It is a truth universally acknowledged (in the research literature) that schools themselves do not cause achievement gaps and that schools by themselves cannot close achievement gaps. But we prefer to believe something else.
We blame schools when they don’t close the gaps quickly. We close the schools or fire their principals and teachers. Or we create state “achievement” districts with distant overseer superintendents who monitor test scores. Or our states create emergency managers with absolute power to override union contracts and fire entire school staffs if they like. Or, for so-called “efficiency,” we turn the schools over to private management companies. Cause and effect logic doesn’t operate much in the realm of school “reform.”
Today, this blog will review the evidence about the root causes of school achievement gaps and then look at the new study released this month from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. about the achievement gap in place across America long before children enter Kindergarten.
Back in 1999, well before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act that set out to close achievement gaps through test-based accountability, Helen Ladd and colleagues writing a school finance book for the National Research Council declared, “Achieving the goal of breaking the nexus between family background and student achievement requires special attention.” (Making Money Matter, p. 47)
Ten years later, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focuses on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated. These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm. They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480. They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present. The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.” “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high. It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)
Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released massive data reports confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income across America’s large metropolitan areas. Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009. Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents. The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.
In 2013, here is what the historian Michael Katz and the professor of education Mike Rose concluded at the end of a book of academic essays about the current wave of school reform: “(A) rough consensus which crosses political lines blames poor teaching, ineffective teacher preparation programs, teachers’ unions, the lack of accountability for results, and monopolistic public systems for the failures of student achievement measured, primarily, by test scores. In mainstream reform discourse, teachers and their unions emerge as the major villains…. Powerful foundations, the national government, and the media… reinforce and disseminate these views. The reform agenda includes two primary components: first, hold teachers accountable for student achievement… and second, break up public monopolies by introducing choice, mainly in the form of charter schools…. The fact of the matter is that the ‘problem’ of American eduction is to a large extent a problem of poverty. By international standards, American students who attend schools where only a small percentage of students come from families with income below the poverty line measure up well against the best in the world.” (Public Education Under Siege, pp. 223-224)
And in 2013, Diane Ravitch summarized the dilemma: “Still the question remains: Should we ‘fix’ poverty first or ‘fix schools first? It is a false choice. I have never heard anyone say that our society should ‘fix’ poverty before fixing the schools. Most thoughtful people who want to help children and families speak of doing both at the same time, or at least trying. Yet here are all these powerful people saying we should ‘fix’ the schools first, then, someday, turn our attention to poverty. Or maybe they mean that fixing schools will take care of poverty. The reformers’ case is superficially appealing. It ought to be easier to ‘fix’ schools than to ‘fix’ poverty, because poverty seems so intractable. Our society has grown to accept poverty as an inevitable fact of life and there seems to be little or no political will to do anything about it. It should also be cheaper to fix schools instead of poverty, because no matter how much it costs to fix schools, it will surely be less than the cost of significantly reducing poverty in a society with great economic inequality like our own. The problem is that if you don’t really know how to fix schools, if none of your solutions actually improve education, then society ends up neither fixing schools nor doing anything about poverty.” (Reign of Error, pp 92-93)
In this context, Emma Garcia of the Economic Policy Institute just published research that documents Inequalities at the Starting Gate, sizeable achievement gaps relating to income inequality that are well established before children enter Kindergarten.
Here is Garcia’s conclusion: “Gaps based on socioeconomic status are very significant and prevalent, while those based on race/ethnicity are largely sensitive to the inclusion of socioeconomic status… These findings indicate that inequalities at the starting gate are largely the result of accumulated social and economic disadvantages; that socioeconomic status or social class, is the single largest predictor of early education gaps and that gaps based on race are primarily a result of the many factors for which race mediates and that minority groups disproportionately experience.”
Garcia presents the demographic data that describes the children entering Kindergarten today: “Over half (52 percent) of white children are in the two highest socioeconomic quintiles (high-middle or high), while only 8.9 percent fall into the lowest SES quintile. A similar pattern is true among Asian kindergartners: 59.9 percent are in the highest two quintiles, and 11.8 percent are in the lowest. For black and especially for Hispanic children, however, the situation is reversed. Over half (56.8 percent) of black children and over two-thirds (66.6 percent) of Hispanic children are in the two lowest quintiles, and fewer than one in 10 of either group are in the highest SES quintile (8.3 percent of black children and 6.8 percent of Hispanic children). Another angle through which to see these numbers is the proportion of children who live in povery by race/ethnicity: 13.1 percent of white children, 17.3 percent of Asian children, and nearly half of black children (45.5 percent) and Hispanic children (46.3 percent).”
Garcia writes: “Overall, our results—showing significant socioeconomic-based gaps in cognative skills—confirm what multiple other research analyses (e.g. Reardon 2011) have found: that students’ levels of readiness and development are closely associated with their parents’ socioeconomic status. Unadjusted differences in cognitive domains indicate that each move up a socioeconomic quintile in the SES distribution is associated with approximately a quarter of a standard deviation… improvement in performance in both math and reading, with students in the top quintile… scoring nearly a full standard deviation above students in the bottom quintile….”
Garcia attributes these results to the challenges experienced by children living in the lowest SES quintile and the enrichments being showered upon children in the top quintiles as inequality widens and affluent children are exposed to added travel and other programs and lessons. Robert Putnam agrees. In his new book on the impact of rising inequality on children’s opportunity, Putnam describes the investments of middle and upper class parents in child-rearing: “Concerted cultivation refers to the child rearing investments that middle-class parents deliberately make to foster their children’s cognitive, social, and cultural skills, and, in turn, to further their children’s success in life, particularly at school… Parents from all social backgrounds nowadays invest more money and more time in raising their kids than was true a generation ago…. but because affluent, educated families have not only more money but also more time… they have been able to increase their investments much faster than poor parents…. As a result, the class gap in investments in kids has become wider and wider.” (Our Kids, pp. 118-124)
Emma Garcia concludes her new report with suggestions about closing the opportunity gaps that exist long before children reach Kindergarten. She absolutely endorses expanding the affordability, availability and quality of child care and pre-Kindergarten education. She also advocates improving funding and programming in the public schools in our poorest communities. But she adds: “The most straighforward way to decrease poverty among children and thus increase the resources available to them is to boost their parents’ incomes” including “policies aimed at increasing overall wages and employment, especially at the lower rungs of the employment and wage ladders.” “Raising the minimum wage would also help ensure that parents working full-time do not have to rely on public assistance to provide their children with the basic necessities… We could also make those wages go further by increasing the earned income tax credit and child tax credit…. Raising incomes for middle-and low-social class families is key to ensuring their children do not grow up in poverty… Closing education gaps… calls for policies that address… structural factors that influence a child’s odds of growing up poor.”