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"Schools Count,"

by Dianne Piche & Tamar Ruth In Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein suggests that school reform will not produce results unless and until the entire liberal social and economic agenda is fully enacted. He has summarized a one-sided collection of unsurprising and not very new studies about the impact of poverty, discrimination and class-related child-rearing practices on student outcomes.September/October 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

In Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein suggests that school reform will not produce results unless and until the entire liberal social and economic agenda is fully enacted. He has summarized a one-sided collection of unsurprising and not very new studies about the impact of poverty, discrimination and class-related child-rearing practices on student outcomes. His purpose is clear: to make a case that schools cannot be expected to produce the dramatic improvements demanded by increasing numbers of parents and voters, and called for under the No Child Left Behind Act, because there is very little schools can do to mitigate achievement gaps caused primarily by non-school factors.

Rothstein is wrong about the potential and power of schools, and here’s why:

First, education continues to be the single most important and effective “equalizer” of opportunity in our society. If there is one place progressives can and should put their energy and see results, it is in improving public schools, because despite the persistence of race and sex discrimination in the job market, education remains the most promising ticket into the middle class for black and Latino children. For example, 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.

Certainly there are “non-school” factors that are difficult or outside the power of schools to overcome, as Rothstein describes. Rather than write off the potential of schools, however, we should redouble our efforts to ensure that all children have access to schools that work, including: qualified teachers; a safe and supportive learning environment; and, critically, instruction that is not dumbed down but rather matched with the same high standards taught in the suburbs and required now by growing numbers of states in order to graduate. If states and school districts are not willing or able to desegregate schools with high concentrations of poverty (and the Prospects study conducted for the National Assessment of Title I, as well as other credible research, has made it clear that one of the worst educational environments is high poverty concentration in the classroom), they and the federal government should provide additional, carefully targeted resources to such schools and their students to enable them to succeed, including: highly qualified teachers; extended time (e.g., high-quality summer and after-school programs); additional highly-trained professionals (e.g., reading specialists, master teachers/coaches); professional development in reading and other core subjects that is aligned with the state’s standards; and sufficient pay or other incentives for good teachers to remain in these schools. While a certain amount of racial and economic isolation in schools is outside the control of school officials (the result of entrenched residential segregation), school boards retain control over student assignment and attendance policies and ought to do all in their power to reduce poverty concentration in classrooms; magnet schools, controlled choice and compliance with NCLB’s new transfer provisions can all help reduce isolation and improve learning outcomes.

Second, Rothstein’s contention that most successful high-poverty or high-minority schools are flukes, statistical outliers or selective academies is not supportable. Despite Rothstein’s effort to deflate and discredit as many success stories as he can, our own experience in teaching and advocacy is completely consistent with The Education Trust reports on successful schools and the belief that success is possible in far more schools (, and for many more students, than currently reported. There are success stories on an individual, school and community-wide basis all across the country, and we each have been fortunate to live, witness and celebrate success everywhere we go. For example:
  • Last year, every single one of author Ruth’s students (all nonwhite, most eligible for free or reduced price meals, and many new to learning English) met the school district’s benchmark in reading, and most far exceeded the standard. Her experience as a classroom teacher, and her prior work with poor Latino toddlers, refutes Rothstein’s notion that only a handful of poor children can “defy the odds.” Rather, her own experience both as an “at-risk” child growing up, and now as an educator, speaks powerfully to the fact that students can succeed if we believe in and support them.
  • In the larger community of eastern Montgomery County, MD, where both authors live, the public schools are majority nonwhite and enroll large numbers of poor and immigrant children. Under the superintedent’s leadership, a program of sensible, coherent instructional programs and interventions targeted to poor neighborhoods and schools is dramatically closing the gap, erasing many of the preschool literacy deficits Rothstein asserts are responsible for the gap at the get-go. In one Title I school where author Piché volunteered and sent her own children, the system’s intensive and balanced literacy initiative brought nearly all low-income and non-English-proficient second graders to or above level on the district’s early reading assessment, including a number of children who might otherwise have been consigned to special education.
  • In St. Louis, where author Piché has represented schoolchildren in an ongoing desegregation case, we have seen results from strategies to improve achievement. Specifically, over the last two decades, thousands of poor black children from St. Louis transferred to majority white and middle-class suburban districts, where their parents could not afford to live. Under this program, the largest public school choice program in the nation, the students achieved graduation and college-going rates enormously higher than the city schools they otherwise would have attended.
  • In California, one of the most underfunded states, with huge numbers of poor and immigrant students, Education Trust West has identified increasing numbers of high-poverty schools making or exceeding state achievement targets. The Citizens’ Commission in Civil Rights met with and interviewed educators at some of these schools (and many others across the country) as part of our Title I monitoring project and found some common themes: 1) an overarching belief among staff that all children could succeed (and with it a refusal to make excuses or to blame parents); 2) a relentless focus on literacy and getting all students to read on grade level by the third grade; 3) continuous examination and use of data, including periodic assessment in reading and math, to implement instructional improvements and changes; 4) a strong principal and senior staff who respect teachers, encourage collaboration and celebrate success but who also communicate and enforce high standards; and 5) a sense of connection to a larger community (e.g., through parent involvement, adult volunteers, business partners and support from clergy and faith communities). Significantly, very few of these schools received any “extras” above and beyond their regular district allocations for staffing and materials and their Title I grants. But what they did with their resources was to use them in the smartest, most efficacious ways to improve achievement.

