Ohio’s 2015 School District Report Cards Encourage Economic Segregation

What does it mean when somebody gives you a bad grade for who you are?  That is exactly what the new school district report cards in Ohio do.  School achievement tends to correlate with aggregate family income, and metropolitan areas across the nation are quickly resegregating by income.  Research shows there are fewer and fewer mixed income communities and more very poor and very rich ones.  Ohio gives the schools in very rich communities “A” grades; and Ohio gives schools in very poor and in mixed income communities “Ds”and “Fs.”

In his fascinating book, Our Kids, that tracks the impact of growing income inequality on children, Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam poses this question: “Do schools in America today tend to widen the growing gaps between have and have-not kids, do they reduce those gaps, or do they have little effect either way?” (p. 160) Putnam answers his own question by reporting ground breaking research studies released five years ago by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon: “In a landmark study, the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon demonstrated a widening class gap in both math and reading test scores among American kids in recent decades… He summarizes his key finding succinctly: ‘The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30-40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five year earlier.’ … Strikingly, Reardon’s analysis also suggests that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap: the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten and, he reports, does not grow appreciably as children progress through school.” (pp. 160-162)

The Ohio Department of Education released school district report cards and school district summative letter grades—“A-F”—last Thursday based on standardized test scores from 2015. The Plain Dealer reports that among the 20 “A” graded school districts, 8 are white, affluent suburbs of Cleveland; 4 are white, affluent suburbs of Cincinnati; 2 are white, affluent suburbs of Akron; one is a white, affluent suburb of Toledo; and one is a white, affluent suburb of Dayton. Another of these A-rated school districts is Granville, a small town that houses Denison University and that boasted a median family income of $102,885 according to the census in 2000. At that time, according to the census, there were in Granville no children under the age of 18 living below the federal poverty line.

It is not a positive thing that poverty, and institutional and structural racism, and growing residential segregation by income overlaid on segregation by race pose serious challenges for children. But poverty is not a disability. Examples abound of low-income children who excel at school. Aggregate test scores, however, show what sociological research has been documenting for a long time: In the aggregate, school districts that serve concentrations of children in poverty are likely to post lower overall test scores.

The logical question to ask is how better to help such school districts support their students and the teachers who serve them. Since 2001, however, the United States has instead adopted a policy that seeks to motivate staff in those districts to try harder by shaming and punishing them.  Federal policy even provided recommended sanctions—close the school, reconstitute the school, restart the school by turning it into a charter school, rate and rank teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. In the same punitive style, Ohio and other states that have copied the Jeb Bush plan from Florida, now award letter grades on school district report cards based on aggregate test scores. There is wide agreement that these sanctions have not improved student achievement.

Last April, Stanford News summarized new, preliminary research by sociologist Sean Reardon—newer data than what caught Robert Putnam’s attention last year when he published Our Kids.  In the new research, Reardon evaluated a massive new data set —of 200 million test scores—“reading and math test results of some 40 million 3rd to 8th grade students during 2009-13 in every public school district in the country…”

Here are some of the findings, which Reardon explains, document the widespread persistence of both economic and racial achievement gaps: “The socioeconomic profile of a district is a powerful predictor of the average test score performance of students in that district.”  “The most and least socioeconomically advantaged districts have average performance levels more than four grade levels apart.  Average test scores of black students are, on average, roughly two grade levels lower than those of white students in the same district; the Hispanic-white difference is roughly one-and-a-half grade levels.  Achievement gaps are larger in districts where black and Hispanic students attend higher poverty schools than their white peers, where parents on average have high levels of educational attainment; and where large racial/ethnic gaps exist in parents’ educational attainment.  The size of the gaps has little or no association with average class size, a district’s per capita student spending or charter school enrollment.”

Stanford News emphasizes that Reardon’s new research remains preliminary: “The researchers stress that their findings do not prove cause and effect, though they do point to promising areas for further study.”

Ohio’s policy of awarding school district grades based on students’ aggregate test scores amounts to educational redlining—castigating mixed-income and poorer communities and urging  parents who can find the means to abandon districts with lower grades and find a way to move to “A” rated schools. Ohio’s school district grades clearly promote economic and racial segregation in the state’s metropolitan areas.

