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Author: Poverty Matters, But Isn't Why U.S. Lags in Achievement

In a post on the political site Talking Points Memo, Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World, pushes back on the theory that U.S. students' weak performance on international-comparison tests can be attributed largely to high poverty rates. In fact, according to the recent PISA results, she says, U.S. students seem to underperform across class lines: 

American students are actually better off overall than students in other developed countries. Our parents are better educated on average, too. In fact, if we consider only our most affluent kids, the top quartile of American 15-year-olds by socioeconomic status, we see something startling: our most privileged kids still score below their privileged peers in 26 other nations on a test of critical thinking in math. ...
What we see from the [income-level-correlated] data is that our poorest kids perform worse than their peers in other countries--and so do our richest kids. Even our middle-class kids score worse than middle-class kids in Germany, Finland, New Zealand, and Korea, among other places. Our kids do better in reading than in math or science—but they don't tend to score at the very top of the world in any subject.

She adds that the U.S. has been outpaced by a number of nations with comparably significant poverty rates.

In recent months, a number of scholars and commentators have pinned the blame for U.S. students' poor showing on the PISA—as well as on other education-performance indicators—on rising poverty and inequality rates, suggesting we have a poverty crisis rather than strictly an education crisis. In December, in a presentation we covered, influential New York University Professor Pedro Noguera told an audience of educators at the Learning Forward Conference in Dallas that the PISA results were tied to profound inequities in American society.

While acknowledging that the U.S. poverty rate is "shamefully high" and that resource differences inevitably influence student outcomes, Ripley says that arguments to cast income disparities as the central factor behind students' subpar performance not only misrepresent the data but tend to block constructive discussion about possible instructional solutions.

"To me," she writes, "the value of the international educational comparisons is not to prove who is right or wrong; it is to see what is possible, to find the outliers and try to learn from them."

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