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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Poverty, Shmoverty!

I came across this post by Amanda Ripley in my reformy-type blog travels; she is taking on Diane Ravitch's claim that the USA's relatively poor showing in international test comparisons can be blamed, in large part, on poverty:
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. [emphasis mine]
Except that Ravitch isn't doing this. She's comparing US schools with fewer than 10% of kids in poverty to other countries. Guess what? These schools still have poor kids; presumably, they took the tests too. Not all of the kids in these schools have families that make over $40k. So what's the problem with the comparison?

Now, if we're going to have a discussion about definitions of poverty around the world, fine, let's do that. We can talk about our vast income inequity and lack of universal health care. We can talk about how much narrower the distribution wealth is in other countries than the US. We can talk about all of the  societal infrastructure other countries have that we don't. We could even talk about how bogus it is to compare spending per pupil averages in different countries when the costs of teacher benefits are included in the US average but not in countries with universal health care.

But let's stop this nonsense about how poverty doesn't really matter much. It's always embarrassing when folks try to make the case.

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