School districts are responsible for educating and improving the lives of the children who live in their communities.  In Ohio, the state’s confusing rating system—this year based on a new and harder test which forced scores down across the state—does a poor job of evaluating what particular schools are doing to ensure their students learn. The grades elevate some school districts and castigate others without identifying or showcasing promising educational practices.

If one views Ohio’s “A-F” school grades through the lens of  sociological research, it’s perfectly clear that the state is  encouraging the public to believe that homogeneous, wealthy communities are the best place to live and raise children. There are lots of reasons to challenge such an assumption, but we rarely question it.

Residential Resegregation by Income Continues across America’s Large Metropolitan Areas

In 2011, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon and his Cornell University colleague Kendra Bishoff showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods.  By 2007, fewer families lived in mixed income communities. In a companion study, Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

For half a century, sociologists have correlated family income with students’ test scores—wealthy children scoring higher in aggregate than their peers living in poverty. Reardon’s research helps explain just how how and why poverty and wealth are so significant for children’s outcomes.  The research confirms the impact of segregated neighborhoods on student achievement and accounts for the ways that wealthy families use their money and social capital to cultivate their children.  In his book Our Kids, Robert Putnam describes the significance of Reardon’s research: “In a landmark study, the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon demonstrated a widening class gap in both math and reading test scores among American kids in recent decades… That gap corresponds, roughly speaking, to the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts.  Moreover, this class gap has been growing within each racial group, while the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing…  By the opening of the twenty-first century, the class gap among students entering kindergarten was two to three times greater than the racial gap.  Reardon’s…. finding is of fundamental importance, because academic achievement, as measured by test scores, is a dominant contributor to class disparities in later outcomes, such as college graduation, incarceration, and adult earnings.  Strikingly Reardon’s analysis also suggests that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap: the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten and, he reports, does not grow appreciably as children progress through school.” (Our Kids, pp. 161-162. Emphasis in the original.)

Reardon and Bishoff continue to update their work on the correlation of growing income inequality in America with growing segregation by income—the rich moving near each other in wealthy enclaves and the families at the very bottom segregated in poor neighborhoods they cannot escape.  In a follow-up report published in 2013, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, Reardon and Bischoff updated their work on residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000).  Now they have once-again updated their findings in The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation, 2007-2012. Again, they study income segregation in 117 large metropolitan areas with populations over 500,000, where, they explain: “By 2012, over one third (34%) of all families lived in either rich or poor neighborhoods, more than double the percentage in 1970.  Over the same time period the proportion living in middle-income neighborhoods declined from 65% to 40%… In smaller metropolitan areas, income segregation is slightly lower, but has increased at the same rate over time.”  Between 2007 and 2012 segregation by income accelerated even in the middle range among working-class, middle-class and upper-middle-class families.

“Income inequality,”according to Reardon and Bishoff, ” is a key driver of income segregation.”  As the family income distribution widens, the absolute differences in income between families at different points in the income distribution grow, making it less likely that lower-income families can afford to live in the same neighborhoods as those with higher incomes.”  “(I)ncome segregation grew faster, on average, in metropolitan areas where income inequality was also rising quickly…. and was associated more with the rising segregation of affluence than the segregation of poverty.” In other words, families with money are moving into exurban enclaves or gentrified neighborhoods.  “Many of the places where income segregation increased the most in the 2007-2012 period were metropolitan areas that prior to 2007 had low to moderate levels of segregation.  In fact, in the metropolitan areas that were most segregated in 2007 (Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT; New York-Wayne-White Plains, NY-NJ; and Philadelphia, PA), income segregation actually declined very slightly from 2007-2012.”  The report ranks the metropolitan areas with the largest increase in income segregation and also those areas with the greatest increase in families living in poor or affluent areas.

