It is well known that students from lower-income families have poorer results than their more affluent peers because they have less effective teachers and their schools receive less money. But recent evidence casts doubt on both statements.
A recent survey found that children from both lower and higher income families have “nearly equal access to effective teachers.” The study, which analyzed data from 26 school districts over a five-year period, found that lower-income students are more likely to become beginning teachers, but concluded that the inequality is small and contributes “a negligible amount of gaps in student performance”.
In terms of school funding, it was true that schools with more affluent students were better funded than those with lower incomes. But while some schools in high poverty still lack funds for basic needs (see here and here), the situation has generally become much more equitable over the past 50 years. Supreme courts in 28 states have demanded fairer formulas for state funding. In addition, the federal government has focused funds on schools serving poorer children. The result, a study from the Urban Institute concluded, is that when all government funding is taken together, “almost all states allocate more funding per student to poor children than to non-poor children.” Only two or three allocate less.
At the same time, total school spending in the US has increased. In 2019, the amount spent per student on K-12 education was at its highest level in more than a decade. And that doesn’t factor in the historic infusion of nearly $190 billion in federal Covid aid money in recent years — an amount that’s five or six times the usual annual federal spending on K-12 education.
And yet reading scores have stagnated or declined since 1998, math scores since 2010, and the gap between low and high scores has widened. At the high school level, there has been no progress in test scores since the early 1970s. Effective teachers and adequate funding are important, but no guarantee of success.
This becomes clear when you compare different jurisdictions and countries. Washington, DC, spends $22,759 per student, the second highest in the country (compared to states) and far more than the US average of $14,480. However, many students still receive insufficient education. For example, of 128 students who graduated from DC schools a few years ago and enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia, 126 needed recovery assistance. And the US as a whole spends more per student than many other countries where students do better on international tests.
So if the explanation for educational differences isn’t access to effective teachers or the level of school funding, what is it?
Two answers that have been offered in recent years are racism and poverty. Education reformers used to say those factors were “no excuse”—that schools could overcome them. But discouraged by a lack of significant progress, many have now concluded that it simply isn’t possible to improve outcomes for students from low-income families and historically disadvantaged groups without addressing those issues first.
It is clear that we must fight racism and poverty. But they aren’t the whole explanation for disparate educational outcomes, and we don’t have to wait for them to be “fixed” before fixing education.
Let’s race first. Some have argued that standardized tests are inherently racist because black and brown students as a group rank lower than their white peers. Many educators also believe that the main reason why non-white students suffer academically is that they don’t see themselves and their culture reflected in the curriculum the way white students do.
We must, of course, do everything possible to ensure that standardized tests are not culturally biased and that the curriculum provides both “mirrors” and “windows” for all students. But many thousands of white students also score low on standardized tests. In Rhode Island, for example, nearly 3,500 white 8e evaluators scored below proficient level on a 2019 national reading assessment, compared to approximately 2,000 Hispanic and 800 black students. It is true that black and Hispanic students were more likely to score lower than white students, but if the fundamental reason for low scores is racism, why do so many white students score low too?
Then there is poverty. There are certainly factors associated with poverty that make it difficult to learn – things like food and housing insecurity, which cause stress. But we also have proof that it is not poverty yourself that leads to lower academic performance.
Consider a study done in 2012 by the Brookings Institute that looked at whether children were ready for kindergarten. As you might expect, they found that poor children were much less likely to finish than their higher-income peers. But when they looked at children whose mothers had at least a BA, they found that 91% of poor children in that category were kindergarten ready, as opposed to just 84% of higher-income children in the United States. same category – the nothing but category in which poor children were actually better prepared.
Having highly educated parents does not guarantee academic success. In the 2019 National Reading Test, 59% of eighth-graders who were under 25. scorede percentile had parents who had graduated. But it does make success a lot more likely. Of the students who scored proficient or higher on that test, only 17% had parents who had not completed high school, while 44% had parents with a college degree.
The point is not that all parents have to go to college. Rather, schools can teach all students what highly educated parents often offer: academic knowledge and vocabulary. That’s essentially what allows students to do well on standardized reading tests, not to mention in high school and in life.
For complex reasons, most schools don’t do that well, especially at the elementary level. Rather than immersing children in the subjects that build academic knowledge — history, geography, science and art — elementary schools spend most of the day practicing illusory “skills” for reading comprehension in easy-to-read books on random topics. That standard approach leaves them without the background knowledge they need to understand high school-level texts — or, often, the reading test passages.
An increasing number of schools are switching to a fundamentally different type of core curriculum, one that systematically builds children’s academic knowledge beginning in the early elementary years, while also teaching them to decipher written words, another aspect of reading instruction for which teachers lack sufficient training. . At higher levels, schools are beginning to use explicit, precisely sequenced writing instruction to identify and compensate for gaps in knowledge that prevent students from learning what the curriculum expects. But these approaches are far from the norm.
Yes, we need effective teachers, but the best way to empower teachers to be effective is to provide them with a knowledge building curriculum and the training to implement it properly. Yes, we need fair and adequate school funding, but unless we know how to spend it wisely, it won’t matter much (and a good curriculum costs no more than a bad one).
And yes, we have to fight racism and poverty, but at the same time we have to change what and how schools teach so that they really educate all students. Otherwise, we might find that eradicating racism and poverty, assuming we can do that, is not enough to create a fairer education system and a more just society.