VERY POOR KIDS: Falling for the gap!


Interlude—Irate academics speak: Is man (sic) the rational animal?

That’s what Aristotle is said to have said. But how much did Aristotle know? He also “defined motion as the actuality of a potentiality as such!” And he suggested that “the reason for anything coming about can be attributed to four different types of simultaneously active causal factors.”

According to Wikipedia! Just click here.

Did Aristotle have his head in the clouds? We suspect he’d temper his claims about rationality if he could see the way we modern men (and women) discuss low-income kids.

Last Friday, Sabrina Tavernise did a front-page report in the New York Times about the educational achievement of low-income children. She highlighted an undesirable trend. The achievement gap between rich and poor kids has grown in recent decades, she said.

What did she mean by “rich” and “poor?” By how much has the gap widened? In this passage, Tavernise described a study by Stanford professor Sean Reardon:
TAVERNISE (2/10/12): In the study he led, researchers analyzed 12 sets of standardized test scores starting in 1960 and ending in 2007. He compared children from families in the 90th percentile of income—the equivalent of around $160,000 in 2008, when the study was conducted—and children from the 10th percentile, $17,500 in 2008. By the end of that period, the achievement gap by income had grown by 40 percent, he said...
Reardon compared kids from the tenth percentile by income with their peers from the 90th rung. From 1960 to 2008, the achievement gap between the groups grew by 40 percent, he found.

This morning, the Times published four letters about Tavernise’s report. Each letter comes from a muckety-muck; one even comes from a psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School! None comes from a regular person who might even know something.

This doesn’t mean that the letters are “wrong;” we would even tend to agree with some of their observations. On balance, we thought the letters were unimpressive. We were most struck by the letter from a pair of academics at Gotham universities.

These writers advanced a familiar set of views, views you might describe as somewhat partisan. We were stuck by the dog which didn’t bark, perhaps from the roof of the car:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (2/16/12): Studies showing an increasing achievement gap between rich and poor students come as no surprise. As early-childhood educators who spend time in classrooms, we have been shaken by the changes of the last decade, changes that have had a particularly devastating effect on children in poor communities.

Young children have been deprived of essential experiences—art, music, open-ended discussion, dramatic play, exploratory use of materials—that we know contribute to well-rounded development and engaged learning.

The pressure for narrow academic advancement is a direct result of the No Child Left Behind law. Policy makers, divorced from the lives of young children and disdainful of the knowledge of experienced teachers, have left the learner out of the equation.

These studies point to the complete bankruptcy of the No Child law, but we wonder if policy makers will draw the logical conclusions. Improvements in children’s real achievement will come only with broader reforms: the development of a strong corps of teachers, in early childhood as well as in upper grades; increased support for teachers; emphasis on curriculum that is cognitively challenging and developmentally appropriate; and social reforms that support families and allow families to support their children’s learning.
The writers say they weren’t surprised by the studies which show an increasing gap. In their mind, these studies point to “the complete bankruptcy” of the No Child Left Behind program.

On balance, has No Child Left Behind been a failure? Has it been a massive failure? Truth to tell, we don’t know—but we have an excuse. You see, we read the New York Times every day. This includes the letters from outraged academics.

In our view, something quite basic is wrong with that letter. Here’s what it is:

Rather plainly, the writers assume that the growing gap reflects decreased achievement by tenth-percentile kids. But nothing in Tavernise’s report says that achievement has dropped among low-income kids, whether in the past fifty years or just in the No Child era.

Reardon’s study says the achievement gap has widened. That doesn’t mean that achievement itself has dropped among low-income kids. It may be that the low-income kids have shown gains in achievement—but the high-income kids have simply gained more.

That too would widen the gap.

We haven’t read Reardon’s study, and Tavernise didn’t explain this very basic point. But everything in the public domain suggests to us that something like that is most likely what has occurred. Since the writers cite No Child Left Behind, let’s look at achievement by low-income kids in just the past ten years.

To access the latest report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, click here. Scroll down to page 19, where you will see math achievement by fourth-graders who are eligible for free lunch. This would include a lot of kids from above the tenth percentile by income; as of 2011, a walloping 43 percent of public school kids were receiving free lunch, according to the NAEP data. (This was up from 33 percent in 2003.)

These aren’t the tenth-percentile-by-income kids. But this is the best we can do from the NAEP data—and the NAEP is widely cited as “the gold standard” in American educational testing.

