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David Berliner’s Test Score Analysis: Children of Affluence Outperform Children Raised in Poverty

March 7, 2017

Valerie Strauss turned her Answer Sheet blog over to prolific education writer and researcher David Berliner yesterday, re-posting an essay from his blog titled “What the Numbers Really Tell us About American Public Schools”. The answer is revealed at the beginning of the article, and it’s no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog:

As income increases per family from our poorest families (under the 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially.

In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained.

Similarly, as the families served by a school increase in wealth from the lowest quartile in family wealth to the highest quartile in family wealth, the mean scores of all the students at those schools goes up quite substantially. Thus, characteristics of the cohort attending a school strongly influence the scores obtained by the students at that school.

This fact has been known for at least 50 years. And the solution to the problem Mr. Berliner offers near the end of the essay has also been known for that same time period:

What might work to produce higher achievement for low-income children attending schools that serve low-income families?

High-quality early childhood experiences; summer school to address summer loss; parent education programs to build skills needed in school; parent housing vouchers to reduce mobility; after school programs such as sports, chess clubs, and robotics; a full array of AP courses; school counselors and school nurses at the ratios their professions recommend; professional development for teachers and establishment of school cultures of professionalism; pay for teachers at parity with what others at similar educational levels receive; and so forth.

Yet it is far easier to find another reason for the “failure” of schools serving low income children: the teachers are underperforming; the curriculum is weak; the disciplinary standards are lax; the parents are indifferent; and so on and so forth. But Mr. Berliner knows the real problem with the real solution he outlined above: it costs money to provide what he calls the “health and other supports for children now present in wealthier communities”. 

The midsection of his essay is full of cogent observations about how our nation’s schools have become so radically different in their student outcomes:

(I)n the schools in which low-income students do not achieve well, we find the common correlates of poverty: low birth weight in the neighborhood, higher-than-average rates of teen and single parenthood, residential mobility, absenteeism, crime, and students in need of special education or English language instruction.

These problems of poverty influence education and are magnified by housing policies that foster segregation.

Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste. The wealthy have cordoned off their wealth. They hide behind school district boundaries that they often draw themselves, and when they do so, they proudly use a phrase we all applaud, “local control!”

The result, by design, is schools segregated by social class, and that also means segregation by race and ethnicity. We have created an apartheid-lite, separate and unequal, system of education.

A by-product of the fact that “the wealthy have cordoned off their wealth” under the banner of “local control” means that the wealthy parents see no reason to push for more money for public education at the State level. Why? State money would not flow to their districts but go toward the less affluent schools districts. And as it stands under the current funding system, there is plenty of money in their schools in large measure because those “who choose to” reside in wealthy districts also “choose” to pay higher property taxes. And because parents in affluent communities pay a premium for their schools it reinforces the notion that “those people” in the poor districts need to dig deeper in their pockets if they want better schools. Because an element of “local control” is a reliance on property taxes, the higher taxes they pay in the name of “local control” becomes a convenient way for the wealthy who have cordoned themselves off to justify the gross disparities between their schools and the schools serving children in poverty.

Education finance policy, housing policy, policies that provide “health and other supports for children now present in wealthier communities” are each “third rail” issues by themselves. Taken together, changes in these areas will require a change in the way we think about each other and ourselves. When someone raised in an affluent community thinks they succeeded without the benefit of help from the government and that those in less affluent communities could succeed “if they applied themselves” they are overlooking the fact that their success was, in part, because of the “apartheid-lite, separate and unequal, system of education” they grew up in, a system that results in an uneven playing field and inherent disadvantages for those unfortunate enough to have been born in poverty. That system was effectively sanctioned by the government they see no need for and can only be changed if enough of their fellow citizens see a need for economic and social justice.

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