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"Social Class, But What About the Schools?,"

by Pedro A. Noguera Long before publication of Social Class and Schools, I was a fan of Richard Rothstein’s work. As a New York Times columnist for several years, Rothstein’s commentaries on education were distinguished by his ability to bring common-sense insights to complex policy issues. In a field where policy typically is driven by ideology and the latest reform fad, Rothstein’s perspectives were frequently a breath of fresh air, and I often found myself clipping the articles to share with students and colleagues.September/October 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

Long before publication of Social Class and Schools, I was a fan of Richard Rothstein’s work. As a New York Times columnist for several years, Rothstein’s commentaries on education were distinguished by his ability to bring common-sense insights to complex policy issues. In a field where policy typically is driven by ideology and the latest reform fad, Rothstein’s perspectives were frequently a breath of fresh air, and I often found myself clipping the articles to share with students and colleagues.

Hence, I was not surprised to find myself in complete agreement with most of the arguments in his new book. In fact, many of the points he raises about the ways in which poverty influences the academic performance of poor children, I have made myself (my 2003 book, City Schools and the American Dream). Like Rothstein, I have often taken issue with those (like the Thernstroms and The Heritage Foundation) who assert that there are “no excuses” for the achievement gap between Black and white, or middle-class and poor children. As Rothstein makes clear, lack of health care, inadequate nutrition or inability to secure stable housing has an effect on the achievement of poor students, and those who claim that children whose basic needs have not been met should do just as well as more privileged children are either lying or delusional.

Despite my concurrence with Rothstein on number of educational issues, there are at least two disturbing aspects to his main argument that I take issue with. First, there is substantial evidence that the schools poor children attend are more likely to be overcrowded, underfunded and staffed by inexperienced teachers. Poor children of color are also more likely to attend schools that are segregated by race and class; less likely to have access to the rigorous math and science courses needed for college; less likely to have access to computers and the internet; and less likely to be in a school that is safe and orderly. Rothstein does not argue that improving these conditions would not help poor children; he simply suggests that this is not where the emphasis for change should be placed. He focuses instead on the family background of poor children and the multi-faceted effects of poverty, factors that clearly have an influence on achievement but which are harder to address. Rothstein argues that improving school conditions would not lead to elimination of the achievement gap. While this may be true, I find it hard to understand how any reasonable person could argue that improving the abysmal conditions present in so many schools serving poor children would not have a positive effect on learning outcomes.

My other point of disagreement with Rothstein concerns his argument that some of the money being spent to improve schools should be redirected to address issues such as health care and housing that contribute to the hardships experienced by poor children in America. My disagreement on this point is political rather than substantive. While I agree that much more needs to be done to address the needs of poor children in America, such as providing access to quality early childhood programs, I also know that there has not been much political will or support for taking on these issues since the War on Poverty in the 1960s. There is, however, substantial popular support for the idea of improving public education and using it as a vehicle to promote opportunity and social mobility. Like Rothstein, I agree that schools cannot be expected to address the effects of poverty on children alone, but from a tactical standpoint I believe it makes sense to support the idea of advancing equity by expanding educational opportunities, rather than dismissing such efforts as unrealistic or hopelessly unattainable. Put more simply, reducing poverty and improving schools should not be treated as competing goals. Both are necessary, but for the time being at least, there is far greater support for improving education.

There are other parts of Rothstein’s argument that I also take issue with: his arguments regarding minority student attitudes toward school (I contend that oppositional attitudes are often produced in school); his narrow focus on Black and white students at a time when Latinos and Asians are the fastest growing groups nationally; and his lack of attention to the difference that highly qualified teachers can make in influencing student outcomes.

But most of all I am troubled by his dismissal of the high-performing/high-poverty schools that have been documented by The Education Trust and others. While there may indeed be a bit of exaggeration about some of these schools, I know from my own research and experience (see my article “Transforming High Schools” in the May 2004 issue of Educational Leadership) that such schools do exist, and while they may not close the achievement gap as some have claimed, they do succeed in reducing academic disparities. The existence of such schools is the most important evidence available that the quality of schools poor students attend does matter. I’m not sure if Rothstein would argue against this point or why he does not weigh in more heavily on the need to do more to improve schools. In all likelihood, it is because his goal is to call for greater attention to the effects of poverty rather than seeing so much emphasis placed on reforming schools. While I don’t have a problem with that emphasis, I do think it is important to show what effective schools can do to promote student achievement. This ultimately is where Rothstein and I disagree, and while I strongly endorse the attention he directs toward the effects of poverty on achievement, I believe that the book he’s written is not really about schools, it’s about what he thinks schools cannot do. The limitations he identifies are certainly real and profoundly important, but what he pays insufficient attention to is the extraordinary difference that good schools can make for students who are lucky enough to get access to them.

Pedro A. Noguera is a professor in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University and the Director of the Center for Research on Urban Schools and Globalization. pan6@nyu.edu
 
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