Publication Type: Web Article
Year of Publication: 2004
Bill Ferriter, a North Carolina NBCT, describes, with research, the many factors student of poverty face—the loss of concentration caused by untreated ear infections or poor eyesight, among many others—and that contribute to the achievement gap. Rothstein discusses how school reform is only part of a much larger program of social reform needed to close the gap and discusses the economics of doing so.
Citation: Rothstein, R. (2004). Class and schools: Using social, economic, and educational reform to close the black-white achievement gap. Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute
By Richard Rothstein
2004; 210 pp/paperback
Economic Policy Institute
Reviewed by Bill Ferriter
Salem Middle School
Wake County (NC) Public Schools
"Closing the Gap" is an effort that has defined American education with little success. The seemingly failed expectation is that through focused effort and determination, our public school teachers will narrow the disparities in the achievement levels of children from different socioeconomic classes.
The continued persistence of this achievement gap frustrates school leaders and policymakers, leading to a never-ending stream of calls for reform. Demands for curricular rigor, improved teaching qualifications, reductions in class sizes and an increased focus on school leadership have all been implemented with little lasting impact.
Perhaps then, Richard Rothstein argues in his book Class and Schools, it is not only the public school system that needs reform. Perhaps the broader social policies in America that allow the mental, physical and economic needs of our poorest citizens to go unaddressed are failing our children. "No society," he writes, "can realistically expect schools alone to abolish inequality. If students come to school in unequal circumstances, they will largely, though not entirely, leave school with unequal skills and abilities."
With extensive research funded by the Economic Policy Institute, in partnership with Teachers College at Columbia University, Rothstein sets out to examine the influence of these inequalities on student achievement and to debunk the myth that school reform alone will be enough to truly "leave no child behind."
Rothstein begins with an investigation of the bearing that social class has on child-rearing by identifying several differences in child-rearing practices that contribute to the existence of the achievement gap. One such difference is the impact that parental conversations have on the development of verbal fluency in pre-school children.
Quoting a study done by researchers at the University of Kansas, Rothstein writes, "The researchers found that...professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, working class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3...a typical child in a professional family would have accumulated experience with 45 million words, compared to only 13 million for a typical child in a welfare family."
Rothstein also studies the consequences that health differences between children of different social classes hold for student performance. Detailing issues ranging from poor vision and oral care to asthma, hearing problems, low birth weight and excessive lead exposure, Rothstein makes the case that the general poor health of lower class children contributes to the achievement gap. Persuasive evidence supported by extensive research includes:
"Fifty percent or more of minority and low income children have vision problems that interfere with their academic work."
"If poor children simply had as much medical treatment for ear infections as middle class children, they could pay better attention and the achievement gap would narrow a bit."
"Asthma has become the biggest cause of chronic school absence. Low-income children with asthma are about 80% more likely than middle-class children with asthma to miss more than seven days of school a year from the disease."
Rothstein identifies how long-term poverty effects student achievement. One interesting finding is that "income affects learning differently at different ages. For adolescents, family income has little effect once their prior achievement is taken into account. What matters most...is family income in early childhood." And because poverty for whites tends to be more episodic and poverty in the black community can often be generational, black students are more likely to suffer academically due to poverty.
Differences in summer and after-school learning experiences between children of wealth and children of poverty also have some bearing on the student achievement gap. As Rothstein writes, "Scholars have never been able to attribute more than about a third of student achievement variation to school effects." Analyses show that, "typical children from lower-class families seem to progress as rapidly during the school year as typical children from middle class families, but the lower class children fall behind during the summer."
Rothstein then examines inaccuracies frequently stated in the debate over the achievement gap. School models often cited as "success stories" are dissected, exposing weaknesses that go overlooked and under-reported. The negative outcomes of standardized testing as well as the social class gap in non-cognitive skills are scrutinized.
Rothstein does not dismiss the importance of certain school reforms. He writes:
Readers should not misinterpret [his thesis] as implying that better schools are not important, or that school improvement will not make a contribution to narrowing the achievement gap. Better school practices can probably narrow the gap. School reform, however, is not enough. In seeking to close the achievement gap for low-income and minority students, policy makers focus inordinate attention on the improvement of instruction because they apparently believe that social class differences are immutable and that only schools can improve the destinies of lower-class children.
Rothstein ends by offering several suggestions for social policy reforms that could help to narrow the achievement gap. These suggestions range from addressing income inequality in our nation and providing stable housing for low-income families to establishing school-community health clinics and making after-school and summer learning experiences available for children of poverty.
"All told," Rothstein writes, "adding the price of health, early childhood, after-school, and summer programs, this down payment on closing the achievement gap would probably increase the annual cost of education for children who attend schools where at least 40% of the enrolled children have low incomes by about $12,500 per pupil."
While many would argue that this additional expense is daunting and impossible for America to absorb, Rothstein disagrees. He writes, "to say that this spending is not politically realistic is not the same as to say that it is unaffordable." The combined cost "...is only about two-thirds of the average annual cost of federal tax cuts enacted since 2001. So if Americans truly wanted to significantly narrow the social class differences that produce an educational achievement gap, we could do so."