Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Lessons—Does Poverty at Home Mean Low Achievement?

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Does Poverty at Home Mean Low Achievement?

By Richard Rothstein

A dangerous myth was once conventional — that disadvantaged children could not learn. So poor children were assigned to tracks and taught less challenging lessons. Educators took little responsibility for low achievement, blaming children’s poverty and home lives.

Many schools still deliver diluted curriculums to poor and minority children, from whom teachers expect little.

Yet there has been a reaction. The New York Regents now insist that children of all backgrounds show similar achievement. Parents today, by a ratio of three to one, tell pollsters that all children should be held to identical standards. We have gone overboard. To counter the earlier myth, we have developed a new, equally dangerous one: that social class no longer matters in education and that all children, regardless of background, can achieve to the same high standards if only schools demand it. We term schools, regardless of who attends them, “successful” if average test scores are above the median (typically termed “grade level” performance), and “failing” if below.

We cannot seriously believe this. Consider how typical middle-class families raise children. Infants’ first toys are “touch and feel” books. Toddlers soon “read” stories from memory. Magnetic letters decorate refrigerator doors. Sitting on parents’ laps, children “help” compose on computers before they can talk.

These children then attend preschool with equally verbal toddlers. They adopt family assumptions that someday they too will become professionals. Expected to attend college, the only question is how selective it will be.

But other children’s homes are without books, magnetic letters or computers. These children have day care, not preschool. Some enter kindergarten not knowing how to hold pencils. Their poorly paid parents are unlikely to have attended college. Television, not newspapers, dominates their homes. In economically and racially segregated neighborhoods, their play and schoolmates have similar experiences.

Do we really expect typical children in poor communities, even in good schools, to achieve just like typical children in schools where most had a middle-class “head start?” In truth, schools with privileged children should be termed failing if they test only at the 70th percentile. Though already well above grade level, they should do even better. A school with many poor children, scoring at the 35th percentile, could be highly successful, though it tests below average. Nothing could be more dangerous to education reform than schemes to reward the first and penalize the second. By labeling all schools in poor communities with below-norm achievement failing (and all suburban schools successful), we paralyze our ability to distinguish good schools from bad.

Demography is not destiny. Some poor children will, with effort, natural ability and good schooling, achieve more than most privileged children.”Rags to riches” stories abound — some disadvantaged children excel in school and became leaders. But these stories are not universal. On average, with equal school quality, children with more academic support at home will have higher achievement. The power of social class will not disappear if we pretend it does not exist.

Can we avoid the defeatist myth, that schools make no difference, without bouncing to the other extreme, that they make all the difference? From taking too little responsibility, must schools now take too much?

In the 1980’s, South Carolina sought a middle ground, holding all schools to higher standards — but not the same standards. It categorized schools in five bands, based on average poverty, and gave bonuses to the best performers within each band. To win, the best schools serving children of textile-mill workers did not have to outscore schools serving children of urban professionals. Schools were rewarded when teachers evoked higher achievement than was typical in similar communities. The state later abandoned this daring but controversial program. But it was the right idea.

With similar insight, the advocacy group Education Trust this year identified schools where most children were poor, but where scores were higher than in other high-poverty schools.  It described practices that might have caused this achievement — more attention to standards, or better staff training, for example.

Better schools can narrow the gaps between typical achievement of poor and middle-class students. But significant gaps will remain. To figure out how these schools succeed, and to imitate them, we will have to understand the gaps we have closed, not focus only on those that remain. If we want schools to make a difference, we will need more sensible assessments of how much of a difference it can be.

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