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Creating Equity In Education

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Richard Rothstein

Guest author Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, is the 2003-2004 Julius and Rosa Sachs Distinguished Lecturer at Teachers College. From 1999 to 2002, Rothstein was the national education columnist of the New York Times. His most recent book, Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap, was published by the Economic Policy Institute and Teachers College in May 2004.

Americans usually conclude that the black-white achievement gap must result from school failure. Yet this ignores how social class characteristics influence academic performance.

For example, parents of different social classes often have different styles of childrearing that affect their children's learning. If middle-class parents have jobs where they are expected to collaborate and create new solutions to problems, they are likely to talk to their children in ways that stimulate problem solving and that differ from the ways of lower-class parents whose own jobs require only following instructions. Children raised by parents who are professionals will, on average, have more inquisitive attitudes toward material presented by their teachers than will children raised by working class parents.

Health differences also produce achievement differences. For example, lower-class children, on average, have poorer vision than middle-class children, partly because of prenatal conditions, partly because of how their eyes are trained as infants. They can't read if they can't see, but we insist on thinking that more drill in the basics will do the trick. An investment with more educational benefits might be optometric clinics in schools serving disadvantaged children.

Asthma, the biggest cause of chronic school absence, is more pervasive for lower-class children, partly because pollutants are more dense in the city. No matter how good our teaching, it won't be effective for children who are home sick or in class but drowsy because asthma kept them awake at night. Asthma is treatable; school clinics for this reason alone might be better educational investments than pedagogical reform.

Differences in wealth help explain why black students, on average, score lower than white students whose current year family incomes are the same. White families are likely to own far more assets (for college savings, for example) that support their children's aspirations than are black families with the same current income. Although black median family income is now 64 percent of whites', black median family assets are only 12 percent of whites'.

Closing the achievement gap cannot be accomplished by school reform alone. It also requires narrowing the social class differences with which children come to school.

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