Thursday, June 07, 2007

U.S. takes lousy care of our children

The nation, not schools, takes lousy care of our children

From the beginning of the educational “accountability” movement in the mid-1990s, the demand that schools “close the achievement gap” has set educators’ teeth on edge. The “gap” refers to the wide discrepancy between the test scores of middle-class white children and those who are low-income and non-white.

Educators know first hand that less-privileged students — an ever-growing number, seemingly — enter school at a significant disadvantage compared to their more privileged peers. That gap opened up long before the school bell tolled. Even in schools where the low-income children have made strong gains, the gap persists. Schools have little impact on poverty or the lack of good health care, decent jobs for parents, affordable housing and other social factors that contribute to a child’s readiness to learn.

Educators who voiced these concerns were often chastised as racist, class-biased or indulging in the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

And it’s true that the schools that educate most urban and poor children have become enmeshed in political power struggles unrelated to helping students. They can’t in good conscience point to their work and say: See? We’ve given these students the very best, and we’ve made gains, but the gap will continue to persist until conditions improve in their home lives and neighborhoods.

In his most recent book, Richard Rothstein, former education columnist for The New York Times, catalogs an array of social conditions that contribute to the achievement gap in exhaustive and fascinating detail. Class and Schools — Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap does not let the schools off the hook. But it does argue that with all the negative social forces at work, we are kidding ourselves if we think that schools are going to do this job by themselves.

Here are three of Rothstein’s examples illustrating the profoundly different backgrounds of high-, middle- and low-income children:

Researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley “found that, on average, professional parents spoke more than 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, the children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50 percent greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children.”

In a school’s regular day and year, teachers cannot contribute enough to low-income children’s education that would allow the students to catch up to their middle-class peers. Middle-class kids are also learning during that same day and year, as well as attending after-school enrichment activities.

Second, consider the cultural difference between professional and working-class jobs. Parents who are working professionals have authority and responsibility, so they are used to exploring alternatives and negotiating compromises. At home they talk their kids through solving problems and give reasons for their decisions or actions. Their children learn to negotiate what they want and feel entitled to do so.

“But parents whose jobs entail following orders or doing routine tasks show less sense of efficacy. They are less likely to encourage their children to negotiate over clothing or food and more likely to instruct them by giving directions without extended discussion. Following orders, after all, is how they themselves behave at work.”

Many people, including me, believe that learning good negotiation skills more positively affects later academic, career and personal success than the learning that gets good test scores.

The best schools explicitly teach manners, negotiation skills and how to handle feelings in acceptable ways — called a social-emotional curriculum. This ensures that all children learn these important skills, but it still can not make up for the practice the middle-class child has at home, reasoning with elders and being encouraged to solve problems.

Lastly, affordable housing has become increasingly scarce, exacerbating the extent to which low-income people have to move. Changing residences often affects a family’s ability to function well and changing schools disrupts the continuity of a child’s education.

This relatively minor example illustrates the extent to which public policy makes a bad situation worse. A child recently uprooted from home and school often cannot pay attention to lessons in the new school. So the child falls further behind, exacerbating the achievement gap. Cities could pay for transportation to keep the child in his old school, with friends and teachers, if the residential move is local. The cost would be modest, but cash-strapped cities face an endless menu of hard choices.

Rothstein says, “The connection between social and economic disadvantage and an academic achievement gap has long been well known.... Calling attention to this link is not to make excuses for poor school performance. It is only to be honest about the social support schools require if they are to fulfill the public’s expectations that the achievement gap will disappear.”

Rothstein’s book unpacks for us the specifics of such supports as access to health care, housing, after-school and summer enrichment programs and preschool.

But Rothstein’s book begs the question as to whether the American public really wants to close this achievement gap. With calm rhetoric and rich data, he lays out the problems, solutions and choices in front of us.

Schools may exacerbate the achievement gap, but they didn’t create it in the first place. As a nation, we are shockingly content to tolerate widespread poverty among our fellow citizens. We are the richest country in the world, but one in five children is brought up in a family living at the federal poverty line. The quintile above them is not much better off.

In short, we take lousy care of our kids, but find it convenient to blame the schools.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she now consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at or c/o EdWatch, Education and Employment, Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.
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