VERY POOR KIDS: A second gap widens!


Part 3—One group has been losing ground: Have black kids really been closing the achievement gap?

Last Friday, in the New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise mentioned this important fact, pretty much acting like everyone already knew it. In reality, the New York Times, like other news orgs, hasn’t shown the slightest interest in discussing that narrowing gap—or in explaining the way the narrowing has been accomplished.

How has that narrowing been achieved? On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, white kids’ scores have continued to rise—but scores by black kids have risen more! You’d almost think this would seem like news, especially since we’re constantly told that our lazy teachers have ruined the schools with their infernal unions.

You might think that—but you’d be wrong. In truth, the New York Times doesn’t care about such facts. It has made its disinterest quite clear through the years. Black kids can pretty much jump in the lake.

The New York Times doesn’t care.

That isn’t the fault of Tavernise, and her front-page report was important. Luckily, there was other news to report—gloomy, depressing, end-of-world news, the kind of education news that the New York Times likes to report.

Friend, do you want to believe that our crumb-bum teachers are destroying our schools with their unions? If so, the New York Times had some news for you! This news involved low-income kids. We’ll use the on-line headline:
TAVERNISE (2/10/12): Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say

Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.

It is a well-known fact that children from affluent families tend to do better in school. Yet the income divide has received far less attention from policy makers and government officials than gaps in student accomplishment by race.

Now, in analyses of long-term data published in recent months, researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.
Have black kids narrowed the black-white gap? That was the subordinate news, offered as if you already knew it. The focus of this report was also important. But the focus was gloomy.

Hallelujah! The gap between rich and poor students has grown! We have some bad news to report!

In those opening paragraphs, Tavernise spoke about “rich” and “poor” kids. Before too long, she got more specific. According to one recent study by a Stanford professor, this is what has occurred:
TAVERNISE: The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008, before the recession’s full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have aggravated the trend.

“With income declines more severe in the lower brackets, there’s a good chance the recession may have widened the gap,” Professor Reardon said. 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, while the gap between white and black students, regardless of income, had shrunk substantially.
We’re comparing kids from the tenth percentile with their peers from the 90th rung. Comparing those kids, the gap has grown. In fact, it has grown a lot.

Why are low-income kids losing ground? In one way, Tavernise doesn’t explain the source of the widening gap. Are tenth percentile kids achieving less as time goes by? Could it be that they’re holding their own, or even scoring better, while their upper-end peers show greater gains? This point isn’t explained in the Times report, although it’s quite significant. But in this passage, Tavernise explains why the gap may be widening:
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.
Spending by low-income families has grown by twenty percent (we assume that’s adjusted for inflation). But spending by lucky duckies has doubled! This isn’t fair for the low-income children, of course, but it’s the way things are going all through the culture as inequality soars. Meanwhile, Tavernise quoted another professor suggesting another well-known component in the production of such gaps. “James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, argues that parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality, particularly in the years before children start school.”

Low-income kids are way “behind” by the age of three, in part because of approaches to parenting which have little to do with the spending of money. These are some of the ways that achievement gap occurs.

For people who care about low-income kids, these are important topics. Needless to say, this front-page report came and went last week with barely a peep in the liberal press. As with the New York Times, so too with us: On balance, our disinterest in such topics has been quite clear for years. Unless some conservative dares to talk about very poor children in very poor neighborhoods, in which case we quiver with rage, faking our interest with skill!

Tomorrow, we’ll return to that subordinate story, the narrowing of the black-white gap. In closing, though, we do have to mention one manifestation from the New York Times.

In the passage we’ve quoted above, Professor Reardon says the achievement gap by income has grown by 40 percent over the past fifty years. The occasional reader might even wonder: But how big is that gap?

How big was the gap in 1960? How big was the gap by 2008? To help us ponder such basic questions, the Times presented one of its graphics. Click here; it’s on the left.

First, you emit a mordant chuckle. After that, you cry.

The graphic shows the rise in the gap between rich and poor, and the drop in the gap between black and white. But how big are these gaps in the present day? How big is the remaining gap between black kids and white kids, let’s say?

The graphic is hard to decipher. It describes its units in this way: “A difference of one unit is roughly equal to the difference in test scores between a fifth grader and an eighth grader.”

Does this mean that a unit is roughly equal to three academic years? Let’s assume it means something like that. It looks like the remaining gap between black and white kids is roughly 0.7 units (down from 1.2 units around 1955). This would mean that the remaining gap is about two academic years.

That isn’t great, but it’s much better than what it was. (And remember: Both groups of kids have been doing substantially better on the NAEP.) But people! The remaining gap is about two years—at what grade level?

A gap of two years would be pretty awful at the third grade level. A gap of two years wouldn’t be quite as horrible if we’re discussing tenth-graders. But nowhere does the graphic tell us what grade level we’re discussing. Maybe there’s something we’re missing here; we will happily stand corrected. But that info does seem pretty basic, and it isn't here.

That graphic shows the gap has narrowed to 0.7 units—but it doesn’t say at what grade level. Bless their hearts, the New York Times tries. We will happily stand corrected. But is this graphic their latest fail?