The recent update on growing segregation by income from 2007-2012 concludes that, “(I)ncome segregation continued on the long upward trajectory that began in 1980.  During the 2007-2012 period—which spans the start of the Great Recession and the early years of recovery—middle-class, mixed-income neighborhoods became less common as more and more neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and concentrated affluence developed… These trends may be particularly consequential for children.  Neighborhood contexts and their associated resources affect children’s development and well-being, and their opportunities for future social mobility… Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and affluence were once much less common in the U.S., but now are home to more than a third of all families in large metropolitan areas.”

The report ends with a warning not only about the consequences of growing income segregation among the poorest children but also among their isolated affluent counterparts: “Segregation of affluence not only concentrates income and wealth in a small number of communities, but also concentrates social capital and political power.  As a result, any self-interested investment the rich make in their own communities has little chance of ‘spilling over’ to benefit middle- and low-income families.  In addition, it is increasingly unlikely that high income families interact with middle- and low-income families, eroding some of the social empathy that might lead to support for broader public investment in social programs to help the poor and middle class.”

Ohio Researcher Proves–Yet Again–That Test Scores Measure Primarily Family Income

Like the rest the country, Ohio is trapped in a test-and-punish education accountability system that castigates public schools when students’ test scores are persistently low. It is a system that punishes already vulnerable institutions—closing and charterizing schools in the places where scores are low, giving vouchers to help children “escape” so-called “failing” schools, and rating teachers by students’ scores. Ohio practices all of these policies.  The flaw inherent in such a system is that standardized test scores continue to correlate with the aggregate income of the families whose children are enrolled in schools and school districts.  Researchers have demonstrated again and again that, despite that poor children surely can learn and many do thrive academically, aggregate test scores are pretty much an economic indicator, not a measure of the academic quality of the school.  Test score gaps are in place before children enter Kindergarten, and they rarely close as children move through the grades.

Now, once again, Howard Fleeter of Ohio’s Education Tax Policy Institute, has documented that in Ohio, the schools that can brag of the highest test scores are located in the wealthy suburban school districts and the so-called “failing” schools are those that serve children living in poverty.  The ratings attached to school districts by the state based on test scores thus create further incentives for more families to abandon poorer and mixed income communities and move to expensive outer ring suburbs. This blog recently covered how school ratings by Zillow, the online real estate guide, contribute to segregation in the same way.

Here is how the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes Fleeter’s findings: “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase….  Ohio may have changed academic standards and its state tests last school year, but the recurring relationship between test scores and poverty remains the same…. Fleeter has reported the relationship between test scores and family income on an annual basis the last several years…. He repeated that analysis this week using preliminary test scores from the spring on Ohio’s new math, English, science and social studies tests…. As he does each year, Fleeter compared the percentage of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better on state tests in each school district to the percentage of students considered ‘Economically Disadvantaged’….”  And just as he has found previously, aggregate test scores correlate with the income level of the families who reside in the school district.

Fleeter’s analysis, according to O’Donnell, demonstrates that last spring when Ohio administered PARCC tests of language arts and math and tests designed by the American Institutes for Research to measure science and social studies, the highest-scoring 20 percent of districts (serving only 17.4 percent of students who qualify for free-or-reduced-price lunch) had 86.2 percent of students scoring proficient in math.  The bottom-scoring 20 percent of school districts (serving 77 percent of students who qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch) had only 44.3 percent of students scoring proficient in math.

The press release from the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials (who sponsored the new study) quotes Fleeter: “This means that those districts performing the best on the tests have the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students, while districts with the lowest performance have the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students.”  Posted with the press release are the tables that represent Fleeter’s analysis.

While Fleeter’s conclusions should sound an alarm in a state that uses test scores as the primary factor to determine “A” through “F” grades in a punitive accountability system for schools and school districts, Fleeter merely proves once again what researchers have been demonstrating for half a century.  Last year, for example, in Our Kids, after exhaustively examining the experiences of children in schools through the lens of wealth vs. poverty, Harvard’s Robert Putnam concludes: “(T)he gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them.” (p. 182)

Here are the words of the respected researcher David Berliner, in a 2014 article published by the Teachers College Record: “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… (S)tories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives about our land and people, celebrated in the press, on television, and in the movies. But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American.  These stories of success reflect real events, and thus they are certainly worth studying and celebrating so we might learn more about how they occur.  But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students… (O)ut-of-school variables account for about 60% of the variance that can be accounted for in student achievement.  In aggregate, such factors as family income; the neighborhood’s sense of collective efficacy, violence rate, and average income; medical and dental care available and used; level of food insecurity; number of moves a family makes over the course of a child’s school years; whether one parent or two parents are raising the child; provision of high-quality early education in the neighborhood; language spoken at home; and so forth, all substantially affect school achievement.”

