Sunday, January 01, 2006

Achievement Gap: Addressing classism will improve school performance

This is a thoughtful piece. I agree that more holistic approach that addresses environmental circumstances that children find themselves in is what would improve the achievement gap. -Angela

Wed, Dec. 28, 2005
Addressing classism will improve school performance

By Lewis Diuguid The Kansas City Star

Richard Rothstein offers the best thoughts I’ve heard on narrowing the black/white achievement gap.

Lawmakers just have to listen. “I don’t have a strategy to get politicians to do something different except to keep on emphasizing what the social and economic realities are,” Rothstein told me.

Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a visiting professor at Teachers College at Columbia University. His thoughts are in a past issue of Educational Leadership magazine.

The education system is less to blame for the achievement gap than society’s ills. Yet, the No Child Left Behind law would have people think the schools are totally at fault. America’s sicknesses include racism and classism.

Rothstein describes how upper-middle class parents with jobs in which they collaborate with others are more likely to show their young children how to figure out answers for themselves. The children of people with professional careers are generally more inquisitive and take a more active approach to learning than children of working-class parents.

Parents whose jobs require “creativity and decision-making were less likely to punish their children for actions in which the children’s intentions were desirable, even if matters did not work out as intended. Parents who were closely supervised at work were more likely to base punishment on their children’s actions, regardless of the children’s intentions.”

Rothstein added that parents in professional jobs generally spoke more than 2,000 words per hour to their children compared with 1,300 for working-class parents and 600 for welfare mothers. “Toddlers of professionals received an average of six encouragements per reprimand,” he said.

“Working-class children got two. For welfare children the ration was reversed: They received an average of one encouragement for every two scoldings,” he noted. “It seems reasonable to expect that when these children eventually go to school, their teachers will not be able to fully offset such differences in early interactions.”

The underfunded No Child Left Behind law doesn’t address that.

“You can’t fix it with school reform,” Rothstein told me. “The biggest improvements will come when you address social and economic inequality.”

Narrowing the achievement gap isn’t an impossible dream. “If you want to improve the achievement of low-income children, one thing you can do is improve their health,” Rothstein said. New money for area schools from the Bill & Melinda Gates and other foundations should focus on this.

He wrote that vision and dental problems impede learning. Poor kids have twice the average rate of severe vision impairment.

“The disproportionate assignment of low-income black students to special education may partly reflect a failure to correct their vision,” he wrote.

“Untreated cavities are nearly three times as prevalent among poor children as among middle-class children,” Rothstein notes. “Students with toothaches, even minor ones, will tend to pay less attention in class and be more distracted during tests than will students with healthy teeth.”

Low-income children are five times as likely as middle-income kids to have high lead levels in their blood, “diminishing their cognitive ability,” Rothstein wrote. “Asthma is the single largest cause of chronic absenteeism,” he said.

Students can’t benefit from good instruction if they are at home sick, he said. “Middle-class children typically get treatment for asthma symptoms; low-income children often do not.”

Lawmakers can address the achievement gap with affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families. “Urban rents have risen faster than working-class incomes have, forcing many families to move frequently because they fall behind in rent payments,” Rothstein wrote.

“In some schools in minority neighborhoods, mobility rates are above 100 percent: For every seat in the school, two children were enrolled at some time during the school year,” he wrote.

Rothstein told me that teaching becomes almost impossible if the children have no stability because “the families are always moving.”

Rothstein advocates state and federal social and economic policies to improve health care, provide stable housing, boost incomes for working parents, end discrimination and lift the fates of low-income children so they, too, can achieve academically.

The political will, however, needs to equal the massive effort required for change to occur.

Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Star’s Editorial Board. To reach him, call (816) 234-4723 or send e-mail to

© 2005 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.


  1. You can spend all the money you want on the poor but it will not overcome this simple fact as reported in the Washington Post:

    But data showed that the children of middle-class black parents still scored below the children of middle-class white parents. The 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress 12th-grade reading score, for instance, showed the black-white gap larger for students with a parent with a college degree than it was for students whose parents had no high school diploma

    What amount of social engineering spending will make up for cultures that devalue academic learning? My guess is that the answer quickly converges to infinity.

  2. I felt as though this was a very telling article. As if it is not obvious, there are many schools that have failed to reach children and accomplish academic achievements in the class rooms. Aside from the low funded schools and unqualified educators teaching at these poorly financed schools, the environments (which they are obligated to call home) in which children from low income homes have to live in (endure would be a better word) is an immense contributor to the inadequate performances of these children in class. In the capitalistic society that we live in, it is no surprise that there has been a development of environmental racism, classism. For some reason or another we have been blind to see what is right in front of us.
    I think a large portion Rothstein’s analysis of classim and racism having a distinct connection to performance in the classroom is right. Children whose parents have higher paying jobs and are formally educated have far more opportunities to be successful in school and obtain a better quality of life. These children have parents that are able to grant them the resources to have good health and economic stability at home. For these reasons, their homes may be less stressful and calm. On the other hand a child with blue collar working parents or single parent homes are not endowed with the privilege of have all the necessities in order to place their whole attention on their work. A home with continuous tension, either from compiling bills, health issues, or from hostile neighborhoods, does not allow the child to perform to their fullest potential. Of course, I am not saying that a child in this situation can not succeed in life but we can all agree that if that child was living in different conditions, in ones that would be healthy for the child, there are more opportunities available for the child. Our society has to open their eyes to the truth about our youth. Yes schools may not be doing their best to educate children, but what if everything has been done to the schools what then? Do we just let children that have been disenfranchised by their economically status fall through the cracks?
    One thing that I would like to address is Superdestroyer’s commit about cultures that devalue academic learning. I lived in a poor neighborhood with a single working mother and a sister. We would make with what we had. I started to work for minimum wage when I was fourteen years old at a food store while going to school in order to help my mother with the house expenses. I am happy to say that I am a proud Mexican American woman and I attend the University of Texas at Austin. I do not remember a single instant in my life in which my mother ever devalued education. On the contrary, my mother always encouraged both my sister and me to continue our education. She expected the best from us and knew that one day we would be professionals, making a difference in the world. So what interests me to know is what cultures is Superdestroyer talking about? He makes this blanket statement that is not only stereotypical, but offensive. One thing that is very important to take into consideration is that no culture is isolated. The moment that a person walks into a country, that person’s culture is mutated in some way. So what we should really ask at is not “What amount of social engineering spending will make up for cultures that devalue academic learning?” but “How does the society we live devalue academics for certain ethnicities?”