Tomorrow: Astounding disinterest


  1. As it happens, I was just writing about rising NAEP scores, not just for black students but for historically disadvantaged groups in general:

    My sense - including from the feedback on that post - is that neither "side" really likes to talk about the good news from the NAEP because it muddies the water on easy narratives.

    Ed reformers don't like to focus on it because then they'd have to admit that the rise began prior to the NCLB reform era. Opponents of NCLB-type reform don't like to focus on it because the continued rise in scores undermines claims about our new educational dystopia ushered in by NCLB.

    And if the NAEP numbers don't lend themselves to an obvious narrative for either "side", what's the incentive for the Times - or anybody else - to talk about them, really?

  2. "Low-income kids are way “behind” by the age of three, in part because of approaches to parenting which have little to do with the spending of money."

    It may have little do with "spending", but it's still got a great deal to do with money. The typical high-income household has a full-time mother who lavishes hours a day on the kid, or who pays someone else to do so. The typical low-income household has one parent who's out of the house 12 or 14 hours a day, if she hasn't succumbed to any number of pathologies of poverty. You could think of this as a different "approach to parenting", but what choice is there in the matter?

    But of course you know this, which is why your assertion is all the more strange....

  3. Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

    So poor kids are at a disadvantage? Wasn’t that the rationale behind Head Start? Head Start, which originated in 1964?
    A group of Arizona State Senators think free lunches, (and free fruit breakfasts) are undemocratic.

    A Senate panel led by an East Valley lawmaker agreed Tuesday to let schools opt out of the federal program to offer free and reduced-price lunches for needy students.
    Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, said the state should not be imposing these mandates on public schools. He said the decision whether to participate in the National School Lunch Program - and deal with the various restrictions - is best left to local school officials.
    Crandall said some districts, particularly those with only a small percentage of eligible children, may decide to continue to offer the free or discounted meals, but on their own terms, and with local taxpayers picking up the tab. But he said that, in some cases, schools may scrap the program entirely, meaning that children who want the service will have to transfer to other schools that still offer it.


    So do we have a hunger problem or an obesity problem in this country? I can't keep it straight. I would love to see a study on what percentage of kids getting free lunch/breakfast/dinner are classified as obese, but I won't hold my breath. And please don't tell me its the only 'healthy' food they get. Its not my job or anybody else to make sure someones else's kids are eating healthy. It's their PARENT's responsibility. I know, crazy concept.

    Before free lunches children starved. lol Let the churches feed them or better yet let their parents support them or DON"T HAVE THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE!!
    You ever wonder why people least able to feed their own children have the most children? You ever wonder why you have to pass a test to legally drive a vehicle but any moron can have all the children they want at taxpayers expense? You ever wonder why they all grow up to become liberals? Liberals who advocate for free lunches because they will benefit directly. There is a direct correlation between poverty, low IQ, and liberalism.
    Ya splashy maybe we need to group these needy children in one school so we can better serve their special needs. People like you will then know where to take your spare food to feed them. Oh. You want me to feed them? I work hard to keep my family fed. I'm supposed to take food out of my children's mouths to feed other people's children that can't even control their breeding? I don't think so.

  4. Arizona lawmaker wants to prosecute teachers that violate FCC language standards in the classroom.

    Under legislation introduced this month, public school teachers and university professors could be suspended or even fired for using profanities or other obscene language that would be banned from network television under the Federal Communications Commission’s decades-old indecency policy.

    Why in the world would Arizona teachers have any reason to curse?

  5. Thank you, AnonymousFeb 15, 2012 06:57 AM.

    That comment aptly describes the home environment of many of the children that I teach.

    1. Not Anonymous referenced these thoughts on the subject of "approaches to parenting which have little to do with the spending of money" a while back:

      Why are low-income kids way “behind” their middle-class peers, even by the age of 3? Why don’t low-income kids know more words? [Writer and broadcaster Paul] Tough reported in a New York Times Magazine piece the answer was startling:

      >>>>>[PAUL] TOUGH (11/26/06): [T]he answer [Hart and Risley] arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child’s home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class.<<<<<

      >>>>>[PAUL] TOUGH: The most basic difference was in the number of ''discouragements'' a child heard—prohibitions and words of disapproval—compared with the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.

      Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another—all of which stimulated intellectual development. Hart and Risley showed that language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and academic success later on in a child's life....<<<<<

    2. I teach low income children and was raised in a low income home myself. I am familiar with Ruby Paine's research on the characteristics of families in poverty, including research on the language environment in the home. Though a low SES child may arrive at school with half the vocabulary of a middle-class child, the school provides an environment to develop communication skills. The language and behavioral norms of a public school with a mixed SES population are middle-class. Think of phrases like "Use your words" and the use of time out for kids to cool down and reflect.

      Since SES mobility is on the decline in the US and relatively low compared to other OECD countries, I would expect that most of the children in Hart and Risley's study either remained in poverty throughout childhood or rose into the working / lower middle class, raised by parents who not only modeled language and behaviors reflecting their own low educational attainment but also continued to work long hours and budget carefully to make ends meet with little time or money for museum trips and other enrichment experiences.