Stop Blaming Poverty for Educational Problems

Annie Holmquist

Last week the news hit that U.S. student scores in math and reading had dropped. In stark terms, this news tells us that only 40% or less of American 4thand 8th grade students are proficient in math and reading.

These poor results are excused by a number of issues, poverty being the most prevalent. But according to a recent paper from Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright, the poverty excuse doesn’t exactly have a leg to stand on.

When Petrilli and Wright compared U.S. poverty rates with those in other nations, they discovered that the U.S. numbers may be rather misleading. Apparently, the U.S. calculates student poverty by using the relative poverty rate, which excludes income from government transfers. When these government transfers are accounted for, poverty dramatically declines and the U.S. poverty rate isn’t as high as it appears (chart).

What does such a finding mean? Petrilli and Wright explain:

“What it does show is that poverty can’t explain away America’s lackluster academic performance. That excuse, however soothing it may be to educators, politicians, and social critics, turns out to be a crutch that’s unfounded in evidence. We need to stop using it and start getting serious about improving the achievement of all the nation’s students.”

If poverty isn’t necessarily the main culprit in America’s poor performance, then what is? How can we bring high quality education back to American schools?