In 2004 Richard Rothstein wrote Class and Schools, which makes a meticulously documented and compelling case that schools alone cannot overcome the effects of poverty to close the academic achievement. The idea that education needs the support of other programs to be successful goes back at least to President Johnson’s proposal for the Great Society. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was one component of that initiative. President Johnson recognized that education, although fundamental, was just one of several avenues to the Great Society. In remarks to the White House Conference on Education in 1965, he said, “Education will not cure all the problems of society, but without it no cure for any problem is possible.” Neither can education, by itself, overcome all of the problems of society.
But by the time the ESEA was reauthorized in the form of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, this idea was flipped on its head into the notion that education, by itself, indeed can and should overcome the effects of social and economic inequality to close the academic achievement gap. All we need is better schools, and the only thing we need to get those better schools is more accountability.
When NCLB was enacted, I sometimes quipped that, if we were really serious about it, then we should have at least three other supporting laws: the No Child Goes to Bed Hungry Act, the No Child Goes without Medical Care Act, and the No Child is the Victim of Violence Act. Although important to his goal of leaving no child behind, George W. Bush did not launch or expand any federal programs to address these problems. In fact, he vetoed a bill to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and signed a bill to prohibit the federal government from negotiating discounts with drug companies. He also vetoed the 2007 Farm Bill, which increased food stamp benefits, but his veto was overridden by Congress. He did nothing to speak of regarding neighborhood safety. Education stood alone as the one program where “failure” would not be tolerated, even as the out-of-school needs of students went increasingly unaddressed.
Any talk of the obstacles to learning presented by poverty or under-resourced schools was shot down as making excuses. “No excuse” schools became all the rage, and serious consideration of the need to address directly the conditions of poverty in order to improve academic performance was discouraged. Better schools were all we needed.
Since the publication of Class and Schools other studies have documented the losing battle that schools are waging against the effects of poverty. For example, studies have documented that low income (largely inner city) students retain less learning during the summer vacation months. This results in learning deficits the next school year. Even if the school produces a full year of academic growth, that deficit is not overcome, and is just compounded the following year.
A new study from The Ohio State University sheds fresh light on this problem. As reported in the Sociology of Education (you can read it here and read about it here), the study finds no difference in reading gains between schools serving poor or black students and those serving nonpoor or white students. In announcing the study, the lead author, Douglas Downey said that it “suggests schools are neutral or even slightly compensate for inequality elsewhere,” and challenges “the traditional story about how schools supposedly add to inequality.” Schools are not the “engines of inequality” they are often portrayed to be.
Don’t get me wrong. I will never argue that it is unreasonable to expect more of schools. But neither is it unreasonable to expect our state and our country to do more to directly address the effects of poverty, such as hunger, poor physical and mental health care, and housing insecurity. To be sure, there is a fine line between using poverty as an excuse and acknowledging poverty as an obstacle that schools alone cannot overcome. But we’re not doing our students any favors if fear of excuse-making causes us to turn a blind eye to poverty and its effect on learning. As Downey concluded, “We are probably better off putting more energy toward addressing the larger social inequalities that are producing these large gaps in learning before kids even enter school.”
Amen to that.