What has happened to this larger group of low-income kids? From 2003 to 2011, their average score in fourth-grade math rose by eight points on the NAEP scale. Using a very rough rule of thumb, this means that these low-income kids gained almost one academic year in math over that eight-year period.

If we accept this judgment as valid, it represents a very large gain in math achievement during that period. But uh-oh! The achievement gap stayed right where it was during those eight years! As you can see from that same graphic, kids who didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunch gained eight points in math too. Both groups of kids were achieving more, so the gap stayed where it was.

If you click down to page 44, you will see free-lunch eighth-graders showing even larger gains in math during that eight-year period.

(Does ten points on the NAEP scale really equal one academic year? As we always say, we regard that as a very rough rule of thumb. But as we’ve often noted, this rule of thumb is widely applied by the New York Times when it leads to gloomy conclusions.)

Let’s return to that letter. Quite quickly, the gloomy academics were blaming Bush for the widening gap. They showed no sign of knowing a basic fact; according to our most reliable data, achievement has seemed to grow, by a lot, during the No Child years! Did that happen because of No Child Left Behind? In spite of the controversial program?

Like the irate academics, we have no real idea.

What has happened to achievement by tenth-percentile kids? Tavernise should have explained this basic fact; it represents a key omission from an important report. But please understand:

Over and over, again and again, journalists and academics keep falling into a basic logical gap. When they hear the achievement gap has widened (or stayed the same), they assume that achievement itself must have suffered.

This is a major logical bungle. Professors love to make it!

For ourselves, we would guess that achievement has grown at the tenth percentile by income over the past fifty years. We would base that guess on our knowledge of NAEP scores, where achievement has grown by very large amounts during that period. We would also base that guess on Tavernise’s report. This is what she says has happened for high- and low-income kids:
TAVERNISE: One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more essential for success in today’s economy.

A study by Sabino Kornrich, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, and Frank F. Furstenberg, scheduled to appear in the journal Demography this year, found that in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Dr. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Low-income parents are spending more on their kids—but high income parents are spending much more. Presumably, this is an artifact of growing income inequality, but we don’t really know. The quote from Furstenberg suggests a world in which the gap is growing because of large gains by the wealthier kids—not because low-income kids are somehow achieving less.

Not because they’ve been destroyed by President Bush’s vile program.

Tavernise should have reported on achievement itself, not just on the achievement gap. But our society’s massive disinterest in these topics is always a sight to behold. That letter is a bit of a partisan document. To us, it suggests a familiar but almost pathological indifference to the actual facts on the ground.

The NAEP says that achievement has grown. How can it be—that our journalists and our academics remain innocent of such fundamental facts? We don’t know how to answer that question. But their indifference simply reeks.

Their indifference stinks to high heaven.

What would Aristotle say if he saw the way these discussions unfold? Again and again, our journalists and academics conflate achievement itself with the achievement gap. Again and again, they show no sign of understanding what the NAEP data show.

In the process, we show few signs of caring about the actual facts concerning actual low-income kids. We prefer to advance familiar novels, including some of a partisan bent.

We say we care about low-income kids. More often, we care about the tribe. Low-income kids can pretty much hang.

What we really seem to love is hate for that vile other tribe.

Tomorrow: Words from a reformer


  1. Once again thank you for pointing out the ridiculousness that passes for logic at the collegiate level.

  2. "while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources."

    It's possible the 11% divorce rate among educated people who wait to have children and the 44% out of wedlock births in the white underclass accounts for much more of the disparity in economic and educational achievement than "ballet lessons."

    1. Oh my, do we have one of Charles Murray's fellow travelers hanging around this water cooler now?

    2. Does mentioning Charles Murray negate the fact that breakdown of the nuclear family is one cause of the education gap?

  3. Here's another way to express the gains in English: The average kid on free lunch in 2011 scored better on the 4th grade math test than 60 percent of the free lunch kids who took the same test in 2003. The average non-eligible kid in 2011 scored better than 62 percent of the non-free lunch eligible kids in 2003. So while both groups scored better than the average in 2003, the wealthier kids improved a bit more, so the gap widened a bit.

  4. Aristotle was quite aware of the role of emotions, though. This recognition is central to his famous treatise on poetics, which focuses on the emotional effects of tragic drama, and on organic unity of literary design in provoking cognitive responses in readers and audiences.