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Bruce Mims: Poverty and its Impact on Student Learning Outcomes

I was reading an article over the weekend about poverty and its detrimental impact on education.   It got me thinking about it in terms of the big picture in the sense that poverty is the greatest obstacle or hindrance to public education in the scope and context of our crazed obsession on testing.  In retrospect, it’s really too bad that idea got lost in the Vergara argument, because the rhetoric that was used to win the day was laced with inconsistencies and false pretenses as it relates to poverty and its overall effect on students and their learning outcomes.  The Vergara decision has only accelerated the madness, especially as it relates to Value Added Measures.


Honestly, it’s a topic I’ve purposefully stayed away from, because the intellectual side of me understands its purpose from the standpoint of a measurement instrument; it works pretty well in a capsulated space—meaning, if all things are equal. Admittedly, it’s the best measurement instrument related to direct instruction and learning outcome that can be used as a teaching tool pertaining to instructional designs and critical pedagogy (only).  However,  Its critical flaw is the human element; in fact, unless it’s used in a strictly controlled space, climate, or (learning) community it’s an inherently dangerous measure; the results of which can be “weaponized” to advance short-sided rhetoric that could have a chilling affect across the landscape of the teaching profession.


Unfortunately, the value added measurement process has been grossly misused to typecast or pigeon-hole folks in the teaching profession as of late.  Furthermore, student-learning based outcomes, in the scope and context of the value added measurement instrument, have been used to generate misguided needs-based conjecture alluding to a prospective direct conditional connection between student learning outcomes and evaluations of teaching performance. Indeed, the rhetoric became so inordinately unreasonable and politicized, it was a central rationale in the Vergara suit in California; the result of which will have a chilling effect on teacher tenure; creating new legal precedence on a shaky argumentative foundation that completely ignores a lynchpin issue as it relates to one single reality in the equation that has been curiously dismissed or conveniently ignored in terms of its salient impact on student-learning outcomes:  poverty.


Granted, there are other more potent mitigating factors that could easily refute the argument pertaining to whether or not value-added measures should be tied to teacher evaluations—e.g., the percentage of English Language Learners, teacher experience, deficits in quality personnel based on seniority positing, etc.  For the purposes of time, space, and in the spirit of “reasonable doubt”, we’ll focus on poverty—primarily because one of the plaintiffs—whom, with all due respect, we shall leave nameless— in the California case chose to make a statement on the record that, “poverty has no direct causal impact on student-learning (outcomes)” a central theme of his argument to change the dynamics of teacher tenure.  Unfortunately, the decision in favor of the plaintiff gave credence to this idea, which was really shameful.


Frankly speaking, to suggest poverty has no direct causal relationship with student-learning, learning outcomes, and/or behavioral manifestations is to blindly ignore human nature; meaning, the hierarchy of needs; simply put, a child will not be completely focused, engaged in the learning process, or prepared to perform well on a high-stakes measure if he or she is or does not have their basic needs met in the scope and context of poverty.


With all due respect to the folks who created the value-added measurement instrument and its related metrics rationale, it is indeed a great resource—when used properly; however, it does has very serious limitations; if scrutinized on its face unravels at its weakest link:  poverty and human nature.  Why?  Because above all-else, poverty, hence human nature, cannot be quantified.  Therefore, outside of being used as a teaching tool, the value-added measure is unreliable at best and completely invalid at worst.  Moreover, to formulate the results into an argument to change teacher tenure or factor into teacher performance evaluations is inherently unethical, irresponsible, if not intellectually repugnant—even for the most seasoned researcher of quantitative methodology.


So why say something now?  Because the proponents of using value-added measures to factor into teacher evaluations have become more emboldened , if not brazen, in their argument seemingly unabated or unimpeded in advancing their cause—even to the point of “moral conviction”.  Yet, many researchers who possess adequately calibrated intellectual compasses remain silent, sidelined, or “mum” on the subject; as if to speak on it would be tantamount to some type of “taboo”—nonsense!

Human nature is indeed human nature—perfectly imperfect, unpredictable, and difficult to measure at best.  Thus, anyone who carries the banner of advancing the cause of tying teacher evaluations to student performance-based outcomes does so blindly and with peril in terms of research logic—if not common sense.  If there are any doubts, I’d suggest a thorough read on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  If there are doubts afterwards, perhaps a little earnest critical reflection or a good hard look in the mirror in answering the all-important question:  can you honestly say with a straight face that you, yourself, would be ready to do your best on an exam if you were worried about where your next meal was coming from? Or whether you would be able to go to sleep with a roof over your head?  Be honest with yourself.


So how fair would you think it would be if a system evaluated you or rated your performance given those factors—completely out of your control? Completely unfair huh?  Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d say, so remember that the next time you’re pondering whether or not value-added measure is an adequate or reliable tool to evaluate teacher performance…







Bruce Mims (64 Posts)

Bruce Mims is an educator, researcher, fitness & distance running nut, father of fraternal twins who's passionate about educational technology & equity

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About the Author

Bruce Mims is an educator, researcher, fitness & distance running nut, father of fraternal twins who's passionate about educational technology & equity