Poverty and Basic Education

Statistics helps to inform. Proficiency exams are diagnostic. Their utility lies not so much in seeing who is better. An exam's greater use is helping us see where the problem lies. The National Center of Education Statistics in the United States has performed an excellent analysis of the student performance in the five most populous states (National Center for Education Statistics (2013).The Nation s Report Card: Mega States: An Analysis of Student Performance in the Five Most Heavily Populated States in the Nation (NCES 2013 450). Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.)

Image captured from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2011/2013450.pdf
These states do represent a significant fraction of the student population in the country. Trends seen in these states are likely to be present in the other states. Students in these five states can be categorized as shown in the table below:

Image captured from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2011/2013450.pdf
The student:teacher ratios are more or less the same throughout the five states. California may be a bit high with 24 pupils per teacher. New York also spends the most per student. All five states, however, share one thing in common: All have about a half of the students qualifying for either free or reduced-price school lunch.
Under the guidelines of National School Lunch Program (NLSP), children from fami­lies with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those from families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals. (For the period July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2011, for a family of four, 130 percent of the poverty level was $28,665, and 185 percent was $40,793 in most states.) (http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/)
Grouping the students according to the above eligibility is equivalent to grouping the students according to family income. With this segregation, a trend becomes crystal clear. The following are the results of proficiency exams (The following images were captured from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2011/2013450.pdf )

Reading (Grade 4):


 Reading (Grade 8)

Math (Grade 4)

Math (Grade 8)

Science (Grade 4)

Science (Grade 8)

I hope I did not mix up the figures. It is very easy to mix these up because these figures look very much alike.  In Reading, Math and Science, both grades 4 and 8, students who are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch perform poorly compared to students who do not qualify for the lunch program. Only someone who chooses to ignore reality will have difficulty seeing the correlation between poverty and poor student performance.

One should be careful, however, in equating poverty with poor learning. Children from poor families can learn. This is really a question of equity versus equality. Public schools in the United States are mostly funded at the local level. Better resources are found in schools inside wealthy communities. Schools inside poor neighborhoods are much more challenging requiring a bit more courage or stronger character and dedication from teachers. Schools in poor communities therefore face poverty inside the classroom. Better resources should be placed where the needs are greater (equity) so that all children have the opportunity to learn (equality).