Raise the Minimum Wage, Reduce the Achievement Gap
by Senator Pat Jehlen
Last month, the Senate voted to restore the minimum wage to its 1968 value, raising it to $11. (This newsletter is a version of my floor speech, with visual aids.)
This is not just good economics; it’s also one of the best ways to close the achievement gap, by reducing poverty.
We know that the scores on standardized tests correlate most highly with parents’ income and education. Massachusetts ranks high in both income and education. So it’s not surprising that we not only lead the nation but are at or near the very top in math scores world wide. In the 2011 TIMSS, Massachusetts students scored higher than every European country in 8th grade math, and second only to Singapore in 8th grade science.
Note: to see the charts more clearly, set “view” to zoom in.
Poverty and Test Scores in Massachusetts
The correlation of scores with socio-economic status is also demonstrated within Massachusetts. This chart shows the child poverty rate in the 10 districts with the highest MCAS scores (on the left), and those with the lowest.
American Students Who Aren’t Poor Score Well
This chart shows that American students in schools with 0-10% of students with free lunch score above all European countries. Schools that have 50% or more with free lunch score far below those in any European country. UNICEF says that, among 35 “developed” nations, the US child poverty rate is higher than any country except Romania.
Despite Millions of Dollars and Radical Change, Education Reform hasn’t reduced the achievement gap
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the gold standard for measuring how students do in reading and math. You can’t teach to it, so it’s our best measure over time. This chart shows that, despite improvement in (for example) 8th grade reading scores, the gap between black and white children has barely changed in 20 years. No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001, enacted a regime of testing and “accountability” but doesn’t seem to have closed the gap as intended.
We haven’t closed the gap in Massachusetts either
Massachusetts has focused on reducing the achievement gap, but hasn’t succeeded. NAEP doesn’t break down state scores by income or race, but here’s a chart from Strategies for Children showing the percentage of all students scoring proficient in 3rd grade reading (orange), low-income students (pink), and non-low-income students (aqua).
Paul Reville, former Secretary of Education for Massachusetts, wrote in Education Week in June: “We were going to eliminate the correlation between zip codes and educational achievement and attainment. I’m sorry to say that, two decades later, it is clear that we’ve failed.”
But we once succeeded!
There was one period in history when we made dramatic progress in reducing the achievement gap nationwide: 1971-1980. During that period, students benefited from:
— School desegregation
— The first federal funds for education: Title 1, Headstart, bilingual aid, and aid to higher education
— Lower class sizes across the country
— The War on Poverty: Medicaid, Headstart, increases in food stamps and welfare benefits
— The percentage of families in poverty was cut in half
— The minimum wage was raised, and expanded to cover most workers; previously most were excluded.
Raising families out of poverty is the most important thing we can do to close the achievement gap
Massachusetts has more income inequality than all but 6 other states, and the gap between high and low incomes is is growing faster than in rest of country. Raising the minimum wage is one step toward reducing that gap.
Government makes a difference
The “Gini Index” is the way economists calculate income inequality across the world. The dark blue lines in this chart from the Economist magazine show that the United States ranks number one among all developed nations in inequality.
But even more important, the chart shows it doesn’t have to be that way.
The light blue lines show the Gini Index as it would be in each country if there were no government programs to reduce inequality. Without counting government programs, the United States is no worse than many other countries – Sweden and the Netherlands, for example.
Where we stand out is in inequality after taking into account government programs to reduce inequality, like progressive taxation and government-provided childcare. Other countries do much, much more than we do.
So it’s not that we can’t fight poverty. It’s that we don’t. And that’s hurting our children.
The Senate’s vote to increase the minimum wage is one crucial step, but there is much more to do. The House still needs to pass the increase. And there are many other areas for legislative action, such as making the state’s income tax more progressive, providing education and training for people on welfare, and making sure that Massachusetts workers have access to earned paid sick time and parental leave.
Chart of school districts from DESE data by Sara Doherty