During the first week of December the Associated Press ran a story in newspapers around Ohio discussing the effect poverty has on student performance on standardized tests. The research, conducted by Howard Fleeter of the Ohio Education Policy Institute, and released by the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, showed that student performance is closely correlated with the level of poverty in which he/she lives. In other words, as a rule, children who live in a high income home with well-educated parents who provide them with rich, diverse life experiences perform better on tests than children who live in a lower income home with less educated parents. This research comes as no surprise to any reasonable person, considering that this phenomenon has always been true and has existed in nations throughout the world. Unfortunately, the people who make the rules governing education, Ohio’s legislators, appear to be the only ones who choose to ignore what we know to be true. You can also include our federal politicians as sworn members of this “head in the sand” fraternity.
You will notice that neither our legislature nor the Ohio Department of Education were a part of this news release. In fact, I’m sure that the re-release of this information presented quite the conundrum for members of both organizations since it does not support their political agenda of blaming all student failure on the schools they attend. So, they did what politicians always do when the facts don’t support their political agenda; they pretend as if they don’t exist and they continue on their merry way of passing new legislation that has nothing to do with the problem at hand while assuring us that they are solving the problem at hand. But, ignoring the research on poverty’s impact on student performance would be akin to ignoring the impact smoking has on the cardio-vascular system. Pretending there is no correlation does not mean the correlation doesn’t exist and ignoring it certainly doesn’t lend itself to solving the problem.
Not only do many politicians willingly ignore this fact, but many will actually chastise anyone, particularly if that person is an educator, who tries to engage them in meaningful dialogue about the factors other than the school children attend that impact their success. Their standard response to the educator is to accuse him or her of making excuses for his or her own inability to will the students to succeed; for trying to dodge being “held accountable,” as they love to say. The lack of depth in their discourse is staggering, and, believe me, I’ve been a party to more such conversations than I care to remember.
This information is not to say that all children who grow up in poverty are doomed to fail academically just as the data on smoking does not suggest that all smokers will die of lung cancer. Of course, there are children who come from poor environments who achieve great academic success, just as there are students who grow up in opulence who fail miserably, and just as there are smokers who live long and productive lives. In a student’s case, this is true because of the multitude of factors other than wealth that impacts success; things such as parents’ level of education, their emphasis on the importance of being well educated, and the life experiences they provide their child. But, the fact remains that, AS A RULE, poverty negatively impacts student achievement in the same manner that AS A RULE smoking is harmful to one’s health. Impacting both variables in a positive way is a good thing.
Yet, when was the last time you heard a politician, especially one in Ohio, so much as acknowledge the impact factors such as poverty have on student achievement? They don’t. They are hell-bent on blaming schools for every child’s failure, and nothing will deter them from their mission. As a result, they continue to waste our tax dollars on repackaged, failed programs like state mandated testing, academic standards, and charter schools because doing so satisfies their personal political agendas. Their efforts, however, have nothing to do with reality.
Perhaps, if our “leaders” would have spent the last two decades spending our tax dollars on something meaningful like learning why some children seem to overcome all obstacles to be successful instead of throwing that same money down the rat holes they have chosen (aka, charter schools and testing), we could have saved a whole generation of children from the despair they face.
Wouldn’t that have been nice?
Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.