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National Review Online


Quit Blaming the Kids

September 13, 2004

By Jay P. Greene

Understanding bad performance — and fixing it.

It’s not us, it’s the kids. That’s the line we’ve heard for years from the defenders of the education status quo. It isn’t the schools’ fault that we pour so much money into education and get lousy results. It’s all the disadvantages kids face — poverty, poor health care, broken homes, crime, disabilities, ignorant parents...the excuses go on and on. But a new study by the Manhattan Institute shows that students’ disadvantages can’t explain away the school system’s lackluster performance.

There can be little doubt that something is causing major dysfunction in America’s public schools. We’ve poured a river of additional money into the schools and gotten nothing out of it. Over the last thirty years education spending per pupil has doubled (adjusting for inflation, of course) but scores are flat on the Nation’s Report Card, a standardized test given by the U.S. Department of Education. The graduation rate is flat, too.

Sounds like it’s time to consider serious reforms, right? However, the teachers’ unions and their allies have a story ready: the money didn’t disappear because the system is malfunctioning, but because kids are facing bigger challenges. Kids are harder to teach because they have more problems like poverty and ill health, so it takes a larger amount of money just to produce the same level of academic achievement.

No one doubts that problems like poverty are real disadvantages that pose challenges to learning. That’s not the issue; the unions are right that these things matter. The real question is, are schools really as helpless as the unions say they are because of these problems? And have these problems truly gotten worse?

It’s important to examine the claims carefully. For example, median family incomes for families in the bottom fifth of the nation have trended upward, not downward, in the past three decades. And indicators of physical health such as mortality rates tell us that children also have better health than they used to. So the unions’ claims about poverty and ill health don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Even more important, we must look at the whole picture rather than just a few isolated issues. The unions typically mention only a few things that they say have gotten worse. They don’t consider whether other factors might have improved and balanced out those problems.

The Manhattan Institute has just released the first study ever to systematically examine whether student disadvantages that hinder learning have gotten better or worse on the whole. We measured 16 factors that researchers agree affect student teachability, such as poverty, health, and family structure. We then combined them into an indicator we call the Teachability Index.

We find that on the whole students today are actually somewhat easier to teach than they were 30 years ago. In 2001 the index reached 8.7, meaning that the factors we’re tracking were 8.7 percent better than they had been in 1970. Among the factors that pushed it upward were reductions in crime, poverty, teenage births, and health problems, as well as increases in preschool enrollment and parents’ education levels. These more than compensated for reduced levels of English proficiency, increased broken homes, and other factors that got worse.

We also used the Teachability Index to compare the academic performance of the states. We found that school policies make a big difference in outcomes despite student disadvantages. For example, Texas’ students rank 48th on the Teachability Index but perform at 110 percent of the level we would statistically expect given their especially large disadvantages. States with more school choice or stronger accountability testing produced significantly better academic outcomes when differences in student disadvantages were taken into account, while states that spent more money per pupil produced no better results.

Student disadvantages can’t explain the system’s failure to perform better. The unions are right that problems like poverty make a difference, but they’re wrong to use them as excuses to shift attention away from the defects of the school system. We’ve doubled spending on a student population that’s gotten easier to teach, but academic performance is flat. If we can’t consider serious reforms like more school choice and stronger accountability testing now, when can we?

Original Source:



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