What’s causing the gap?

Who or what is to blame for lagging performance by minority students? Richard Rothstein and Russlynn Ali continue their weeklong debate on the achievement gap.

November 28, 2007


Today, Rothstein and Ali look for causes of the achievement gap. Previously, they debated whether it's worth trying to close the gap and assessed the value of the No Child Left Behind Act. Later in the week, they'll discuss reforms to boost students' performance and more.

A symptom of other inequalities
By Richard Rothstein

Disadvantaged students' low performance has many mutually reinforcing causes. We're the most unequal society in the industrialized world; it would be silly to expect academic performance to be equal when nothing else is. Every industrialized society has achievement gaps. Ours are bigger because our economic system is more unequal.

Educational debates are corrupted by insistence that schools alone can close achievement gaps. Certainly, better schools would lift achievement. Groups trying to improve schools, train better teachers and principals, improve curriculum and raise standards are essential. But, Russlynn, when you assert that such improvements alone can close achievement gaps, you harm the very cause of equality you hope to advance.

Closing gaps requires combining better schools with greater social and economic equality.

On Monday, I gave one example of why better schools alone can't do it, describing how low-income children have more frequent asthma, resulting in more school absence. Imagine two groups of children, identical except that one has high absenteeism from untreated asthma. When children in this group do come to school, they are often drowsy from being awake at night. Without proper medical care, they can't suppress symptoms with inhalants, as more fortunate children do. The second group has adequate medical care and less absenteeism. If both groups have great teachers, curriculum and standards, they will still differ in average learning.

Of course, good teachers will get higher average achievement from children who are frequently absent than will inadequate teachers. But will good teachers get the same average achievement from the frequently absent that they get from healthier students? Certainly not.

Because of normal human variation, some students with great absenteeism do have higher achievement than typical healthy children. And some healthy children have lower achievement than typical children with great absenteeism. But on average, the two groups must have an achievement gap.

Add to asthma the many other health differences between disadvantaged and middle-class children. Low-income children have more lead poisoning (they live in poorly maintained homes with peeling paint) and iron deficiency anemia; both of those lower IQ. The U.S. surgeon general reports that one-third of low-income children have untreated dental cavities; they're more likely to be distracted in class by toothaches. Low-income children have twice the rate of vision difficulties as middle-class children. You can't read well if you can't see well. All contribute to achievement gaps. (Readers wanting references to research that documents these claims should e-mail me at

It's not only health differences. Consider the intellectual environments of children whose parents are well educated and those whose parents are not. Children in the first group listen to complex language with larger vocabularies and are read to more often. They then attend school more ready to learn. Students from less literate homes will learn more from better teachers than from worse teachers. But will they achieve, on average, as much as children from more literate homes? Of course not. To believe otherwise is to think that learning during non-school hours has no effect whatsoever.

Consider other economic factors such as housing. Because urban rents have risen more rapidly than wages of working parents, low-income families move more than middle-class families. Some Los Angeles schools serving disadvantaged children have 100% mobility (twice as many children pass through the school annually as the school's capacity). These schools are frequently disrupted by reorganizing classes; teachers have less time to learn students' individual strengths and weaknesses. Teachers must repeat lessons for newcomers who've missed school while their home lives were disrupted. Of course, good teachers can get higher achievement from transient students than inadequate teachers could. But can good teachers get the same average achievement from transient as from stable students? Of course not.

Statistical analyses attribute about 15% of the black-white achievement gap to differences in residential mobility and 25% to differences to a few health factors. Other socioeconomic inequalities and differences in school quality also contribute.

Russlynn, you acknowledge differences in educationally important socioeconomic conditions. But you would have us keep them secret, hiding them from teachers. On Monday, you wrote that "there is great danger in sending messages to education stakeholders that the achievement gap cannot be closed. Teachers and administrators will hear leaders decry the sheer impossibility of closing gaps and ask why they should even try to teach poor and minority kids to high levels." This underestimates teachers' intelligence and dedication. Teachers do not conclude that if they alone can't fully close gaps, they must be on a "fool's errand," as you claimed. Good teachers try mightily to spur poor and minority children's learning, and they succeed more than inadequate teachers do. But good teachers also understand that instruction, to succeed further, needs greater support from social and economic policy.

Some school reformers fear that any mention of socioeconomic influences on learning will be used as "excuses" for poor teaching. But we can't avoid excuses by promoting simplistic myths about educational processes. Instead, those making excuses for poor performance should be challenged, corrected or, if necessary, removed.

The alternative — pretending that more effective schools can close achievement gaps on their own — promises the impossible, setting schools and teachers up for failure. Why shouldn't the public conclude that schools are incompetent if educators cannot achieve what some foolishly promise?

I am often accused of letting schools "off the hook" by making this argument. Not at all — both schools and social policy need improvement. But claims that schools alone can close achievement gaps let politicians and business leaders "off the hook." We let them claim one day that it's too expensive to provide health insurance to all children, and on the next pose as advocates for minorities by demanding that schools close the gap.

If schools alone could really equalize young people's opportunities, there truly would be little role for other policy to play.

Rarely a day goes by without news reports of schools or teachers somewhere who "beat the odds" by getting consistently high achievement from the most disadvantaged students. These claims invariably are based on statistical flukes or sleights of hand.