Finally, Rothstein fails to address how schools and school officials themselves are often responsible for perpetuating and exacerbating achievement gaps. Many more kids would succeed in school and huge parts of the gaps would be erased if adults in charge of schools ended policies and practices we know are bad for kids, including the following:
  1. The persistent, widespread inequitable distribution of education resources, including teachers. In many parts of the country, rich students get more and poor students get less. We are dismayed that in an entire work on the achievement gap, Rothstein makes light of perhaps the most consequential maldistribution of resources, that of good qualified teachers. He writes off closing the well-documented teacher quality gap as “politically unrealistic” (p.132 of the book). But this “in-school” problem is one of the largest contributing factors to the achievement gap in the first place. An extensive and growing body of research by Richard Ingersoll (Univ. of Penn.), Jennifer King Rice (Univ.of Md.), William Sanders (Univ. of Tenn.) and others has established that teacher quality is the most signficant in-school variable that influences student achievement.
  2. Tracking and academic-content gaps. Rothstein acknowledges that poor and minority students have the same educational aspirations as middle-class and white students: to go to college and make a good living. But with a set of widespread practices that expand rather than close gaps, schools themselves make attainment of these goals virtually impossible for many students. These practices include: a) tracking poor and minority students into whole classes or, in the earlier grades, groups, where expectations and standards are low and remain low throughout students’ educational careers; b) counseling and steering similarly situated minority students into less challenging and dumbed-down high school classes, while white students are encouraged to take honors, Advanced Placement and other more rigorous courses; c) in some schools, not requiring, encouraging or even offering a full sequence of college-preparatory classes; and d) the failure of states and districts to ensure that the same courses (e.g., algebra, biology) in fact have the same or comparable rigor across school class and race lines.
  3. Bad adult behavior toward children and their parents. In many high-poverty communities, there are adults working in and supervising schools who are downright disrespectful of students and their families. Rothstein addresses the impact of discrimination occurring off school premises, but neglects to acknowledge the poisonous impact of within-school discrimination and other demeaning conduct. Under the category of “bad adult behavior,” we include both overtly and covertly biased remarks and practices, schools that are managed as if they were prisons and not places of learning, and school environments that are unwelcoming to both students and parents. We also include the persistent overuse of suspension, expulsion and so-called “zero tolerance” policies that, as applied, deny students an ongoing opportunity to learn and often have an adverse and disproportionate impact on minority and male students.
  4. Dishonest grading and promotion practices. While we do not favor large-scale retention, we also know, as reported by the National Assessment of Title I, that in general students in poor urban schools receive “A’s” for work that would only pass for a “C” in the better-off suburbs. Children do not ultimately benefit when they are promoted from grade to grade without having attained the grade-level mastery of reading and math skills necessary to do core subject coursework (including comprehending more complex texts) in succeeding years. Intervention and additional assistance should be immediate and targeted to prevent an accumulation of deficits that ultimately will lead to dropouts or failure to meet graduation standards.
    To his credit, Rothstein does acknowledge the persistence of and harm caused by segregation, and calls for school and wider community (e.g., residential) integration, proposals with which we agree. In addition, his recommendations for addressing poverty through progressive policies in the areas of preschool and child care, health care, housing and income security are all very important. We do not disagree with any of them.

But, as discussed above, we disagree completely with his thesis in Class and Schools that schools themselves can do little to close achievement gaps.

Not only is Rothstein’s thesis incorrect, it also provides ammunition to an entrenched, retrograde education establishment desperate to excuse achievement gaps at a time when there is a growing public consensus that such gaps are neither inevitable nor morally defensible. This “establishment” includes some (though by no means all) public officials, school administrators and classroom teachers who are challenged, and in some cases personally threatened, by the gap-closing promises and requirements of the bipartisan NCLB. It also includes many middle- and upper-class parents and voters who, historically, have been reluctant to send their tax dollars to the other side of town to improve the schools of poor and nonwhite students.

Ironically, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, those very provisions in NCLB that call for racial and economic justice in the provision of educational resources (including high-quality teaching) are among the most threatening to some otherwise moderate to liberal constituencies, including the nation’s largest teachers’ union. These NCLB provisions include the requirement that states put all schools on a trajectory to ensure that all children, including poor and minority students, can read and do math at the state’s own levels of proficiency within 12 years (a timeline decried as unrealistic by many in the education establishment, but way too long for most parents whose children will have fallen far behind, or dropped out, by the time the deadlines roll around). Less widely discussed (perhaps because the Bush Administration has been complicit in state and local disregard of these provisions) are additional requirements in NCLB to redirect resources to the schools with greatest needs, including closing the well-documented “teacher quality gap” between rich and poor schools. Compliance with this provision (which was supported by a coalition of civil rights organizations but opposed by the teachers’ unions) could involve the redeployment of highly qualified teachers at well-off schools to those with high concentrations of poverty and/or the provision of economic and other incentives for good teachers to remain in high-needs schools.

Most of us who support a broad progressive economic and civil rights agenda know the playing field in and out of school very likely will not be leveled in our lifetimes, nor during the school careers of millions of poor African American and Latino children now in or about to enter the public school system. But we refuse to give up on a generation or even a classroom of children, or to stop pushing lawmakers, school administrators and other educators to do their very best, even as the Right Wing pushes for more shredding of the safety net and the Left backs off its commitment to enforcing racial equality in education. It is not only reasonable but also morally imperative that we expect all schools to do right by all students.

Dianne Piche , a civil rights lawyer, is Executive Director of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, where she was principal editor of CCCR's 2004 publication, Choosing Better Schools: A Study of Student Transfers Under the No Child Left Behind Act, and their 2002 report, Rights at Risk: Equality in an Age of Terrorism. She also teaches education law and policy at the University of Maryland-College Park.
Tamar Ruth is an award-winning elementary school teacher in Montgomery County, MD, a doctoral student in education policy and leadership at the University of Maryland, and on the board of the Montgomery County Education Association (the NEA teachers union).

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