Audrey Young had a puff piece on Secretary of Education Lesley Longstone today. Wading through the fluff, we find an interesting insight into Longstone’s thinking. Longstone says:
…New Zealand is seventh out of 65 countries in the latest OECD Pisa assessment for 15-year-olds. But broken down, New Zealand Europeans are second, Maori are 34th and Pacific students 44th.
Some people attributed the disparity in achievement to poverty, she said.
“I don’t agree with that analysis. I do agree that poverty makes a difference, but what I don’t agree with is that that explains everything because all those OECD countries have poverty.”
There was already plenty of evidence about what affected education, and poverty was only one factor.
Longstone can’t deny the impact of poverty, but wants to downplay it. It’s “just one factor”, “all those OECD countries have poverty”. Hmmmm. Yes, poverty is just one factor, it is overwhelmingly the most important factor. Yes, all OECD countries have poverty, and yes the effect is the same everywhere. Even the most cursory scan of the educational literature will tell you this [all emphasis mine]:
Studies emanating from successive waves of the NLSCY have repeatedly shown that socioeconomic factors have a large, pervasive and persistent influence over school achievement (14-16). Phipps and Lethbridge (15) examined income and child outcomes in children four to 15 years of age based on data from the NLSCY. In this study, higher incomes were consistently associated with better outcomes for children. The largest effects were for cognitive and school measures (teacher-administered math and reading scores), followed by behavioural and health measures, and then social and emotional measures, which had the smallest associations. …
It is worth noting that international studies have consistently shown similar associations between socioeconomic measures and academic outcomes. For example, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessed the comprehensive literacy skills of grade 4 students in 35 countries. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessed reading, math and science scores of 15-year-old children in 43 countries (21). At these two different stages of schooling, there was a significant relationship between SES and educational measure in all countries. This relationship has come to be known as a ‘socioeconomic gradient’; flatter gradients represent greater ‘equity of outcome’, and are generally associated with better average outcomes and a higher quality of life. Generally, the PISA and the NLSCY data support the conclusion that income or SES has important effects on educational attainment in elementary school through high school. Despite the results shown by the PISA and the NLSCY, schools are not the ultimate equalizer and the socioeconomic gradient still exists despite educational attainment.
A child’s performance in school is strongly related to socioeconomic status. Children in families or areas with higher levels of education, employment and income (the major components of socioeconomic status) generally do better in school than children in families or areas with lower levels. Indeed, socioeconomic status is the single most powerful predictor of educational outcomes (Gorard, Fitz and Taylor 2001; Ma and Klinger 2000). …
This well-established relationship between socio-economic status (SES) and social outcomes is not just a case of impoverished children having poor outcomes when compared to others. Children from lower-middle SES families have poorer outcomes than children from middle-SES families, who in turn have poorer out- comes than children from upper-middle SES families. Each increase in socioeconomic status raises the likelihood of positive outcomes. This association between socioeconomic status and social outcomes is referred to as the socioeconomic gradient (Marmot et al. 1991; Willms 2003).
The OECD has instituted a three-year cycle for looking at reading, mathematics, and science for 15 year olds, called the PISA studies—The Program for International Student Assessment (Lemke, Calsyn, Lippman, Jocelyn, Kastberg, Liu, Roey, Williams, Kruger, & Bairu, 2001). Unfortunately PISA doesn’t do a very good job of breaking down the data by social class. So I report on ethnicity and race to discuss the effects of poverty on achievement. Given the high inter-correlations between poverty, ethnicity, and school achievement in our country, it is (sadly) not inappropriate to use ethnicity as a proxy for poverty.
Tables 3, 4 and 5 display the performance in 2000 of US 15 year olds in mathematics, literacy, and science, in relation to other nations. What stands out first is a commonly found pattern in international studies of achievement, namely, that US average scores are very close to the international average. But in a country as heterogeneous and as socially and ethnically segregated as ours, mean scores of achievement are not useful for understanding how we are really doing in international comparisons. Such data must be disaggregated. I have done that in each of the three tables presenting PISA data. From those tables we see clearly that our white students (without regard for social class) were among the highest performing students in the world. But our African American and Hispanic students, also undifferentiated by social class, were among the poorest performing students in this international sample.
Oh look – the same pattern as NZ. For a detailed analysis of poverty and PISA scores in 2009, see “Poverty and educational attainment” (ppt file) from the London School of Economics:
‘It is unarguable from the evidence presented to us that poverty is the biggest single indicator of low educational achievement.’ UK House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, 2003
The relationship between socioeconomic background and educational attainment holds in all countries participating in PISA (e.g. OECD 2001).
One final reference for good measure, check out this book: Education and Poverty in Affluent Countries.
Longstone either doesn’t know this stuff, in which case she’s incompetent, or she does, in which case she’s pushing an overt right-wing agenda at the expense of education in this country. It’s worth repeating, so I will. Longstone says that poverty “just one factor”, “all those OECD countries have poverty”. Yes, poverty is just one factor, it is overwhelmingly the most important factor. Yes, all OECD countries have poverty, and yes the effect is the same everywhere, it is damaging to educational outcomes.