By Richard Rothstein (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
Several commentators charge that I devote too much attention to social reform and not enough to school improvement as a strategy for equalizing outcomes between blacks and whites. Getting the balance right is difficult, but the biggest obstacle to doing so is an excessive emphasis on the role of schools. Were the obstacles reversed, I would have written a different book.September/October 2004 issue of Poverty & Race
Several commentators charge that I devote too much attention to social reform and not enough to school improvement as a strategy for equalizing outcomes between blacks and whites. Getting the balance right is difficult, but the biggest obstacle to doing so is an excessive emphasis on the role of schools. Were the obstacles reversed, I would have written a different book.
My summary for P&R of Class and Schools insisted that both are needed: “Improvement of instructional practices is among [policies to narrow the achievement gap], but alone, a focus on school reform is bound to be frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful. To work, school improvement must combine with policies that narrow the social and economic differences between children. . . . Only if school improvement proceeds simultaneously with social and economic reform can [the gap be closed].” In Class and Schools, I explain that I devoted this work primarily to the social and economic causes of the achievement gap, not because school inadequacies are unimportant, but because our public discussion of school and socioeconomic effects is now so imbalanced: Volumes are produced weekly on how schools should improve (and with many of them I agree), leaving me little to add. But silence on the complementary importance of social and economic reform is deafening.
In neither my summary nor my book do I deny that schools like KIPP, or those cited by The Heritage Foundation or The Education Trust, are better than most and succeed in narrowing the achievement gap. What I do deny is the claim of some of their fans that such schools can close the achievement gap without simultaneous social and economic reform. Interestingly, leaders of these schools, when pressed, almost never make such claims. They realize, as many policy analysts do not, that their efforts alone can be only modestly successful if socioeconomic deprivation remains unaddressed.
Some of the commentators (Pedro Noguera, for example) appreciate the need for complementary work on both socioeconomic reform and school improvement, but think I have gotten the balance wrong. Perhaps so. But clearly the emphasis in public policy today is so exclusively on schools that a correction is in order. If, in some unimaginable (in today’s political environment) future it swings too far in the direction of social and economic justice, my book may serve a less useful purpose.
Other commentators, however, who claim to have read both the summary and the book, stubbornly misrepresent the argument as “school reform will not produce results unless and until the entire liberal social and economic agenda is fully enacted” (Dianne M. Piché and Tamar Ruth). These commentators go on to assert, with no evidence whatsoever, that “education continues to be the single most important and effective ‘equalizer’ of opportunity in our society.” Is educational improvement more effective than full employment, anti-discrimination policies in housing and labor markets, progressive taxation, adequate public health, and unionization? Perhaps so, but I’d like to know the basis for such a claim. Recent research on intergenerational mobility suggests that we are less mobile than we thought and less mobile than other advanced countries — most of which pay more attention to social and economic equality than we do. The conundrum is that it is difficult to overcome class differences using a tool — schools — whose outcomes are themselves heavily influenced by social class.
As to Piché and Ruth’s historical illustration, their memories are short. They correctly note that “in the years following enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the inception of Head Start and Title I programs in 1965, along with court-enforced desegregation, we saw dramatic narrowing of the gap between African American and white children on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.” But they fail to note that these were also years in which Medicare and Medicaid were enacted, in which the minimum wage was higher (in real terms, and relative to the median wage) than it is today, when affirmative action in employment was aggressively pursued, when suburban housing was opened for the first time to black families, and when black family size decreased (giving children more parental time and attention). Did these play no role? Surely, school improvements such as Title 1 were important, but the years when the gap on the National Assessment narrowed were those when school and socioeconomic policies to address inequality were pursued simultaneously. In the 15 years from 1965 to 1980, the poverty of black children declined by over a third (from 66% to 42% of all black children). Subsequently, black children’s poverty continued to decline, but at a much slower rate. The 1965 to 1980 period provides no support for believing that school improvement can close gaps without complementary progress in the social and economic conditions experienced by poor and minority children. (Piché and Ruth cite Head Start in support of their complaint about my thesis, but as my summary and book stress, I regard expansion of early childhood programs as one of the most important initiatives we can take. Whether this is considered an educational or social reform is beside the point.)
I frequently encounter caricatures of my argument, such as that of Piché and Ruth, by liberals who retain, with the Bush Administration and other conservatives, a belief that the only important barrier to equality worth addressing is schools’ “soft bigotry of low expectations” and other failures, such as inadequate financing, classes that are too large, and teachers who are too poorly trained. While these are certainly barriers, I wonder why there is such resistance to acknowledging that there are others outside of schools and that these are also worthy of attention. One need not let schools off the hook and deny that our educational system is unequal in order to contend that schools are not unique in their inequality.
For conservatives, the reason for an emphasis on schools is obvious. Schools are tax-supported institutions, and an attack on the public sector is at the core of a conservative agenda. Public sector employees (both administrators [“bureaucrats”] and unionized workers) are enemies conservatives love to have. Proposals to narrow income inequality, or to intervene in the private housing, employment or health sectors, are attacks on private interests at the core of the conservative base. Far better to blame schools for all our ills.
But why do liberals join in this distortion? Is it because an excessive focus on school reform brings the flattering support of conservative allies? Truthfully, I don’t know the answer.
Pedro Noguera offers a possible explanation. He agrees that both socioeconomic and educational policy are necessary to enhance equality, but thinks that school improvement is more politically practical: “for the time being at least, there is far greater support for improving education.” He worries that, in the present political environment when public funds are scarce, advocacy of social and economic reform will undermine support for school improvement, leaving funds for neither.
In response, I urge him to consider two points. First, in the long run, effective public policy cannot proceed from a myth. Denying the obvious importance of socioeconomic conditions in perpetuating inequality may, in the short run, build support for school improvement efforts, but these quickly degenerate into an excessive attack on schools, as in present federal policy with its exaggerated emphasis on testing, basic skills and accountability, and its nonchalance about the need for better and more equitable school funding. We also set schools up for failure when we discuss closing the achievement gap with schools alone. Even if school improvement were our exclusive concern, would we achieve it by establishing goals (closing the gap) that can’t be achieved and that make no distinction between progress and failure?
Second, I think Professor Noguera may not be making the best estimate of political practicality. We’ve not, after all, been so successful to date in improving schools to the point where they come anywhere close to generating equal outcomes for children from different social classes. And reforms like universal health care, full employment policy, more progressive taxation, adequate housing (consider the Section 8 program) are not wild pie-in-the-sky ideas but policies that are very much part of a practical agenda, and very much needed. Certainly, the present administration has no interest in them, but the prior administration made some progress in all of them, despite daunting political opposition. If, by some chance, advocates of social and economic reform can win greater power in our political institutions, we can hope that they will not be hindered by arguments of liberals that only schools can make a difference.
Finally, I am gratified by the reaction of Mark Simon’s teacher group to my book. One reason I wrote it was that I have been troubled by the demoralization I have encountered among dedicated, highly skilled and indefatigable teachers in schools serving disadvantaged children. They know that they make a difference and bitterly resent being labeled “failures” and considered indistinguishable from teachers who are far less qualified, only because their students don’t achieve at the same level as privileged suburban children. If my book can help, in a small way, make them feel better about their selfless and unrecognized dedication, it will have been worth it for that reason alone.
Richard Rotstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, a visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the author of Class and Schools. Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (Teachers College Press, 2004).