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Photo courtesy of the New York Times

The Poverty Myth in Education — that American public education can do little to improve the achievement of poor children in schools (especially if they are from minority households) – - remains one of the few weapons education traditionalists wield with some effectiveness. Thanks to the Ruby Payne, Betty Hart and Todd Risley (along with the equally debased rhetoric of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch), traditionalists have plenty of excuses for opposing systemic reform, arguing that education isn’t the long-term solution for stemming poverty, and letting themselves and the practices they defend off the hook for failing poor kids. Yet as Curt Dudly-Marling and others have shown, the underlying arguments are based on shoddy scholarship and impoverished, even racialist thinking. Given the success of KIPP and other charter, traditional, and private schools in helping poor kids achieve, the Poverty Myth just comes off as pure bunk. Not to say that poverty doesn’t complicate matters in providing all kids with high-quality education. But the issue of kids being poor has more to do with Zip Code Education policies and faulty thinking among those traditionalists working in education than with any natural conditions.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Teach For America graduate Matt Barnum takes a look at the underlying data used by Ravitch to buttress their mythmaking and finds it wanting. Read. Considering. And take action.

Are we really ‘number one’ in childhood poverty? Education reformers are constantly told that before we can fix our public schools we must fix poverty. In turn the child poverty rate is often used as justification, or at least explanation, for our mediocre schools. Diane Ravitch frequently brings up poverty too. So it is unsurprising that she raised the issue in her speech last month speech to the American Federation of Teachers’ convention.

In her speech, Ravitch declared that: “family income” is the most-reliable predictor of test score performance and that the “single most reliable predictor of low academic achievement is poverty”. Then she declared that the U.S. “leads the advanced nations of the world in poverty” with nearly a quarter of kids in poor households, while in “other highly developed nations the child poverty rate is under five percent”. From where she sits, it is the “shame of our nation.”

I watched the speech, and I wanted to know what the source of her poverty data was. Apparently it’s a UNICEF report (pdf), which Ravitch refers to in a blog post sarcastically titled ‘We’re Number One.’ So is America is really worst in childhood poverty, among developed nations? The chart below, copied from the UNICEF report suggests so.

Well, actually, the US is second worst. Regardless, the table suggests that Ravitch’s main thrust is right – the US, in comparison to other developed nations, has a serious childhood-poverty problem.

But what is UNICEF measuring? Turns out it’s looking at ‘relative child poverty,’ meaning, according to the report, “[the percentage] of children living in households with equivalent income lower than 50 [percent] of national median.”

Why this is problematic in terms of making comparisons should be obvious. Let’s take an extreme example: a nation has a median annual income of $100,000, while another’s is $10,000. Families making $50,000 a year are ‘in poverty’ in the first country, but would be incredibly wealthy in the second. The relative-poverty rate is more a measure of income inequality than it is of actual poverty. And something that is relative in one country, by definition, cannot be compared across different countries.

But does this really change the picture of poverty across countries? Quite possibly, yes. If we look at 2007 statistics, the US has the second highest median household income, behind only Luxembourg.

Let’s take a look at, say, Portugal. Its relative poverty rate sits at 14.7 percent comfortably below the US’s 23.1 percent. But Portugal’s median income is $12,515, paltry in comparison to America’s $31,111. In other words, a family at $15,000 would be deemed impoverished in the United States, but above average in Portugal.

Now, certainly there are some countries – like Norway or Iceland – that have comparable median incomes and much lower relative poverty rates than the US. It seems fairly certain that the United States is not among the best in terms of childhood poverty. Yet, there’s little evidence that we’re among the worst.

Unsurprisingly, the use of this misleading data is not limited to Ravitch. The Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet uses these numbers to make apples-to-oranges comparison and cites a similar UNICEF report that measures inequality among nations, not absolute poverty. Blogger Gary Rubinstein claims ”It is also unfair to compare our scores to the scores of the other countries since we have 22 percent of our students in poverty compared to single digits in most of the top countries” – and yet he doesn’t bother to cite any source, suggesting he hasn’t looked all that closely at the data. (I assume that he’s comparing the America’s own federal poverty measure to UNICEF’s relative poverty rates, though I’m not sure.)

Most school reformers agree that poverty does indeed matter. The idea behind the education reform movement, however, is that we can improve our impoverished schools as a means of overcoming the debilitating effects of poverty. So it is hard to hear poverty as an excuse for poor-quality education – especially when it’s backed by misleading data.