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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 07/23/2011

Why ‘no excuses’ makes no sense: Revisiting the Coleman report

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This was written by Gary Ravani, who taught middle school for more than 30 years in Petaluma. He served for 19 years as president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, is currently president of the California Federation of Teachers’ Early Childhood/K-12 Council. Ravani, in this post, reveals why the “no-excuses” school reform movement, which chooses to ignore the consequences of poverty on student achievement, is unfair.

By Gary Ravani

Perhaps the single best-known piece of social science research ever done in this country is the study produced by sociologist James Coleman in 1966 under the authority of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, commonly called “the Coleman Report.” Coleman’s work is the second largest social science research project in history, covering 600,000 children in 4,000 schools nationally.

Coleman concluded that school-based poverty concentrations were negatively impacting school achievement for the minority poor. His proposed solutions were the impetus for the school desegregation movement and specifically busing.

Coleman found poverty and minority status to be more predictive of student achievement than just differences in school funding, a finding frequently distorted to suggest that “research shows school funding doesn’t matter in achievement.” Coleman never said that.

What he said was that parental economic status and segregated schools were the most important factors. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, an assessment given to nationally representative groups of students and sometimes called “the nation’s report card,” show that states with the highest education spending (and highest percentages of unionized teachers) are the highest performers.

The impact of family economic well being on school achievement continues to be studied. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), California’s state testing vendor, has conducted two such studies: Parsing the Achievement Gap ” (2003) and “ The Family – America’s Smallest School ” (2007).

In “Parsing,” the authors are careful to assert, “We know skin color has no bearing on the ability to achieve,” and “it is clear that educational achievement is associated with home, school, and societal factors, almost all having their roots in socioeconomic factors affecting this country.”

This report identifies 14 correlates of elementary and secondary school achievement, six of which are related to school: curriculum, teacher preparation, teacher experience, class size, technology, and school safety. The remaining eight correlates are categorized as “Before and Beyond School:” parent participation, student mobility, birth-weight, lead poisoning, hunger and nutrition, reading in the home, television watching, and parent availability.

Note that at least three of the six school-related correlates are actually resource-related and, with the other eight correlates, are beyond the control of the school and teachers.

The other ETS study, “ The Family – America’s Smallest School ,” goes over much of the same territory as “Parsing,” noting the negative impacts on school achievement of single-parent homes, poverty in the minority communities, food insecurity, parent unemployment, child care disparities, substantial differences in children’s measured abilities as they start kindergarten, frequency of student absences, and lack of educational resources and support in the home.

The study concludes that these factors “account for about two-thirds of the large differences … in NAEP eighth-grade reading scores.”

Expectancy issues can also be found elsewhere, for example, in Life and Death from Unnatural Causes, ” by the Alameda County, Ca. Public Health Department.

In a resounding echo of Coleman’s conclusions about poor students and low achievement, the Alameda study states, “A main way that place is linked to health is through geographic concentration of poverty.”

In “Life and Death,” the factors of family wealth, environmental issues (exposure to lead), lack of access to health care — in so many words the conditions of poverty — result in a “life expectancy gap.” Children, overwhelmingly minority children, born in the flats of Oakland “can expect to die almost 15 years earlier than a white person born in the Oakland Hills.” The same results have been indicated by the Census lifespan data. A recent study on AIDS find concentrations of the disease in geographic concentrations of the poor in the southern states.

It appears that the medical experts doing the research for this study didn’t realize that using the conditions of poverty found in economically segregated communities to explain different life span outcomes is really all a matter of “making excuses.” They should have known that dying early results from the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

There are those who will argue that there is no established causal relationship between conditions that contribute to poor life expectancy rates and the conditions that contribute to low school achievement; that conditions that can grind 15 years off a child’s life span don’t also grind off abilities to succeed in school. Such arguments are the “hard bigotry” of ideology.

There are those who will suggest that the richest nation on Earth doesn’t have the ability to correct in large part the conditions of concentrated poverty that ETS identifies as contributing to low achievement and that the Alameda study identifies as contributing to abbreviated lives. That, indeed, is an example of low expectations — of the variety that can be found when people fail to prioritize education.

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