This was written by Stanford University Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who directs the Stanford University Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and was founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. A former president of the American Educational Research Association, Darling-Hammond focuses her research, teaching, and policy work on issues of school restructuring, teacher quality and educational equity.
By Linda Darling-Hammond
There is much handwringing about low educational attainment in the United States these days. We hear constantly about U.S. rankings on assessments like the international PISA tests: The United States was 14th in reading, 21st in science, 25th in math in 2009, for example. We hear about how young children in high-poverty areas are entering kindergarten unprepared and far behind many of their classmates. Middle school students from low-income families are scoring, on average, far below the proficient levels that would enable them to graduate high school, go to college, and get good jobs. Fewer than half of high school students manage to graduate from some urban schools. And too many poor and minority students who do go on to college require substantial remediation and drop out before gaining a degree.
There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns.
In high-achieving countries like Finland and Singapore, strong social safety nets ensure that virtually all schools have fewer than 10 percent of their students living in poverty. Although the poverty-test score association is similar across 14 wealthy nations (with the average scores of the poorest 5 percent of students just over half those of their wealthiest peers), our poverty rate for children is much higher than others: 22 percent of all U.S. children and 25 percent of young children live in poverty.
Furthermore, our supports to counter it are much weaker. As a result, many children lack preschool education, health care, and social supports. The proportion of children who lack even the basic support of stable housing has increased dramatically in the past few years, with 1 child in every 10 now homeless in many California school districts near my home.
These issues were vividly illustrated in last week’s Capitol Hill briefing on the impact of poverty on education and what we can do about it . Sponsored jointly by the Broader Bolder Approach to Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education , the panel got beyond the increasingly implausible “no excuses” rhetoric, using new evidence to examine the relationship between income and educational outcomes — as well as about strategies that have succeeded in reducing this relationship.
As panelist Sean Reardon documents in his study published in “Whither Opportunity?,” the U.S. income gap is growing, and our safety net shrinking. The proportion of the national resources controlled by our wealthiest citizens is greater than it has been since the early 1930s, and the help available to the poor — in the form of housing, employment, and health care supports — is much less than it was 40 years ago. Furthermore, the disparity in access between rich and poor is growing as well — in terms of both publicly provided school resources and those that parents can invest in their own children privately. As a consequence, income is a much stronger predictor of school achievement than it has ever been.
The drop in America’s relative international rankings on educational indicators as child poverty and inequality in educational funding have increased is widely cited as a sign that our entire education system is in crisis, that we cannot compete, and that drastic reform measures — centered mainly on test-based accountability and privatization of schools — are urgently needed. But these data demonstrate something different: our crisis is one grounded in what Gloria Ladson Billings has called the “aggressive neglect” of many of our children, and in our unwillingness to provide the needed supports to address it in far too many communities.
Some reforms make this worse — for example, charter and voucher strategies that can further segregate and encourage greater disparities in access to school resources and the “redlining” strategies that I recently documented, which punish under-resourced schools serving high-need students (making them even more unattractive to families and educators with other options). The effects of these policies in New York City are vividly illustrated in a recent Schott Foundation report.
Other reforms could, and do, improve the situation substantially: in addition to the general anti-poverty measures promoted by panelist Peter Edelman, the Broader Bolder set of policy strategies: early childhood education and health care; wraparound services and community schools; and investments in more equitable school resources focused on essential factors such as high-quality curriculum, well-qualified teachers and leaders, and accountability systems that fairly evaluate, inform, and support schools to improve.
We’ve see how this can work: A concerted effort to implement fair school funding, with high quality early childhood education, supports to strengthen teaching, and comprehensive school services led to large increases in student achievement and a substantial narrowing of the achievement gap in New Jersey over the last decade. As panelist David Sciarra noted, New Jersey — which is now ranks number 1 in the nation in writing, number 2 in 8th grade reading, and among the top 5 states in math — shows how a state with a large population of low-income students of color can support strong learning with the right investments.
We cannot pretend that multiple layers of growing inequality — in home, community, and school resources — don’t matter for student learning, or that solutions to our education problems can be enforced without strategic investments in a level playing field. Our challenge is to confront the reality of growing up in America today and to design in- and out-of-school supports that will allow children a fair shot at the American Dream.
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