In the 2013, Closing the Opportunity Gap, two researchers—Christopher H. Tienken and Yong Zhao explain: “(A)s a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112)

When are we going to pay attention to what has been conclusively documented?  Instead in Ohio, public school districts serving poor children are punished in several ways by state policy.  Children in so-called “failing” schools qualify for EdChoice vouchers that extract money from a school district’s budget for every child who takes a voucher to a private or parochial school.  The new Youngstown Plan, quietly fast-tracked through the legislature in June, permits the takeover and charterization of so-called “failing” school districts. It is aimed at Youngstown schools this year, but any district with three years’ of “F” ratings will be targeted in the future.  And Ohio, like all the other states that applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, had to incorporate students’ test scores as a significant part of state teacher evaluations. We don’t merely blame the teachers; these days we formalize our blame right into each teacher’s personnel file.

Describing Fleeter’s new data connecting Ohio students’ test scores to their families’ economic circumstances, O’Donnell quotes the press release from the study’s sponsoring organizations, who say they will use Fleeter’s new data as a way, “to push for more focus on the educational needs of these students by urging lawmakers to look for additional ways to address these significant disparities.”  O’Donnell notes that in the past these organizations have used Fleeter’s research to advocate (unsuccessfully) for changes in the state funding formula to help poorer school districts.

What, to my knowledge, has never been seriously contemplated by Ohio’s legislature or state department of education is changing the state policy that, based on students’ aggregate test scores, punishes poorer school districts (with low state ratings and rankings, vouchers, and threatened state takeover) and punishes their teachers for choosing to teach in low-wealth school districts.  In an ironic twist in Ohio, this month the charter schools Ohio dubs “dropout recovery schools” are campaigning to do just that.  Ohio judges charter schools by aggregate test scores as well, and these schools allege Ohio should change the system that punishes them for serving students who come from so-called “failing” schools in the poorest urban school districts.

I would certainly be satisfied if Ohio found a way to design a new evaluation system that accurately examined schools themselves apart from the income-correlated test scores of the students.  But any new system must decouple state evaluations of schools from standardized test scores in both traditional public schools and charter schools. Any new system also needs to put the spotlight on disparities in inputs, not just on test score outcomes.  How much revenue is each school district capable of raising from its tax base?  How well is the state compensating for inequity?  What about small classes, access to advanced curricula, guidance counselors, art and music?

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.”

Personal Grit Won’t Do It; We Must Address Structural Inequality

It’s becoming clear that the American Dream is increasingly a myth, that America is not really a meritocracy, and that it’s become virtually impossible to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” these days if you are very poor.  The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz describes today’s America: “The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out… Disparities in household income are related to disparities in wages and in wealth and income from capital—and inequality in both is increasing.” (The Price of Inequality, 2012, p. 7)

Among poor children, income inequality is reinforced by unequal access to education and our society’s fragmented and uneven attempts to do anything about it.  Sociologist Karl Alexander and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University explain the results of a longitudinal study that has tracked the lifetime trajectory of students who were first graders in Baltimore in 1982.  Alexander and his colleagues remind us that for students they call “the urban disadvantaged,” social mobility has always been lacking and our attempts to assist children sporadic and inadequate: “There is no simple or single solution to children’s academic challenges.  Rather, small influences accumulate to produce large and lasting consequences… We believe that help at strategic points could boost prospects for more of the urban disadvantaged to get ahead through school.  For disadvantaged children, however, the school improvement agenda typically is served a la carte or piecemeal.  Many reforms have been tried and some of them hold great promise, but as a society we have yet to implement those reforms systematically in concert and with a sustained commitment.” Alexander and his colleagues suggest that if we did all of the following and did them systemically, it might make a significant difference: provide high quality preschool; address the residential segregation that defines hypersegregated, hyperpoverty neighborhoods; reduce class size; provide engaging summer and after-school programs; ensure well-qualified, well-prepared and well-compensated teachers in the poorest communities; ensure challenging standards and curricula with instructional scaffolding to ensure that children can achieve what is expected; integrate schools economically; and make classrooms respectful of all cultures and the needs of all kinds of parents. (The Long Shadow, 2014, pp. 178-179).

