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April 28, 2016

CRSP lecture: Educational achievement gap

Interaction of poverty, segregation, race starts pre-K, research shows

Elaine Weiss

The achievement gap between black and white kids in public schools has long been pegged to the disparate experiences of different races in America. Elaine Weiss, national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education program of the Washington, D.C., Economics Policy Institute, says her research and that of others in the field demonstrates a different cause for the educational achievement gap: “Social class is massively important. When we see what appears to be impacts of race, what we are really seeing are impacts of poverty, because black kids are poor.”

Weiss delivered the final Reed Smith lecture of the spring in the School of Social Work’s Center on Race and Social Problems April 13, contending that the “toxic interaction of race, poverty and segregation start before kindergarten.”

The origins of the educational achievement gap between whites and blacks has been debated at least since the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that separate classrooms were not equal classrooms in America. In 1966, following the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Congress asked sociologist James Coleman to investigate the achievement gap and found two-thirds of its cause outside of schools, in the effects of segregation and its resulting environment.

Fifty years later, Weiss said, it’s time to look again at the achievement gap and its causes.

The achievement gap shows up in test scores, she noted, but also in high school dropout rates and the rates of college acceptance and college graduation, extending even to the greater number of whites who get married and are hired for jobs that pay a living wage.

Thus, while test scores aren’t the only indicator of the achievement gap, Weiss believes the cause of the gap can be seen in the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a scholastic test that has been administered by the U.S. Department of Education since 1969 to a representative national sample of students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades. In the years prior to 2004, “black kids are making real progress in those early years and closing some of these gaps,” based on their NAEP results, she reported. “Then the progress stalls … and in some cases loses some ground” over the last dozen years, as income inequality, particularly between the most and least well off, has begun to widen more dramatically.

As a society, she said, our major mistake has been deciding that desegregation and the war on poverty — both successful and worthy of continuing, in her view — weren’t working. “And we decided to shift as a society away from the idea that the government had a lot to do with solving our problems,” more often relying instead on private-money and free-market solutions.

The findings of researchers William Julius Wilson and others, she remarked, show that minority children tend to live in more concentrated poverty over longer stretches, which exposes them to violence and stress, less effective learning environments, more pollution, lowered economic opportunities and fewer role models. These causes affect the achievement gap more deeply than does race, she said: “On top of living in poverty and on top of being black, there is a separate and compounding disadvantage in living in a place where all your neighbors are poor and black.”

The achievement gap also seems to stem from socioeconomic disadvantages experienced from birth, Weiss added. “These first years and months of life are so formative: Our brain architecture is built,” she explained — and not just for math and reading skills, but for our ability to have self-control, develop relationships, be persistent and creative and acquire other so-called non-cognitive skills that allow kids to flourish in the classroom and in life.

From birth, she noted, babies’ brain synapses develop through interactions with people around them. Researchers use a tennis metaphor to describe the process of “serve and return” through which we nurture infants’ brains by responding to their vocalizations or simply holding a baby who is crying.

There is “literally an early psychological damage” if that is lacking, Weiss said, and parents who live in poverty may be least able to attend to their babies at this crucial time. They may have multiple jobs or work at night; they may be distracted by unpaid bills, or be handling everything by themselves as a single parent. Such conditions can lead to kids experiencing less consistent health care and poorer nutrition too.

Weiss notes that the U.S. is an “outlier” country in not providing child care or help with child care to most people. In the state with the cheapest child care — and not even the best variety of child care, she noted — such services still may seem a luxury, since they cost a typical lower-income family 30 percent of their earnings. Merely adequate child care can cost 80 percent of such families’ earnings in the most expensive states.

“They’re getting dumped in front of a television,” Weiss says about the child care for such babies. “All those serves and returns are not happening.

“Pre-K does have a very, very strong leveling effect,” she allowed. However, “we could absolutely be starting from birth” in providing aid to parents whose kids need it most.

Weiss’ own research, with colleague Emma Garcia, has examined the result of continuing segregation and poverty. Looking at kids who began kindergarten in 2011, Weiss and Garcia divided their research subjects into five social classes and found kids in the lowest social class to be two-three years behind in educational preparedness compared to kids in the highest class. That can present teachers with a major problem, she added. Although noncognitive skills are tougher to measure, there too the research found an undesirable distance between highest and lowest economic status.

With only 13 percent of white kids living in poverty, as opposed to 50 percent of black kids and 66 percent of Latino kids who speak Spanish as their first language, “we’ve got what can only be described as a crisis on our hands,” Weiss said. “We have set up … frankly a system of segregation in neighborhoods that make the disadvantages worse” when kids enter school.

The picture only becomes more troubling when school access is considered, Weiss’ work has demonstrated. It showed fewer than 5 percent of white kids are attending the highest poverty schools while 50 percent of black kids attended such schools, which have fewer resources and may not attract the best teachers. Her study also found that “in heavily white schools we had heavily educated parents” who are able to navigate the educational system. “And frankly,” Weiss added, such parents have “the assertiveness and confidence” to pull kids from classrooms that aren’t working and to press for school changes.

When Weiss did not say explicitly that racism was a cause of segregated poverty and the achievement gap, a member of the audience suggested that even mentioning the idea would help people understand its continued existence better: “When you say it as a white woman with all your credentials behind you, it means more.”

One reason Weiss had not mentioned the term earlier, she said, “is the challenge of sitting in this research world and talking in this policy world.” Past policies that led to today’s conditions “are racism. There is no other way to say it.”

But, she cautioned, there remained a “fine line between what the research is saying and what we believe is what is going on.

“Racism looks very different today, but it’s racism,” she added, pointing to the white Flint, Michigan, government ignoring the lead poisoning of the water used by its mostly poor black citizens.

“That interaction between race and poverty is just as interactive as in the days of Brown, but it looks different,” Weiss concluded. Segregation and discrimination no longer are legal, but they still are happening, and still are having a massive effect.

One desirable move would be to bring to K-12 classrooms, particularly in the early grades, the changes educators have brought to the best pre-K classrooms. “For whatever reason, when many kids reach 5, it’s as if they’re not the same kids,” she said. Suddenly, kindergarteners are stuck at desks and subject to ancient rote-learning techniques. “Three months ago, they were bouncing off the walls,” she noted. A more holistic educational focus “would make this transition shorter” between pre-K and kindergarten and simply make education better.

“What are the policy implications of what we hear today?” Weiss asked. “What can we do as a society? We need a war on poverty. We need to all assert: It worked, and we need it back. We need a megaphone to disabuse our country of the idea that poverty is not the problem that it is. We need a huge megaphone — schools should not and cannot take on this burden by themselves.

“There is no way without intentional government policy we will drag ourselves out of this hole,” Weiss added. “We have a system that compounds our problems.”

—Marty Levine

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