I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, December 26, 2011

Poverty Matters

A conversation about poverty and international test score comparisons from the comments:

Stuart Buck said...

"But for a woman who is so worried about defining poverty, it seems like quite a stretch to claim so assuredly that this is a "more valid" comparison than Ravitch's."

The reason it's more valid is that even if it's a flawed way to measure poverty, at least different countries aren't having poverty measured in completely different ways. If we could use FRL status for all the countries in the world, that would be great.

But the one thing we can't do is what Ravitch does: compare the supposed performance of "low poverty" kids in different countries when poverty is being defined in completely different ways.

Duke said...

First of all, Stuart, it wouldn't be great to use FRPL across countries. As I've said, any metric has problems: $40K may go a lot further in one country than another. Again, there is no accounting for all the free stuff other OEDC countries give their people - health care, college education, housing subsidies - that Americans must either pay for or do without. Let alone differences in taxation.

But let's put all that aside and follow your argument - and Ripley's - to its conclusion:

Ravitch points to a government study that says that kids in districts with less than 10% poverty do better than countries with less than 10% poverty.

Ripley says, "Oh, no, you can't do that! The US has a different measure of poverty than the rest of the world!"

By that logic, the US is so very generous in its estimation of poverty that it classifies loads of children as being poor that other countries would say were not poor. So that 21%, or 15%, or whatever poverty rate in the US is WAY inflated.

On international comparisons, these other countries are under an unfair burden: they have to include a lot of kids we would consider "poor" in their "not poor" group of students.

And the difference in the way the US defines poverty is so great, it not only makes up for the difference in mean scores: it REVERSES the trend! When you exclude the same kids the US excludes, the rest of the world trashes us!

And the difference in the definition of poverty is so great that the US may overstate poverty 6 TIMES more than Finland does!

That's how I read your argument. And I find it absurd on its face. We overstate poverty to such a large extent it not only closes, but REVERSES the gap in achievement? Come on, man.

More soon on "rich kids."

Stuart Buck said...

I'm not sure what "trend" or "gap in achievement" you're talking about. The point, which you partially seem to understand, is that other countries count a lot of kids as "not poor" merely because their family income is over half of what the median income is in that country, whereas those same children would be considered "poor" here.

To take one striking example, Slovakia. Median income: $9,071. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Median_household_income) Poverty rate by the measure that Ravitch is using: 2.1%, lower than Finland. See http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/eco_pop_bel_med_inc-economy-population-below-median-income

So Slovakia is beating us on poverty, right? Well, 50% of their population is below $9,071 in income, because that's the median, so it's not really all that comforting that only 2.2% are below $4,536 (or half the median).

The point is this: if it turned out that Slovakia was beating the US on PISA scores (it's not, but this is just an example), it would be completely absurd to pull Ravitch's trick of saying, "Look, their poverty rate is only 2.1%, and if we look only at US districts with really low poverty rates (using a completely different US standard), then we're doing just as good as Slovakia!!!!"

Duke said...

Stuart, I think you know full well I understand Amanda's point completely. Here's the argument so far:

Ravitch contends that poverty is primarily responsible for the gap between the mean scores of the US and other countries. She cites a government study that shows low-poverty school districts do better than low-poverty countries on PISA scores.

Ripley says: "You can't do that! We don't measure poverty the same way!"

I say: "Are you telling me that we so overestimate poverty in this country that if we counted poverty the same as other countries, our low-poverty districts would be getting beat by these other countries? And beat as badly as Ripley says?"

You: "You only partially understand."

No, I understand perfectly. I am simply taking your argument to its logical conclusion:

You - or, more correctly, Ripley - contend the US includes so many "affluent" kids in its measures of poverty it skews the data so much that the US is actually way BEHIND other countries in educating its most affluent.

Again: I find that absurd on its face. It reminds me of the nonsense I hear on Fox News when wingnuts say "Well, the poor in the US have it so much better than the poor in other countries!" Really? The poor in Finland - which Ripley uses as an example - have it so much worse than our poor? Even with the strong social safety net there? Yet they suck it up and deal with it much better than we do? And that accounts for the gap between Ripley's contention that the US sucks at educating all kids and Ravitch's contention that poverty accounts for most of our sucking?


You cite the low income in Sovakia. From p.152 of the PISA Vol II report, here are the mean indices of ESCS for three countries:

Finland - 0.37
US - 0.17
Slovakia - -0.09

So the difference in mean socio-economic status is nearly as great between Finland and the US as between the US and Slovakia. Well, this is the measure Ripley prefers. If we're going assert the poverty difference between Finland and the US is over-exaggerated, shouldn't we say the same about the US and Slovakia? Why are they whining?

My point is that the income differences can't tell the entire story. $9,000 may go a lot further in Slovakia than it does in the US. I don't know, but neither does Ripley.

And, as I will show tomorrow, if you want to compare truly "affluent" students - using Ripley's preferred measure - the US does not come up short. And, by the way - Slovakia is NOT beating us on test scores, so your hypothetical tests credulity.

Again, we're in an Occam's razor situation. You and Ripley keep trying to convince us that the relatively high performance of students in our low-poverty districts is due to the fact that the US has so fewer poor kids in those districts than low-poverty countries have in their entire nations (Ripley misstates this in her first post to assert that the US has NO poor kids in these districts, which isn't true).

But we know child poverty and income inequity are a major problem in this country. Isn't the simpler explanation that we haven't dealt with these as well as the nations we know have a strong safety net?


Stuart Buck said...

Maybe this would make it clearer: the "poverty" measure that Ravitch (and other people, to be sure) uses for other countries isn't really measuring poverty. It's measuring inequality. A country where everyone earned a dollar a day would have zero "poverty," because everyone would be at the median.

Look, you can still think poverty has a huge impact on educational outcomes, but that doesn't mean you have to defend Ravitch's completely bogus way of addressing the issue.

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Duke said...

Ha! I mention "soccer" once, and a bot comes by and drops a comment about Man-U. Too funny!

Duke said...

Stuart, no one disagrees that the measures are different - I get it.

But are you prepared to say the difference in measures is hiding a huge disparity in the quality of education for our country's most affluent kids compared to those in other countries?

Yes or no?

I'll have the answer up in a while.

Stuart Buck said...

I don't know whether there's a disparity in the education actually provided. I suspect that there is, and there's much better evidence on the point than a few blog posts here and there: http://educationnext.org/when-the-best-is-mediocre/

Even so, the point stands that Ravitch and her acolytes are wrong to take comfort in the fact that the least poor American districts seem to do only about as well as some other countries' average for all schools.

Duke said...

You are evading my direct question - a question that gets to the very heart of the matter:

Is the difference in measuring poverty between countries so great that it hides poor performance by low-poverty schools in the US?

It's a simple question, and the key to Ripley's argument.

I keep telling you I've got a post coming, but I've been distracted all day - need to write it now...

Stuart Buck said...

Probably so, unless you really think that in several countries, their average level of wealth is the same as that in our least-poor districts.

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