer is no… but fear the seeds for that emulation are being sown and taking root.
Tina Rosenberg’s NYTimes “Fixes” blog post, “An Untapped Force in the Fight For Literacy“, describes the success experienced in Minnesota through the use of volunteer readers. Realizing that reading to and with a youngster in pre-school through early elementary school can increase the acquisition of reading skills, MN used AmeriCorp funds to hire tutors to help these youngsters learn to read. The results are promising… but… they WILL require more money. More than anything, though, the post reminded me of something I heard in 1988, which led me to offer this comment:
Hm-m-m-m. This sounds a lot like “a thousand points of light”, the FIRST President Bush’s idea— which was far better than NCLB but nearly as unrealistic. Here’s the reality of the situation in schools: it is difficult to get volunteers without having someone in the school to coordinate their efforts… and with 32 students/teacher its hard to imagine spending “the next dollar” (assuming there WAS a “next dollar” available) on a volunteer coordinator. Bringing an idea like this to scale costs money and I don’t see any money forthcoming in the near future. The USDOE wants to use resources to give tests and philanthropists want to donate to privatization and technology efforts. As a result, untapped human capital remains on the sidelines.
I work in several volunteer organizations and from that experience as well as from my 35 years in school administration I know that volunteers are seldom reliable. They go on vacation, make appointments that match their personal schedules, have to take care of children, grandchildren or elderly parents, and often find other activities that are higher priorities than, say, volunteering to read a child a story or spend time two or three times a week with a child. There are many anecdotes I can offer that contradict this generalization, but more examples where I can illustrate it. The best way to increase the reliability of volunteers is to have someone who is responsible for gently reminding them of their commitment and gently encouraging them to stay with it even if the person they are helping is a reluctant learner or frequent absentee. A better way would be to expand programs like AmeriCorps so that currently underemployed individuals can get an opportunity to gain experience in fields like public school education, child care, primary medical care, and social services fields that desperately need lower level help to relieve trained professionals to perform other tasks. But, as the post earlier today on Paul Krugman’s column indicated, as long as we are afraid of inflation we will never get the level of government spending we need to sustain programs like the ones described in this article.
In “The Inflation Cult” Paul Krugman’s NYTimes column today, he expresses bewilderment at the fact that most of his economist colleagues keep insisting that hyper-inflation is right around the corner even though thesis predictions are not based on evidence or reality. Indeed, what is especially baffling to him is that they persist in making these predictions despite their failure to come true in the past. His lead paragraph says it all:
Wish I’d said that! Earlier this week, Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica,writing on The Times’s DealBook blog, compared people who keep predicting runaway inflation to “true believers whose faith in a predicted apocalypse persists even after it fails to materialize.”
After presenting evidence of “the persistence and power of the inflation cult“, he offers this reason for its persistence and power:
Inflation cultists almost always link the Fed’s policies to complaints about government spending.
And anger against “takers” (e.g. those who benefit from government spending)— anger that is very much tied up with ethnic and cultural divisions — runs deep. Many people, therefore, feel an affinity with those who rant about looming inflation; (CNBC Tea Party ranter) Rick Santelli is their kind of guy. In an important sense, I’d argue, the persistence of the inflation cult is an example of the “affinity fraud” crucial to many swindles, in which investors trust a con man because he seems to be part of their tribe. In this case, the con men may be conning themselves as well as their followers, but that hardly matters.
After reading the column I saw and shared two other cult-like beliefs affecting public education, beliefs driven by the “giving money to losers” and “makers/takers” crowd referenced in Krugman’s column:
- test students annually and schools will improve, and
- privatize public schools and you’ll save money and improve schools.
We’ve been testing students for 20 years and the only thing we’ve proved is that schools serving children raised in affluence and spend more money per pupil outperform schools that serve children raised in poverty who spend less per pupil. Needless to say this inconvenient finding has been ignored by those who want to diminish public spending on schools.
We’ve been “reforming” schools by turning them over to private enterprise for a decade and there is no evidence that the privatized schools are doing any better, though some people are making a bundle of money as a result of this change in governance. There is one difference between education and economics: when the evidence contradicts the faith of privatization’s true believers, the true believers can manipulate the evidence by skimming only best students and by pushing out the ones who fail. Evidence of that behavior can be found in previous blog posts and in many news articles, but that evidence, like the evidence found from tests, is conveniently dismissed by the “reform” cult.
And finally, there is the persistent, powerful, and cult-like belief that schools are factories that “manufacture” educated students… factories that can be improved by introducing efficiency. Overcoming that belief is the over-arching theme of this blog: schools are not hierarchies functioning in a silo: they are part of a network that should be systematically designed to meet the unique needs of each child.
Krugman concludes his column with this:
The persistence of the inflation cult is, therefore, an indicator of just how polarized our society has become, of how everything is political, even among those who are supposed to rise above such things. And that reality, unlike the supposed risk of runaway inflation, is something that should scare you.
Like the “inflation cult”, the “testing cult” and “reform cult” are indications of polarization and politicization. Anything that divides us or sorts us has an insidious effect on our country. If we want to remain the UNITED States of America we need to remain united in our goal of providing a means for each student to climb the education and economic ladder.
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