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GRAVES: Socioeconomic status link to success in school still a challenges

Joe Graves

In 1983, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education published its report, "A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform," it hit American education like the 19th century eruption of Krakatoa hit the world.

You may think I'm thereby engaging in a bit of hyperbole but the analogy actually works pretty well. The Krakatoa eruption is thought to be the loudest noise ever heard by modern man (and heard as far away as 3,000 miles). There is no doubt that "A Nation at Risk" is the loudest report to which educators have ever had to listen. And we've been listening to it now for 30 years.

Listening especially to those most difficult words contained therein (speaking of hyperbole): "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."


A big part of the reason that the authors of the study concluded that education was in such dire straits in America was due to international comparisons of student performance between the U.S. and other First World countries. Specifically, the report stated:

"International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times."

Regardless of how you slice data like that, it was essentially impossible to conclude then -- as well as now since little has changed in international comparisons of academic testing -- that American education is really doing the job.

I've accepted that even as, on occasion, I've wondered about it. One such wonder was how in the world the American economy could always be doing so well in the world if our educational system really wasn't performing at least pretty well in comparison to all those countries we out-produced and out-competed. (Critics routinely blame America's schools for economic downturns but never seem to reach the opposite conclusion during the boom times.)

Well, recently, the Economic Policy Institute offered one possible explanation and one rather enormous refutation of "A Nation at Risk." (Now, before I go on, it is important to note that just a cursory review of the EPI's activities would strongly suggest that it is a left-of-center advocacy group, rather than a part of the disinterested academia, and so repudiating "A Nation at Risk" would be very much in line with its overall goals. But such ad hominem arguments will only get one so far. Regardless of the lean, reports by EPI or any organization should, rather, stand or fall based upon the research methodology.)

In this case, that methodology is the disaggregation of student data on the international tests by socio-economic level. What is true in America is true in the world: A strong correlation exists between wealth and success at school. Thus, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to perform at lower levels both here and abroad. America performs toward the lower end of such comparisons, EPI argues, because America has a larger percentage of economically disadvantaged students. When such differences are statistically controlled for, when they are "re-weighted," our schools suddenly shoot upward into much higher levels of performance -- 10th place in math and fourth in reading. Additionally, EPI argues that sampling error is occurring, that the percentage of lower socio-economic students included in the testing is actually higher than that of the population at large in the United States. This has the net effect of artificially lowering American performance scores and sending our international ranking plummeting.

So how does a school administrator, currently active in the field, react to such? Well, of course, I want to believe that EPI is correct on both counts. But, in truth, I don't know. First, does the fact that a larger percentage of our students are economically disadvantage provide us a reason for lower performance, or an excuse? Shouldn't we instead take that as a challenge we need to overcome? Second, is the sampling error that EPI points to truly an error? I have neither the time nor the expertise to adequately investigate that claim.

What I do know is that I fervently hope that some disinterested and qualified someone with sufficient time will do so.

And I hope that America can come to terms with its poverty problem both because we are all called to find ways to lift people out of poverty and because doing so will enhance our educational system and our economic prowess.

Interestingly, one of the best ways to fight poverty is through enhanced education, a Catch-22 if ever there was one. And if a pitfall exists in this whole line of analysis from EPI it is this: If anyone, especially educators, takes the message from this that it is America's poverty problem causing depressed student academic performance and so educational efforts to more effectively educate this population are pointless or therefore unnecessary since educators are not truly culpable, then we will have entered a social and economic death spiral.

The impact of that message would be harsher and of longer duration, I fear, than even that of "A Nation at Risk."