Educational Performance and Poverty

There’s an interesting study out about the role of poverty, race, and educational performance (boldface mine):

High concentrations of poverty, not racial segregation, entirely account for the racial achievement gap in U.S. schools, a new study finds.

The research, released Monday, looked at the achievement gap between white students, who tend to have higher scores, and black and Hispanic students, who tend to have lower scores. Researchers with Stanford University wanted to know whether those gaps are driven by widespread segregation in schools or something else.

They found that the gaps were “completely accounted for” by poverty, with students in high-poverty schools performing worse than those from schools with children from wealthier families.

Racial segregation appears to be harmful because it concentrates minority students in high-poverty schools, which are, on average, less effective than lower-poverty schools,” concluded the paper by academics, led by Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

The study examined scores from hundreds of millions of tests over the past decade by students in thousands of school districts. Researchers found a “very strong link” between racial school segregation and academic achievement gaps. Every school district with “even moderately high” segregation had a large achievement gap, they found.

The reason, they conclude, is because of exposure to poor schoolmates. After controlling for racial differences in school poverty, the study found that segregation no longer predicts achievement gaps.

Racial segregation matters, therefore, because it concentrates black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, not because of the racial composition of their schools, per se,” the study says.

That said, racial integration as a remedy is still warranted:

Nonetheless, he concludes that because race and poverty are so closely related, the only way to close the gap is to racially integrate schools. He pointed to those who advocate that schools think less about integration and instead try to improve all schools. That hasn’t worked, he said.

There’s a website which allows you to explore the data. It’s not bad, but, unfortunately, they describe education performance differences in units of school years, which is pretty useless (they’re trying to make the statistics more approachable, but all this does is make the actual data very difficult to parse).

This results does make sense from a mechanics-of-teaching perspective. Once you have enough students who have severe disadvantages, it becomes extremely difficult to teach many (or any) of them. At the same time, these are the students who need more, not less, attention and teacher effort, so the ‘not at risk’ (for lack of a better phrase) students also suffer. It’s the poverty, stupid. And it always was.

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