Just Give More Money to Poor People

The major concern of education researchers and reformers for years has been the relative performance of this county compared to other first world nations. The U.S. ranks 17th in math among the world’s 34 development countries. It ranks 21st in science and 17th in reading.

This mediocre performance is used as the justification for all sorts of education reform ideas, both those focused on more drilling and more tests, and easier hiring and firing for teachers (along the model of the education system of South Korea), and those focused on lenient standards, more play time and greater labor protections for teachers (along the model of the education system of Finland).

Both Finland and South Korea have very high education achievement. So, which is the better model to pursue? This is a huge question in education management, and pits two important reform types against each other. The champion of the “more drilling and more tests” policy is Washington, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The champion of the lenient standards policy is education historian (and former “more drilling and more tests” advocate) Diane Ravitch.

But these two countries have little in common in term of culture, governance, and education management. So what’s to account for their success?

It might be that both of those countries have virtually no poor people. As I put it here a few years ago:

Education performance doesn’t always track income directly, but there’s probably something here. How many more different education reforms do we have to try, and find wanting, before we figure out it might be time to address inequality?

This is a pretty serious concern of mine, and I admit I do write about this pretty often. But what other education reformers, particularity those who support reforms along the Michelle Rhee model, point out is that money doesn’t actually solve these problems; we already spend more money on education than all other developed counties.

But an article in the Washington Post suggests another, rather more promising, solution:

Twenty years ago, a group of researchers began tracking the personalities of 1,420 low income children in North Carolina. At the time, the goal was simple: to observe the mental conditions of kids living in rural America. But then a serendipitous thing happened.

Four years into The Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth, the families of roughly a quarter of the children saw a dramatic and unexpected increase in annual income. They were members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and a casino had just been built on the reservation. From that point on every tribal citizen earned a share of the profits, meaning about an extra $4,000 a year per capita.

For these families, the extra padding was a blessing, enough to boost household incomes by almost 20 percent on average. But for the fields of psychology, sociology and economics, it has been a gold mine, too. The sudden change in fortunes has offered a rare glimpse into the subtle but important ways in which money can alter a child’s life. The dataset is so rich that researchers continue to study it to this day.

That’s because the extra money helped a lot.

Researchers continued to observe the children, every other year for 10 years. The results were positive. Really positive.

Not only did the extra income appear to lower the instance of behavioral and emotional disorders among the children, but, perhaps even more important, it also boosted two key personality traits that tend to go hand in hand with long-term positive life outcomes.

And some of the families, given the boost, even moved to areas with slightly better census tracts in terms of both income and education. They were, in other words, able to expose their children to a different group of peers.

This isn’t to say that legalized gambling is the solution, of course. But what it does suggest is that maybe the way we might get a dramatic improvement in education performance, the sort of improvement that might change things, is not necessarily to give more money to schools; if the poor just made more we might get much better outcomes here.

“We know that low income kids are worse off in a number of ways, in terms of cognitive abilities and behavioral disorders, than their counterparts in much more affluent areas,” said [Johns Hopkins University health economics researchers] Emilia Simeonova. “Now we have a sense of what even just a little money can do to change these things, to change their lives.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer