Poverty is not an excuse, but it matters.

Published on Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Whose Problem is Poverty?At the 2013 NJEA Convention, Commissioner Chris Cerf said again what he said two years ago: that poverty matters. And then, just like two years ago, he quickly contradicted himself.

“The idea that anybody thinks that poverty doesn’t matter is inconceivable,” Cerf said. “Of course it matters. Of course it is a huge predictor of academic and educational success. There’s no doubt.”

The commissioner said this to a room full of teachers and educational support professionals who couldn’t agree more: many in the room teach in some of the most economically challenged communities in the state. They see the impact of poverty firsthand.

“But it’s also true that schools matter,” the commissioner continued.

In fact, it is true that the teacher has the most significant in-school impact on student achievement. Teachers indeed have a greater impact than textbooks, technology, curricula, facilities, and other in-school factors.

But the commissioner went further: “And to take the premise that poverty matters all the way to its most aggressive conclusion, which is, ‘Hey, you know, what are you going to do about it because it is such a determinate?’ I think is neither a leap that the facts suggest nor morality allows.”

In other words, schools and students can do better than poverty would predict. So far, so good.

Cerf presented a graph that he said demonstrated that some “high-poverty” schools scored better on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) than some “low-poverty” schools.

The schools that had “overcome poverty” on Cerf’s graph were ones where more than 60 percent of the student body was eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, but that at least 65 percent had scored proficient on the NJASK. Conversely, Cerf’s graph also included schools where less than 40 percent of the student body was eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, but less than 65 percent of the student body had scored at least proficient on the NJASK.

Cerf’s graph displayed only the data that illustrated his point, filtering out the overwhelming data that proved the opposite point: a strong correlation between poverty and poor performance on the NJASK.

Despite the filtered data, Cerf’s point is one with which any teacher would agree: there are things we can do in school that help overcome the impact of poverty. But what Cerf did not say in his presentation is significant.

He did not name the schools that scored against the overall trend and presented no analysis of what else these selected high-poverty schools had done that assisted them in performing comparatively well on the NJASK.

He did not break out the data from these schools that might give clues as to how they overcame the “huge predictor of academic and educational success” that he said poverty is. What was the average class size in these schools? How many students in these schools had participated in preschool? Were the schools clean, safe, and up to code? Did these students have comparatively better access to health care? Did the schools proactively facilitate family involvement? Did these schools provide other services that made them more involved in the community? Did they have staff members other than teachers providing services that were lacking in the other schools?

The commissioner addressed none of this.

Instead, his conclusion from the data was, “… there is a continuum of success, and we should continue to strive to move our instruction, to move our schools, to move our educational offerings, to a point where we move children who are faced with an unfair set of challenges or burdens, higher and better than we are today.”

Yes, the teacher matters. Yes, instruction matters. Yes, we can be successful—and indeed we are—in some very challenging circumstances. But to overcome the impact of poverty, the state must also address poverty itself.

The commissioner would do well to study more about the schools that beat the odds than where they fall on one graph with key data selectively removed.

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