Schools may be the wrong place to fight inequality

Conventional wisdom holds that reforming education is the best way to reduce social inequality. It’s widely believed that disadvantaged children attend bad schools; so if we could just make those schools better, their life prospects would improve. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

Ohio State sociologist Doug Downey has spent over a decade exploring that question, and he’s convinced that the usual narrative about schooling and inequality has led policymakers astray.

Doug Downey (Ohio State photo)

Doug Downey (Ohio State photo)

“We may have overemphasized the role of schools,” he said last week at an Indiana University symposium on race and education. “And it may be undermining our efforts to reduce inequality.”

Downey makes a persuasive case that schools, even many of the ones labeled as “failing,” are doing a pretty good job of compensating for poverty and other out-of-school circumstances. By focusing on schools, he argues, we may be missing opportunities to work on issues that matter more.

He traces the debate back 50 years to the Coleman Report, which concluded that, when it came to student achievement, differences in schools paled next to differences in family and social background. Eventually the report fell out of favor. By the 1980s, liberals and conservatives alike focused on education as the lever for reducing inequality. They just disagreed about what to do.

Conservatives favored accountability and competition. Liberals called for more and fairer funding; they pointed out that, in many states, schools serving poor children got fewer resources and less experienced teachers, arguably widening the achievement gap between rich and poor.

Downey largely subscribed to the second view until he read an article noting that, by age 18, the typical child would spend only 13 percent of his or her waking hours in school. That suggested that, even if unequal schools were a problem, maybe they were less a problem than many sociologists assumed.

But did schools exacerbate or compensate for social inequality? How could you tell? Downey found an answer in seasonal comparisons of learning.

Using data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, he found that learning gaps between non-poor and poor kindergartners and first-graders stayed about the same when school was in session but grew during the summer. In other words, schools were compensating for unequal conditions outside of the classroom.

In a 2008 study titled “Are ‘Failing’ Schools Really Failing?” Downey showed that gaps between children of different socioeconomic status – and gaps between affluent and poor schools — largely disappeared when differences in summer learning were factored out.

“What’s really surprising is not what happens in the summer; it’s what happens in the school year,” he said. “High-SES and low-SES students learn at the same rate during the school year.”

Memo to policymakers: This research demonstrates that it makes absolutely no sense to grade schools on the basis of student test scores. You end up labeling some schools as “failing” that are doing a perfectly good job. And you hand out As to mediocre schools that happen to enroll lots of privileged students. But we’ve covered that ground before.

Downey thinks states are moving in the right direction by adding test-score growth to their measures of school quality. (Indiana will count growth as equal to test-score passing rates starting this year). But most school evaluation systems still don’t account for out-of-school factors.

“My own perspective is, we still have a long way to go,” Downey said.

Another implication is that, if schools compensate for poverty, more time in school could compensate more. “When kids are in school, it’s an equalizing force,” Downey said. “We just need more school.”

It also makes sense to invest more in pre-K programs and support for families with young children. Downey said 95 percent of the cognitive skills gap between poor and non-poor children exists by age 3.

The big question, he said, has to do with the opportunity cost of chasing incremental improvements in education while ignoring potentially more important factors in inequality.

For example, at the IU symposium, Rice University professor Ruth Lopez Turley told how the Houston Independent School District made impressive gains in the college application rate for Hispanic students by hiring high-school advisers. Downey wondered what the long-term impact would be if the same money were spent to reduce low birth-weight babies born to poor mothers.

Another way to think about it: What if all the money, time and energy spent experimenting with and arguing about education reform went instead to efforts to raise the minimum wage, strengthen unions, end mass incarceration and provide affordable universal health care for all?

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to improve schools or to make schooling more equitable. Of course we should. But if we want less inequality, education is just part of the equation.

Note: Downey and co-author Dennis Condron of Oakland University lay out their argument about schools and inequality in the July 2016 issue of the journal Sociology of Education. The issue also includes commentary by six other scholars and a response to them from Downey and Condron. If you have access to the journal – for example, via a university library account – these are worth reading.


2 thoughts on “Schools may be the wrong place to fight inequality

  1. Really interesting. I wonder if having year round school, rather than the traditional long summer break, has any impact. The compensation factor would at least be spread evenly over the course of the year. Although the overall time spent in school would still be the same. I do wonder what would happen if these resources were used on other poverty-related issues. Very good post! I’ll check out the journal articles.

    • Thanks, Chris. Year-round school came up at the symposium, and Downey’s take on the research is that it doesn’t matter. It’s the amount of time in and out of school that influences the gaps. Bad news for those of us who treasure summer time with our kids and grandkids!

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