JLF Memo
Mar. 13th, 2012: - johnlocke.org Manage Subscriptions

Ladd vs. Peterson on education and poverty
By Dr. Terry Stoops

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In the Summer 2012 issue of Education Next, Harvard University professor Paul Peterson responds to a speech on education and poverty by Helen Ladd of Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.  At issue is the nature of the relationship between socioeconomic status and student achievement. 

Does parental income (Ladd) or a symptom of parental income (Peterson) determine who succeeds and who fails in school?  Do we have a satisfactory answer to that question?  If so, what are the implications for public policy?

Bulletin Board

  • Dr. Meghan L. O'Sullivan, the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School, will deliver the 2012 John William Pope Lecture, "Making Sense of the New Middle East: The Dynamics and Their Implications for US Interests."  The lecture will begin at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at Withers 232 A, NC State University. The lecture is free and open to the public.  A reception will immediately follow in Withers common area.

  • The John Locke Foundation is sponsoring a Citizen's Constitutional Workshop on Saturday, March 17 from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm at Joslyn Hall, Carteret Community College, in Morehead City, NC.  Historian Dr. Troy Kickler and political science expert Dr. Michael Sanera will discuss "What would the Federalists and Anti-federalists say about the current political and economic crises?"  The cost is $5.00 per participant, lunch not included.  Pre-registration is strongly suggested.  For more information or to sign up for the event, visit the Events section of the John Locke Foundation website.

  • The North Carolina History Project would like educators and homeschool parents to submit lesson plans suitable for middle and high school courses in North Carolina history.  Please provide links to NC History Project encyclopedia articles and other primary and secondary source material, if possible.  Go to the NC History Project website for further information.

  • Boom goes the dynamite in JLF's research newsletter archive.


In a November address titled "Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence," Duke University professor Helen Ladd carefully laid out an argument that has become conventional wisdom for those on the Left - parental income is the cause of the educational success or failure of a child.  

The argument should sound familiar.  Wealthy students succeed in school because they are wealthy.  Poor students fail in school because they are poor.  Exceptions to these rules are outliers that do not merit serious consideration.  Interventions that do not alleviate income inequality will fail to improve educational outcomes or close the achievement gap.  Thus, improving public education requires government to support a full range of social and educational support programs for low-income families (See Facts and Stats below). 

That argument is at the heart of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA), a coalition of academics and left-wing organizations co-chaired by Ladd, Pedro Noguera of NYU, and Thomas Payzant of Harvard University.  But the BBA approach has its critics.  Recently, Harvard University professor Paul Peterson challenged Ladd's claims in a lengthy Education Next article titled "Neither Broad Nor Bold" and a related New York Daily News op-ed, "Fix public schools before child poverty."  In the former piece, he outlined the nature of the disagreement,

Children raised in families with higher incomes score higher on math and reading tests. That is no less true in the Age of Obama than it was in the Age of Pericles or, for that matter, in the Age of Mao. But is parental income the cause of a child's success? Or is the connection between income and achievement largely a symptom of something else: genetic heritage, parental skill, or a supportive educational setting?

While Peterson agrees with Ladd that a correlation between income and performance exists, he argues that there is little evidence of a causal relationship between the two factors.  Indeed, Peterson does not deny the existence of poverty or discount the struggles encountered by impoverished families.  Rather, Peterson finds that social science research is not as conclusive as Ladd suggests it is.

For example, a 2011 Brookings Institution report concludes that the education level of the mother is a more powerful predictor of student performance than family income.  Other major research studies find that the overall effect of family income on academic achievement is negligible.  In fact, Peterson identifies compelling evidence that single-parent households, not income inequality, precipitated the achievement gap between low-income and middle/high-income students.

Peterson also questions why the massive expansion of social services, health services, and preschool education failed to close the achievement gap.  Ladd argues that the gap in reading achievement is larger for kids born in 2011 than those born 1940 because low-income families now have limited access to quality schooling, health care, and educational programs.  Peterson points out that one would expect larger gaps to exist before President Johnson's War on Poverty than after.  If Ladd's argument is correct, the introduction of Medicaid, Head Start, and the like should have improved educational outcomes for low-income children, not widened the gap between them and their wealthier classmates.

Ladd and Peterson present compelling cases, and both will have much more to say about the research in coming months.  As the debate moves forward, beware of those who dismiss Peterson's essay for reasons independent of his arguments, and avoid those who claim that he is motivated by a hatred of poor kids or elitism.  It is easy to dismiss a point of view because it does not correspond to one's political ideology.  It is much more difficult to be receptive to the kinds of genuine disagreements that occur in the world of public policy research.

Facts and Stats

Examples of policy interventions proposed by Helen Ladd in her "Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence" address:

  • Early childhood and pre-school programs
  • School based health clinics and social services
  • After school and summer programs
  • High quality schools for disadvantaged students

Random Thought

The word "squeegee" always brightens up my day.


I would like to invite all readers to submit announcements as well as their personal insights, anecdotes, concerns, and observations about the state of education in North Carolina.  I will publish selected submissions in future editions of the newsletter.  Anonymity will be honored.  For additional information or to send a submission, email Terry at [email protected].

Education Acronym of the Week

BBA - Broader, Bolder Approach to Education

Quote of the Week

"Key to Ladd's case is a graph that shows a correlation between family income and student achievement in 14 industrialized nations. To no one's surprise, that graph shows that in every country students who come from higher-income families score higher on math and reading tests. But is the connection causal? Do some students do better than others because their parents earn more money? Or are the parents who make a better living also the ones who do a better job of raising their children?"

- Paul Peterson, "Neither Broad Nor Bold," Education Next 12:3, Summer 2012, http://educationnext.org/neither-broad-nor-bold/.

Click here for the Education Update archive.


Upcoming Events

Tuesday, Mar. 13th, 2012 at 7:30 PM
2012 John William Pope Lecture
with our special guest Meghan L. O'Sullivan
"Making Sense of the New Middle East: The Dynamics and Their Implications for US Interests"

Saturday, Mar. 17th, 2012 at 9 a.m. - 3 p.m.
A Citizens' Constitutional Workshop in Morehead City, NC
with our special guests Dr. Troy Kickler & Dr. Michael Sanera
Workshop #2 in Morehead City: "What would the Federalists and Anti-federalists say about the current political and economic crises?"

Monday, Mar. 19th, 2012 at 12:00 pm Noon
A meeting of the Shaftesbury Society
with our special guest Professor Anthony J. Papalas
"The Fall of Greece, Keynesian Economics, and the European Union."

Monday, Mar. 26th, 2012 at 12:00 pm Noon
A meeting of the Shaftesbury Society
with our special guest Thomas Thibeault
Liberty’s Dogfaces

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