Russlynn, you properly state that educators can't improve social conditions while they can do much to improve schools. But educators are also citizens, and they have unique insight into the socioeconomic challenges faced by children they teach. At work, teachers should concentrate on getting higher classroom achievement. But as citizens, they should be outspoken about the support they need from social policy without fear of being accused of "making excuses."

These are not either/or choices. We need not believe either in improving schools or in providing healthcare, housing supports, high-quality early childhood programs or greater economic security. We need do all of these, if we are truly committed to greater equality.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and author of "Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap." He was formerly the national education columnist for the New York Times.

Disadvantaged students can achieve too
By Russlynn Ali

Exactly, Richard: It's not an either-or choice. Our nation can and must address the outrageous conditions under which too many of our children are growing up and simultaneously work to ensure that they have the intellectual tools they need to contribute to and benefit from our economic, social and cultural mainstream.

I think our only argument is around sequencing.

You seem to believe that we cannot close the achievement gap until we end poverty. I am convinced that we cannot end poverty without closing the gap. Moreover, I know to a certainty that low-income kids absolutely can achieve at high levels — levels just as high as their more affluent peers — though I would not argue for a second that this is easy nor that it can be done at scale without dramatic changes in how we "do school" in America.

Of course the government should ensure that every child whose family cannot afford health insurance has it. Of course we should ensure families who cannot afford decent housing get the housing assistance they need.

But our goal as a nation should not be to create a class of people whose economic survival depends in whole on the generosity of government. You yourself pointed to your concerns about our nation's welfare system. Instead, our goal should be to ensure that vastly higher proportions of our citizens have the skills and knowledge to get good, high-paying jobs, to actively participate in our democracy and to be the sort of well-educated parents that you credit with such an important role in preparing children for the rigors of schooling.

If these are our goals, closing the achievement gap must be at the center of our agenda, not something to be done after poverty is "solved."

Richard, you dismiss too quickly as flukes and outliers high-achieving, high-poverty schools. In doing so, you once again demean and diminish the educators and students who are succeeding against the odds. No one would deny that there are too few of these schools, but I think you may be confused about exactly which "odds" they are beating. The biggest challenge these educators face is often not the poverty, health status or mobility of their students. Instead, the longest odds are those created by our education culture, which denies that these children can succeed and therefore gives them less of the stuff that academic success is made of: good teachers, rich curriculum, challenging course work and engaging classroom assignments.

At high-achieving, high-poverty schools, the poverty status of students is hardly "hidden" from the educators. Rather, it is central to their strategies. For example, the School District of Philadelphia — which has lots of poor children who are very mobile — put into place a citywide curriculum so children who move could pick up right where they left off. Years ago, the San Jose Unified School District took a different approach to its high student mobility: It just bused the kids who moved back to their "home" school. Problems like mobility are not hidden from educators. The point is that good systems decide what they as educators can do about the problems, while most systems just throw up their hands.

Some high-performing public schools, like Ralph Bunche Elementary School in Carson, provide another example of aggressive response to the problems of poverty. This school boasts more growth on the statewide Academic Performance Index than any other public school in California from 2000 to 2006, increasing its score from 450 to 868 (the statewide success target is 800). How did Bunche do it with a student body that is 99% Latino and African American and 93% low-income? It transformed what teaching is and what it looks like at the school, empowering teachers to plan together, share challenging lessons and assess their instructional practices on a weekly basis. Simultaneously, the parents and students were held accountable for attending school every day with behavior reflective of a desire to learn and go to college. In short, Bunche decided to accept no excuses.

Like you, many educators seem to find it easier to denigrate successful high-poverty schools like Bunche as statistical flukes — or worse, as liars and cheats — than do the hard work of identifying and emulating their best practices. Because learning from leaders is often the best way to improve practice in any endeavor, such attitudes aren't helpful.

Since our discussion about education issues has become enveloped by healthcare issues, let me highlight a fast-improving area of medicine to illustrate the point.

One of the arenas where results have improved most dramatically over the last few decades is in the treatment of cystic fibrosis, a disease that mostly attacks young children, dramatically reducing their lung capacity. Back in the 1960s, the average expected life span for a child with cystic fibrosis was 10 years. Today, children treated at the leading hospital centers can expect to live beyond age 50.

How did we get there? Not by dismissing the centers that got better results as statistical flukes, but by studying these "positive deviants" and emulating their practices elsewhere.

When people looked at the leading institutions, they didn't find healthcare professionals who just wished for healthier patients with better-educated parents or nicer homes. Instead, they found healthcare professionals who were relentless in pursuing better outcomes for their patients and who did whatever it took to make that happen. And these professionals didn't just assume that, because their patients entered with lung disease, they were doomed to consistently have lung capacity below that of normal children. They aimed for equal or better lung capacity, and that's what they produced.

Frankly, we need more of that spirit in education. Instead of pointing to problems outside of our control and labeling all the places where we can try to lay blame, we need to buckle down, learn from our highest performers and figure out how to put those best practices into widespread use.

Russlynn Ali is the executive director of The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based think tank focused on closing the achievement gaps separating low-income students and students of color from other young Californians.

<< Previous day's Dust-Up  |  Main Page  |  Next day's Dust-Up >>
Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3  |  Day 4