Schools reduce inequality, defying the conventional wisdom
Disadvantaged children fall behind before kindergarten
By the time they finish eighth grade, students from the most disadvantaged American families are far behind well-off children in terms of math and reading skills.
That may suggest it’s the schools’ fault – until you look at the same students when they were starting school. Test results show that the size of the achievement gap is even larger at the beginning of kindergarten.
If anything, schools are working to reduce inequality, said Douglas Downey, professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.
“What this suggests is that the teachers and schools serving our disadvantaged children are probably doing much better than we think they are,” Downey said.
The positive effect of school on less well-off children may become even more apparent when the education impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is evaluated, he said.
Downey is author of the new book How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality is Mostly Wrong.
In the book, Downey lays out the argument against what he calls “The Assumption” that unites both liberals and conservatives in the United States: that schools increase inequality.
That assumption relies partly on the fact that poor and minority students do indeed perform more poorly on standardized tests than their more advantaged counterparts.
“There is a pretty significant gap in skills. It is real and it is consequential,” Downey said. “It just isn’t mostly the fault of schools.”
The proof can be found by looking at the impact of schools on learning, and not just comparing test scores, he said. The best way to do that is through research that compares how children learn when they are in school versus when they are out of school in the summer.
That research shows that students from wealthier backgrounds basically “tread water” during the summer and end up neither losing nor gaining ground. But disadvantaged students actually lose ground during the summer and start the next school year further behind than when they left.
Crucially, research shows that both advantaged and disadvantaged students on average learn at about the same rate when they are in school.
“That’s not something we would expect because disadvantaged children have family and school environments that are less conducive to learning. And if they have poorer schools, it should be all the worse,” Downey said.
“But schools are doing something to quash the growing inequality we see during the summer. If the students had less school, it looks like inequality would be even greater than it is.”
Evaluating the impact schools have on learning – rather than just test scores, or value-added measures to see how much students learn over a calendar year – gives a fairer measure of how much schools and teachers contribute to children’s learning, he said.
These research results don’t mean that schools don’t vary in quality and how much they promote learning. But schools don’t necessarily vary in the way we would assume, according to Downey.
“There are many good schools that are serving mostly high-income, white populations, just as we would expect,” he said. “But there are also many good schools serving mostly low-income, minority populations, as well, which surprises some people.”
So if schools serving the disadvantaged are on average doing better than we thought, why are their students still so far behind?
Much of the answer lies in what happens before kids ever get to school, Downey said. When educational tests are first given to children at about 10 months of age – the earliest researchers can obtain reliable results – the gap between poor and wealthy children is relatively small.
But the gap grows rapidly between 10 months of age and kindergarten, when the beginning of school stops the gap from widening further.
“The good news is that schools serving disadvantaged children, when we measure them carefully, are doing much better than we thought,” Downey said.
“But the bad news is that inequality in terms of children’s achievement gaps and cognitive skills is a much bigger problem than school reform.”
While many people like to blame schools for inequality, they can have only a limited effect, he said. Research has shown that after 12 years of schooling, the average student has spent just 13% of his or her waking hours in school.
“That’s remarkable. The 13% of waking hours they spend in school can’t overcome the 87% of the time they spent outside,” he said.
“If we are serious about reducing inequality, we have to think beyond the school walls and think about what is happening in those children’s lives before they get to kindergarten. We need to be investing more in those first few years of life, especially for disadvantaged children.”
Because of the importance of school for disadvantaged children, Downey said he expects the COVID-19 pandemic to lead to greater inequality in educational outcomes.
Students from less privileged backgrounds were likely to be harder hit by the pandemic: Their families are less likely to have a computer and consistent internet access, less likely to have a parent available to help them navigate learning online, and have a host of other issues.
“I think we will see greater achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children as a result of the pandemic. Schools are an equalizing force and the pandemic period of schooling from home will reveal that more clearly,” Downey said.