America Tries to Fix Achievement Gaps on the Cheap without Addressing Opportunity Gaps

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.”

The Language of School “Reform” Distracts Us from the Needs of Children and Their Schools

Despite its name, if you drive along Lakeview Road between St. Clair and Superior  in Cleveland, Ohio, you cannot see Lake Erie.  Today your view will be of boarded up houses.  About a third of the two-family  houses that line Lakeview and the sidestreets that cross it are boarded up. If you go to Zillow’s real estate map, you’ll find that most of these houses are listed as “foreclosed–auction.”   There are lots covered with weeds or grass where there used to be houses before the foreclosure crisis.  Sometimes enterprising neighbors have planted a garden in an empty lot next door.  There is a four block interval between the recently bulldozed lots that were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—boarded up for years before they were demolished.  The most viable institution is St. Aloysius Catholic Church at the corner of St. Clair Avenue, but the only other two institutions left on this mile-long stretch of Lakeview itself are a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel, and the Virtual School House, a charter school that advertises on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses.  The Virtual School House occupies an ancient, decrepit nursing home that was toured several years ago by a not-for-profit group considering it for rehab as permanent supportive housing for the homeless, but the building wasn’t really considered suitable.

I have driven along Lakeview Road twice in the past month.  Both times I have thought about the children living in this neighborhood.  I know that their standardized test scores are likely lower than we would wish at the public school that is much farther away than before Lakeview Road’s schools were demolished.  I am certain their school is considered a “failing” school.  Low-performing.  In need of turnaround.  Perhaps closure.  I have thought about the irony, on my trips down Lakeview Road, that these days we are likely to define the “education problem” in such neighborhoods as the teachers.  Our policies blame those who would choose to teach here.  Schools in our cities fail these days because of teachers’ seniority rights and the cost of any raises they have been able to negotiate. It is all set up to benefit the adults at the school and to meet their needs, but we need to fix things so that these schools put students first. Right?

I have lived in greater Cleveland for almost 40 years, and certainly I am not surprised by what I can see in any particular neighborhood.  But my drive down Lakeview Road a month ago made me come home and pull some books off my shelf.  I looked at Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, a study by Anthony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research that examined essential supports that will be necessary in 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in Chicago. In a school district where many schools are troubled with poverty, the researchers identified these 46 schools that are poorer than the rest. The families they serve are 96 percent low income: 64 percent of adult males in these families are unemployed; the median family income is $9,480; and the percentage of families living below the poverty line is 70 percent. Bryk and his colleagues prescribe strategies for improving the schools that serve children in such neighborhoods, but they point out that realistically,  “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused, and so on.  Classroom activity can understandably get diverted toward responding to these manifest personal needs.  Similarly, it can be difficult at the school level to maintain collective attention on instructional improvement when the social needs of children continue to cry out for adult attention.”

I sat down and read the whole of Thomas Sugrue’s history of post-WWII Detroit: The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.  I learned that after the Great Migration, African Americans struggled to get good jobs in the auto plants except during the labor shortage of the war years.  Even a list of chapter titles connects the dots: “‘Detroit’s Time Bomb’: Race and Housing in the 1940s — ‘The Coffin of Peace’: The Containment of Public Housing — ‘The Meanest and the Dirtiest Jobs’: The Structures of Employment Discrimination — ‘The Damning Mark of False Prosperities’: The Deindustrialization of Detroit — ‘Forget about Your Inalienable Right to Work’: Responses to Industrial Decline and Discrimination — Class, Status, and Residence: The Changing Geography of Black Detroit — ‘Homeowners’ Rights’: White Resistance and the Rise of Antiliberalism — ‘United Communities are Impregnable’: Violence and the Color Line — and Crisis: Detroit and the Fate of Postindustrial America.”

Then I re-read sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s relatively new book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality.  Sharkey locates public schools as merely one part of a complex urban ecology: “Inequality does not exist exclusively at the level of the individual or the family; rather, various forms of inequality are organized or clustered in social settings like neighborhoods, schools and political districts, and these social settings represent crucial sites at which American inequality is generated, maintained, and reinforced.  Perhaps the most powerful evidence… is that a wide range of social phenomena such as violence, joblessness, and physical and mental health outcomes tend to be clustered together in space… Our nation’s educational system is just one of many institutions that link individuals’ residential locations with their life chances.”

Today, however, we prefer to adopt the rhetoric of the marketplace as we think about urban schools.  Blame teachers.  Blame their unions.  Bring in charters.  We have adopted a narrative that posits that if we offer school choice, parents will become their own entrepreneurs who will propel their children out of the neighborhood on a wave of opportunity.  It is appealing rhetoric and the story itself embodies a happy ending that is unlikely to happen very often on Lakeview Road.

Finally I went back to one of my very favorite books on public education and opportunity, Mike Rose’s Why School?.  Rose cautions us to be precise in the language and metaphors we use to frame our educational challenges: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.  Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose.  We should also ask why why we’re evaluating.  To what end?  Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us.”

Rose quotes historian Michael Katz who writes about the arrogance and distance of policy strategists who pose market solutions like the Virtual Schoolhouse on Lakeview Road: “Market models seem appropriate to us when we deal with strangers—with the alien collectivity rather than the familiar individual.”

Instead Rose suggests we adopt the language of school investment and improvement—the same kind of basic support that Anthony Bryk and his colleagues in Chicago imagined for their 46 “truly disadvantaged schools.”  Here are Rose’s words:  “Poor schools need stability and shoring up of the resources they do have.  They need long-term development of teachers and principals who are familiar with their struggles and committed to the students in their communities.  These schools need to be tightly connected to social and health services—for many of their students carry big burdens—having some of those services on the school site, if possible.  The schools should become focal institutions in their communities, involving parents and networking with existing community groups and agencies working for educational and economic improvement, becoming a neighborhood meeting place and a center for civic activity.”

The right language helps, doesn’t it.  Let’s use it to demand leadership for change.