Sociologist Patrick Sharkey explains that economic inequality too often tracks race: “(B)eing raised in a high-poverty neighborhood is extremely rare for whites… but is the norm for African Americans.  Among children born from 1955 through 1970, only 4 percent of whites were raised in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty, compared to 62 percent of African Americans.  Three out of four white children were raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty, compared to just 9 percent of African Americans.  Essentially no white children were raised in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent poverty, but three in ten African Americans were.  These figures reveal that African American children born from the mid-1950s to 1970 were surrounded by poverty to a degree that was virtually nonexistent for whites.”  (Stuck in Place, 2013, pp. 26-27)

Focusing on families in the white middle class during the decades Alexander and Sharkey describe, Robert Putnam explains: “Though it might seem natural to label them ‘self-made,’ in many unnoticed ways they benefited from family and community supports that are nowadays less readily available to kids from such modest  backgrounds.  They grew up in an era when public education and community support for kids from all backgrounds managed to boost a significant number of people up the ladder…. Those supportive institutions, public and private, no longer serve poorer kids so well.”  Putnam notes that today’s inequality makes it difficult for those who are not poor to see and understand how poverty is experienced: “Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives.  So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.” (Our Kids, 2015, pp 229-230)

Maybe it is because our society is so segregated by economics as well as race, and maybe it is partly partly because older Americans remember the post WWII years when white families at least experienced more social mobility, many seem drawn to books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, the 2012 best seller about saving poor black children through character education.  If overcoming structural poverty seems too difficult and too expensive for our society to undertake,  maybe we can help poor children overcome their disadvantages by teaching grit and determination.  Tough quotes the academic research of Angela Duckworth, who developed a grit scale to measure  students’ determination.  The students with more grit did better at the National Spelling Bee and were less likely to drop out of West Point. How Children Succeed is a feel-good book and its theory has served as the justification for a lot of behaviorist charter schools that focus on toughening children up, but it contains no ideas for ameliorating structural poverty and growing inequality.

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, just posted a new piece on his own blog (and also as a guest post in Valerie Strauss’s column) decrying “grit” as a solution to educational inequality: “One of the many frustrating things about education policy and practice in our country is the continual search for the magic bullet…. One such bullet is the latest incarnation of character education, particularly the enthrallment with ‘grit,’ a buzz word for perseverance and determination… I worry about the limited success of past attempts at character education and the danger in our pendulum-swing society that we will shift our attention from improving subject matter instruction… And I fear that we will sacrifice policies aimed at reducing poverty for interventions to change the way poor people see the world.”

Rose has also read Angela Duckworth’s research, and he gives Duckworth and her colleagues credit for honesty about the qualifications and limitations of their study; they did not oversell their theory:  “The studies are correlational, so do not demonstrate causality… But Duckworth and her colleagues did something that in retrospect was a brilliant marketing strategy, a master stroke of branding—or re-branding.  Rather than calling their construct ‘perseverance’ or ‘persistence,’ they chose to call it ‘grit.’  Can you think of a name that has more resonance in American culture?  The fighter who is all heart.  The hardscrabble survivor.  True Grit.  The Little Train that Could.  Grit exploded.  New York Times commentators, best-selling journalists, the producers of This American Life, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, educational policy makers and administrators all saw the development of grit as away to improve American education, and more pointedly, to improve the achievement of poor children, who, everyone seemed to assume, lacked grit.”

