You are seeing this message because your web browser does not support basic web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing and what you can do to make your experience on this site better.


Picture of Richard Rothstein
Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and a visiting lecturer at Teachers College, Columbia University. From 1999 to 2002 he was the national education columnist for The New York Times and is now a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. Rothstein authored the 2004 book Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black–White Achievement Gap (published by the Economic Policy Institute), which argues that narrowing the achievement gap requires substantial changes in social policy in addition to extensive school reform.¹

Your book Class and Schools argues that closing the achievement gap cannot be accomplished by school reform alone. On what do you base your argument?

What children achieve academically is the product not only of what they learn in school, but of a wide variety of factors, including home and neighborhood influences, and social and economic conditions. My book attempts to help explain the concrete ways in which these influences affect learning.

One of the most important ways in which social-class differences affect how children learn, for example, is parenting style. Much research has demonstrated that parents from different social classes have different conversational styles, ways of relating, and intellectual engagement with children. The best-known study on this comes from Betty Hart and Todd Risley in their book Meaningful Differences.² After observing families of different social classes, Hart and Risley found a number of significant class-related differences. For example, toddlers whose parents had professional occupations heard an average of 2,000 words per hour, while children with working-class parents heard an average of 1,300 words; and children with parents on welfare heard an average of 600 words. These differences are meaningful because the extent to which parents converse with and in the presence of their children impacts children's vocabularies and literacy levels.

Children will do better in schools where teachers are better prepared, with higher expectations, and where the curriculum is better. But improving our schools alone won't fully close the achievement gap, as children from middle-class families will continue to have advantages outside of school that put them ahead of their lower-class peers.

What do you recommend as essential for closing the achievement gap?

Our priority should be providing high quality early childhood programs for children of all social classes. Preschool for all 4-year-olds is a start, but not sufficient, because gaps show up by age 3. Children's cognitive abilities begin to differentiate early in life, based in part on the amount of intellectual stimulation they receive in the home and in child care.

The second important area is health. While health disparities in our society are well documented, many don't recognize the extent to which they influence children's academic achievement. Consider vision as an example. Low-income children come to school with twice the rate of vision problems as middle-class children—many children can't read simply because they can't see. Also, several years ago the Surgeon General concluded that low-income children have untreated dental cavities at three times the rate of middle-class children.

You may wonder what this has to do with student achievement, but consider that children who are in discomfort—whether from a toothache or for some other reason—are going to pay attention less well, on average, than children who are not in discomfort. Children will not learn if they are absent or distracted by health problems. In this instance it does not matter how qualified teachers are or how good the curriculum. To begin narrowing the achievement gap we need to address the nonschool factors that cause learning differences between low-income and middle-class children.

Conventional wisdom has it that schools fail minority children, and there is little doubt that schools could do a better job. But rarely recognized is that minority children actually learn more in school than middle-class children do. Our only reliable national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows Black students' reading scores rising more from fourth to eighth grade than Whites' scores. The big achievement gap is due partly to disadvantaged children starting out in school already far behind. Also, they get less educational support in summers and after school.

This observation has been confirmed by tests given to children in the spring and again the following autumn. These tests show that during summer, disadvantaged children's scores fall, while middle-class children forget less of what they have learned. This differential “summer setback” occurs partly because middle-class children's learning is reinforced in the summer months—they read more, travel, and learn new social and emotional skills in camp and organized athletics. It is reasonable to think that differences in out-of-school opportunities also exacerbate the achievement gap.

So another effective approach to narrowing the achievement gap would be to offer after school and summer programs that provide academic support as well as cultural, athletic, and organizational experiences for disadvantaged children. Only about one in five low-income children presently participate in after school programs.

How do you respond to critics who say your argument offers an excuse for educators not to try harder?

My argument does not provide an excuse for poor performance. Rather, my point is that schools do make a difference, but so do a range of other factors. Academic achievement is the product of schools and social institutions and families. School, though part of the solution, is not the only solution.

Currently, our national education policy expects something we cannot possibly achieve if schools alone are seen as responsible for student achievement. Our national goal is that all social-class differences in education outcomes will disappear by the year 2014. However, when 2014 arrives and gaps have not disappeared, we will judge that schools have failed. Policies will follow from that judgment. But most of these policies will not work, because we will have made an incorrect diagnosis of the problem and therefore formulated an incorrect or incomplete treatment as a solution.

Is coordinating schools and other nonschool supports important in addressing the achievement gap?

Yes. Coordination is very important. But before we can do much better in this regard, we have to start with the fact that early childhood programs, health clinics, and after school and summer programs do not exist in sufficient numbers in the first place. They have to exist before they can be coordinated.

Consider a commonplace health problem: earaches. Many children get earaches. When middle-class children get them, they go to their pediatricians, who administer antibiotics or other treatments. But the number of pediatricians in low-income communities is generally low, so for low-income families without access to pediatricians, the only option is to go to an emergency room. Yet most will not go to the emergency room for an earache. As a result many children suffering from earaches are inattentive in school. Unless we create incentives that bring pediatricians to low-income communities, we cannot coordinate doctors with schools, because the doctors simply do not exist in sufficient numbers in those communities.

Once pediatricians come to low-income communities, there should be full coordination between physicians and schools. Teachers should notify doctors of key problems, and they ought to be able to consult with a physician to understand the underlying cause of a problem. However, we are far from that point. We need to think first about how to provide these services, then about how to provide them in such a way that programs and schools are coordinated.

What additional research or evaluation is needed to further explore the solutions you offer?

We definitely need more research in this field. We are so focused on schools being the sole determinants of child outcomes that we spend very little time investigating the ways other institutions and social forces interact. In the early childhood arena, for instance, much of the advocacy for programs is, in this country, based on the Perry Preschool Project,³ which involved only one program with only 120 children. It was a powerful experiment, one that followed children until they reached age 40, but we should have done more of this kind of research with different kinds of programs.

The Perry program included a major parent education component; it is reasonable to think that the parenting component was an important part of its success. But I would like to see research on a dozen of these kinds of programs—with differing components, tracking children until they are 20 years old or more. We then can see if outcomes are different with programs that had the presence or absence of specific components. Social policy in this nation should be based on a much larger research base than is currently available.

¹ Other recent books include the following: Carnoy, M., Jacobsen, R., Mishel, L., & Rothstein, R. (2005). The charter school dust-up: Evaluating the evidence on enrollment and achievement. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute; and Carnoy, M., Benveniste, L., Carnoy, H., & Rothstein, R. (2002). All else equal: Are public and private schools different? New York: Routledge.
² Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
³ Visit the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation website for more information on Perry Preschool Project research: www.highscope.org.

Julia Coffman, Consultant, HFRP

‹ Previous Article | Table of Contents | Next Article ›

© 2014 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project