From Stanford’s Sean Reardon: Schools Alone Cannot Overcome Racial Achievement Gaps Caused By Concentrated Poverty

Here is the succinct conclusion of a complex, technical, and nuanced report released on Monday by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon and a team of researchers, Is Separate Still Unequal? New Evidence on School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps: “We use 8 years of data from all public school districts in the U.S.  We find that racial school segregation is strongly associated with the magnitude of achievement gaps in 3rd grade, and with the rate at which gaps grow from third to eighth grade. The association of racial segregation with achievement gaps is completely accounted for by racial differences in school poverty: racial segregation appears to be harmful because it concentrates minority students in high-poverty schools, which are, on average, less effective than lower poverty schools… We find that the effects of school poverty do not appear to be explained by differences in the set of measurable teacher or school characteristics available to us.”

In the report, Reardon defines academic test score gaps: “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

The new report is part of a huge mapping study across the United States of unequal educational opportunity: “There are 403 metropolitan areas, 3,142 counties (and county-equivalents) and roughly 13,200 school districts serving grades 3-8 in the United states. Our analytic sample for the white-black achievement gap models contains 5,755 school districts, 2,067 counties, and 389 metropolitan areas. For the white-Hispanic achievement gap models, the samples include 7,800 school districts, 2,544 counties, and 390 metropolitan areas. Although the analytic sample includes estimated achievement gaps from only about half of all public school districts in the U.S., the excluded districts enroll relatively few minority students. Almost all black (96%) and Hispanic (96%) public school students in grades 308 in the U.S. are enrolled in districts included in the analytic sample.”

The report identifies concentrated poverty in racially isolated schools as the cause of academic achievement gaps in standardized test scores: “Once we account for racial differences in school poverty…, however, racial composition differences among schools are no longer positively and significantly associated with the grade 3 achievement gap … or gap growth…. Differences in exposure to school poverty, however, are strongly associated with gaps in grade 3 and modestly associated with gap growth….”  “Racial segregation matters, therefore, because it concentrates black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, not because of the racial composition of their schools, per se.”

Exactly how concentrated poverty results in academic achievement gaps isn’t so clear.

“Our analyses are less conclusive, however, on the question of why the concentration of minority students in high-poverty schools leads to larger achievement gaps. One possibility is that high poverty schools attended by minority students tend to have fewer resources, less experienced and skilled teachers and less challenging curricula than low-poverty schools.  We find this to be the case: in more segregated school districts, counties, and metropolitan areas, white students are more likely to be concentrated in schools with more experienced teachers and more gifted and talented programs, for example.  We do not find that these differences are associated with achievement gaps or the growth in achievement gaps, however….”

“Another possibility is that racial segregation results in the concentration of minority students in schools where their schoolmates have low prior test scores relative to the schools where more white students are enrolled.. This might lead to differences in curricula or instructional rigor, differences in teachers’ or students’ expectations of their performance, or differences in norms around academic achievement.  We find no evidence that this is the case. Although segregation is almost always accompanied by large differences in the academic performance of minority and white students’ schoolmates, these differences are not associated with achievement gaps.  In fact, we find that achievement gaps tend to narrow slightly from grade 3 to 8, on average, in school systems where minority students’ schoolmates have lower prior scores than white students’ schoolmates.  So called ‘peer effects’ do not appear to explain the link between segregation and widening achievement gaps.”

“In sum, our analyses provide evidence that racial school segregation is closely linked to racial inequality in academic performance.  This implies that segregation creates unequal educational opportunities.  Although our analyses do not identify the specific mechanisms through which segregation leads to inequality, they make it clear that the mechanism is linked to differences in schools’ poverty rates, not differences in schools’ racial composition.”

In their review of the academic literature, Reardon and his colleagues emphasize the importance of studies which have demonstrated the importance of public policy that would invest more in schools serving poor children and in making state funding formulas more equitable.  But they conclude finally: “(W)e have no example of a school district where minority students disproportionately attend high poverty schools that does not have a large racial achievement gap. If it were possible to create equal educational opportunity under conditions of segregation and economic inequality, some community—among the thousands of districts in the country—would have done so… If we are serious about reducing racial inequality in educational opportunity, then, we must address racial segregation among schools.”

I am pleased to see Reardon so clearly describe the realities his research exposes, but I am frankly concerned that—in a society his own 2011 research demonstrates is rapidly resegregating economically as families with means move farther and farther into the exurbs—it will be politically difficult to address the concerns his research uncovers.

What is certain is that this new research confirms what many have believed is a catastrophic mistake in two-decades  of “accountability-based school reform.”  This is the test-and-punish regime imposed at the federal level by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, followed by programs like Race to the Top and policies adopted across the states to punish teachers who were supposed to work harder and smarter to close achievement gaps or their schools would be punished.

Ohio continues to pursue this most punitive kind of education policy at the state level.  Last week, for example, the Plain Dealer‘s Rich Exner released a set of bar graphs demonstrating by simple correlation that on Ohio’s 2019 school district report cards by which the state rates and ranks its 610 school districts, the “A” districts serve wealthy students and the “F” districts serve poor students. This is the very kind of simple correlation between poverty and low test scores that Reardon’s exhaustive study confirms.

The problem is that the Ohio Senate Education Committee is determined to intensify a regime of autocratic state takeovers of low-scoring school districts—all of them serving concentrations of children in poverty. These policymakers blame the educators in low-scoring schools as the problem.  At a recent legislative hearing, one Ohio state senator bluntly demanded: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?” The state has already seized school districts in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland, and the Ohio Senate threatens future takeovers of several more districts serving poor students, including Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Canton.  Reardon’s new study demonstrates that members of the Ohio Senate Education Committee are mistaken in their contention that top-down autocratic governance changes will close achievement gaps caused by concentrated family and neighborhood poverty.

In their new report, Reardon and his colleagues demonstrate that low-scoring schools serving concentrations of very poor children are the manifestation of our society’s rising inequality and the concentration of poverty in racially segregated communities.  The schools themselves are not the cause.

14 thoughts on “From Stanford’s Sean Reardon: Schools Alone Cannot Overcome Racial Achievement Gaps Caused By Concentrated Poverty

  1. I appreciate so much how you keep the issue of poverty and education out in the conversation. It is so easy for people to be duped into believing the two are not related. You are my modern day Jonathan Kozol! Thanks, Jan.

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