Rose is certainly not opposed to character traits of discipline and perseverance: “Let me repeat here what I’ve written in every other commentary on grit.   Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic.” He points out, however, that the victims of our latest “grit” fad are the very children who, it is assumed, will be the beneficiaries of programs in character education:  “Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids.  As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face… I realize that what grit advocates want is to help young people better cope with such hardship… But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either.”

Rose concludes: “It is hard to finish what you begin when food and housing are unstable, or when you have three or four teachers in a given year, or when there are few people around who are able to guide and direct you.  It is equally hard to pursue a career with consistency when jobs available to you are low-wage, short-term and vulnerable, and have few if any benefits or protections… Personality psychology by its disciplinary norms concentrates on the individual, but individual traits and qualities, regardless of how they originate and develop, manifest themselves in social and institutional contexts.”  Justice must be systemic; it cannot be achieved one child at a time by schools that emphasize the development of grit.

Blaming the Poor… Again

You may have noticed David Brooks’ recent column in the NY Times on The Nature of Poverty.  Brooks is one of those conservatives who prefer to blame the problems of the poor on their character and their culture.  Fortunately the NY Times also employs a more knowledgeable columnist, the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who quite regularly corrects the mistakes of David Brooks.  In yesterday’s paper, Krugman undertook to do that in an excellent column, Race, Class and Neglect.

Racism is, of course, wound into this discussion, and Krugman cites Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who explained, “that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities.  His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.”  Krugman continues: “And so it has proved.  Lagging wages—actually declining in real terms for half of working men—and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more,” across all racial groups.  Krugman notes a stunning statistic, that among our poorest citizens of all racial groups, life expectancy rates are actually falling in America, although Krugman points out that the statistics are particularly stark for black Americans: “Many people have pointed out that there are a number of black neighborhoods in Baltimore where life expectancy compares unfavorably with impoverished Third World nations.”  He continues: “In fact, much, though by no means all of the horror one sees in Baltimore and many other places is really about class, about the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality.”

Krugman directs significant criticism to statements in David Brooks’ recent column: “So it is… disheartening… to see commentators suggesting that the poor are causing their own poverty, and could easily escape if only they acted like members of the upper middle class.  And it’s also disheartening to see commentators still purveying another debunked myth, that we’ve spent vast sums fighting poverty to no avail (because of values, you see.)  In reality, federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries.  That’s not a lot of money—it’s far less than other advanced countries spend—and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.”

Yesterday’s NY Times also featured a report on new research being released by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, a study that demonstrates that children who move away from extremely poor neighborhoods do better in life, especially if they move when they are young.  Chetty and Hendren’s study confirms the impact of the racial and economic segregation of a child’s neighborhood on the child’s life chances: “The places where poor children face the worst odds include some—but not all—of the nation’s largest urban areas…. Many of these places have large African-American populations and the findings suggest that race plays an enormous but complex role in upward mobility….”

What about the places that seem to offer greater opportunities?  “These places tend to share several traits, Mr. Hendren said.  They have elementary schools with higher test scores, a higher share of two-parent families, greater levels of involvement in civic and religious groups and more residential integration of affluent, middle-class and poor families.”

I have read only the NY Times story by David Leonhardt about Chetty and Hendren’s study; I’ve not read the study.  In the NY Times piece, however, there is an assumption that mirrors the tendency in David Brooks’ recent column blaming poverty on the poor.  Leonhardt’s story quotes Hendren in a way that seems to blame the public schools in the communities from which the report’s authors encourage families to move away.  We prefer to blame somebody after all, and if we can’t blame the poor, maybe we should blame the schools that serve the poor or maybe blame the teachers.

Chetty and Hendren are economists. I think it is wise, as one tries to understand the many factors affecting groups of people, to look at the sociological research as well.  And there is a large and deepening body of sociological literature that speaks to the convergence of poverty and struggling schools.  What sociologists are telling us is that extreme segregation by income overlaid on racial segregation affects not only the children but also the schools to which they bring the challenges of extreme poverty.

