Gov. Professor Questions Link Between Income and Student Achievement

UPDATED: March 19, 2012, at 12:07 a.m.

Though educational achievement often tracks family income, a report released by a Harvard Kennedy School program last week suggested that income likely does not directly influence students’ classroom performance.

“It is unclear whether or not there is a causal connection, and the best evidence we have says that the causal evidence is very weak,” said Paul E. Peterson, the director of the Kennedy School’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, who wrote the report. “There’s a correlation between the sun rising and roosters crowing, but that does not mean the roosters are causing the sun to rise.”

In his report, published by Education Next, Peterson cited a 2011 Brookings Institution study that found that the direct impact of family income on math scores, once factors such as race and parental education are factored out of the equation, is just 6.4 percent of a standard deviation.

Peterson’s article, entitled “Neither Broad Nor Bold,” questioned the Broader, Bolder Approach, a proposal recently advised by a group of education professionals and advocates that calls for a focus on eradicating child poverty, rather than improving schools, in order to promote educational attainment.

Peterson’s study recommended prioritizing teacher quality, school choice, and graduation standards.

“We need a much clearer set of expectations of what students need to know in order to graduate from high school,” Peterson said. “We don’t have central examinations of the kind that a lot of European and Asian countries have, which leads to teachers and students not knowing what they’re expected to learn.”

Elaine Weiss, national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach, said that she feels Peterson’s comments have misrepresented the goals of the BBA, and called his treatment of the organization “unprofessional” and “disrespectful.”

“BBA doesn’t deny the quality of the teacher or any in-school factors,” said Weiss. “But research continues to affirm that the majority of the factors that drive the achievement gap are outside of school walls. Professor Peterson mischaracterizes us by suggesting that we don’t understand all the factors that go along with low income that make it so difficult for children to learn on an even playing field.”

Peterson also recommended government actions targeted at increasing the stability of two-parent families, such as tax breaks for married couples.

He pointed out that the median two-parent family income is more than double that of a single-parent family, which harbors benefits for the education of two-parent family children.

“Much more should be done in terms of public policy to provide incentive to keep two-parent families intact,” Peterson said.

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