Blog: The Educated Reporter

Guest Post: K-12 Opportunity Gaps and Out-of-School Factors

With President Obama focusing on the struggles of the middle class — and those working to reach it — in a speech at Knox College on Wednesday, it seems like a good time to catch up on a valuable discussion on the opportunity gap which took place at EWA’s 66th National Seminar. We asked some of the education reporters who joined us at Stanford University in May to contribute blog posts from the sessions.Today’s guest blogger is Rebecca Catalanello of The Lens in New Orleans. Stream sessions from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes. For more on demographics and diversity, visit EWA’s Story Starters online resource. 

Over the past decade, American education policy makers have focused significant attention on the gaps in achievement between black and white students, and economically advantaged and disadvantaged ones.

But the researchers who composed one panel discussion at EWA’s annual seminar pressed the notion that gaps between student groups is a multidimensional issue that goes deeper than schools and takes shape well before children step foot in a classroom.

They had data to prove it.

Prudence Carter, associate professor in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and co-author of Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give All Children an Even Chance, presented data showing that race and poverty are clearly intertwined in United States households.

Nearly two-thirds of African-American, American Indian and Hispanic/Latino students live in low-income families, she said, pointing to National Center for Children in Poverty statistics. That’s compared to about 29 percent of white students and 32 percent of Asian students.

“Poverty is increasingly the color of black and brown,” she said. “There are significant and stark differences by race and ethnicity in this country and they are really correlated to class.”

What this means for education is key. And the policy discussions that have surrounded the achievement gap only go part of the way toward addressing the complex issues that these socioeconomic opportunity gaps present, she said.

“We’re expecting some kids to start on broken stairwells where there are potholes and missing pieces,” she said. “Other kids are on more well-oiled and smoothly operating escalators. And others are on fast bullet speeding, train-like elevators. And we’re expecting them to reach the top at the same point. That’s what we call the achievement gap, the time and distance — the time and speed to get to the top. But the reality is that the contextual factors are very different.” Exacerbating such opportunity gaps are what Carter called “softer structures that include the culture of low expectations.”

She offered by way of example the experience of a 7-year-old she said she knows who reads “Harry Potter” books at home, but whose teacher reported had been placed in a remedial reading group because “he looked like he needed that extra attention.”

Another example, she said, is what happens when English language learners are labeled as special needs even though they have no deficits in their cognitive abilities.

Why, Carter asked, does the culture “valorize” students for passing AP language exams after taking two to three years of schooling in a foreign language, “but we cannot properly scaffold and support the group of students who can speak the language fluently.”

Schools must find a way to adequately support the nation’s fast-growing population of students for whom English is not their first language, she said.

Sean Reardon, professor of sociology and education at Stanford University, took a look at 50 years of data measuring family income and student achievement. 

As he also described in a recent Op-Ed for The New York Times, the picture that emerged showed that as the income of the rich have risen, the achievement gap between students from high income homes and those from middle- and low-income homes has also widened — by about 40 percent.

That’s not because the achievement of students from middle- and low-income homes is slipping, Reardon said. It’s because the children of the rich are doing better and better.

“It’s a story of the rich pulling further away from the middle,” Reardon said, “and the poor sort of staying on track with the middle.”

Bolstering that finding is college acceptance data that indicates children of the rich are far more likely to attend selective colleges today than they were in the 1980s while there has been no change in the likelihood of lower income grads doing the same.

Reardon said the disparity between children from different economic backgrounds really begins to play out in early childhood — not in schools.

“All of that suggests that we need to be doing a lot more in early childhood to make sure that the middle class and the low-income students get to school with the same level of academic readiness as the high income children are,” Reardon said.

Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said he hopes the research opens up a new period of discussion about education policy that is “less extreme” than the no excuses approach to narrowing the achievement gap suggests.

“So much of our dialogue is focused on the idea that the poor are falling behind,” Petrilli said. “What’s really happening is the rich are breaking away.”

Referencing the book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray, Petrilli described a new kind of parenting that has emerged among upper class families: intense parenting, constant concern for children’s cognitive abilities, and an obsession with finding the right preschool.

So, Petrilli asked, what do you do about it?

“We don’t want upper middle class families to stop paying all this attention to their kids,” he said. “The question is what can we do to help middle class and poor kids catch up?”

In Reardon’s Times piece, he says the evidence suggests a need to “invest in parents” not just preschool programs. Such programs could include teaching parents to teach their kids, offering greater support for single parent households and developing greater business support for maternity and paternity leave among the poor and middle class.

“Fundamentally,” Reardon wrote, “it means rethinking our still-persistent notion that educational problems should be solved by schools alone.”