In a 2010 study of schools in Chicago, Anthony Bryk and his colleagues identified what they called “a previously unrecognized subclass” of schools—those they called “truly disadvantaged.”  Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which served relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

Sean Reardon’s research at Stanford University helps explain what is happening.  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 his recent book, Robert Putnam adds an important factor that affects children’s prospects and the sense of hope or despair that is likely to pervade their schools: the widening disparity in family assets. “Growing inequality in accumulated wealth is particularly marked…. Even taking into account the losses of the Great Recession, the net worth of college-educated American households with children rose by 47 percent between 1989 and 2013, whereas among high school-educated households, net worth actually fell by 17 percent during that quarter century.  Parental wealth is especially important for social mobility because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward.” (Our Kids, 36)

David Brooks’ assumption is that poor people ought to pull themselves up, and as Leonhardt describes the Chetty-Hendren study, the assumption is that poor people ought to get it together for the sake of their children and find a way to move away from the schools No Child Left Behind has caused us to brand as “failing schools.”  Maybe that leaves the rest of us feeling less guilty, but it doesn’t really provide any way to address one of our society’s most troubling trends: rapidly growing income inequality across America and growing segregation by race and income that affects not only families but also the schools their children attend.  Here are just a few of the ways we could begin to address parts of this problem: more full-time work, a living wage, the significant construction of mixed-income housing across our city and suburban neighborhoods with far more subsidized units included for low-income families, and finally some sort of honest grappling with the fact that our society spends far less public funds for the schools in low income communities than in places that are wealthy.

Instead of taking steps to address poverty and inequality, we too often blame the poor or their schools or their teachers. Our collective failure to act is not only a policy problem but also a moral failure.  We are not the good society we like to imagine ourselves to be.

American Dream… American Delusion?

Reading Robert Putnam’s excellent article yesterday about widening inequality made me return to look at a growing body of material about the relation of family income inequality and school achievement for children and adolescents.

Certainly many of us have noticed the outmigration of wealthier families in some metropolitan areas and in other cities the concentration of gentrification in particular neighborhoods, along with the accompanying displacement of poor families and concentration of poverty in other neighborhoods.  The Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon has published striking numbers that document these trends, numbers that shock even though we might have noticed the patterns informally.  Here are links to two of Reardon’s research studies;  I urge you to check out at least their executive summaries:

Reardon  shared some of his conclusions in the New York Times earlier this spring in a shorter piece, No Rich Child Left Behind, to which UCLA professor, Mike Rose, who has been writing about educational inequality for a long time responds.

Five years ago sociologist Heather Beth Johnson published a fascinating book, The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, describing a  study of how Americans explain to themselves our society’s growing inequality .  Not surprisingly, Johnson discovered that a mass of people frame their thinking with the narrative of the American Dream, a story that credits inequality to the power of the individual. This is the idea that we live in a meritocracy where we all begin life with the power to succeed if we work hard; where we all play by one set of rules and if we are strategic and patient, we can all win; where we rise or fall pretty much on our own.

Here is a transcript of one of the interviews Johnson reports:  “Interviewer: ‘Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?’  Responder: ‘Yeah.’  Interviewer: ‘So you think there are certain  groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?’  Responder: ‘Sure. Definitely.’  Interviewer: ‘Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?’  Responder: ‘That’s a very good definition.’  Interviewer: ‘Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?’  Responder: ‘Yes. Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.'”

In interview after interview participants tightly hold both beliefs: some people have it much harder in America, and everyone has an equal chance.  Johnson attributes the contradiction to the blindness of privilege, the invisibility of the influence of intergenerational gifts—some even quite small but significant because they arrive at key times—by which those with some money can assist their children and grandchildren: help with a car payment, assistance with doctor bills, family vacations, college tuition, and even assistance with the down payment on a house.  Parents and grandparents with fewer assets and lower monthly income are unable to provide these boosts.  Johnson explains: because speaking about money is taboo, “the intergenerational transmission of it and the purposeful use of it are normally hidden from public view.”

Research like Reardon’s demonstrates that despite the strength of the story of the American Dream in our collective imagination, this myth does not describe today’s America, where child poverty is 22 percent, highest in the developed world;  where seven million of those 16 million poor children are trapped in extreme poverty with annual family income under $10,000; where social mobility has stalled, residential segregation increased, and inequality skyrocketed.