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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Closing the education divide


In January, the Pew Research Center published a somewhat confounding survey showing that, despite widespread cynicism about the United States, Americans now hold more positive views about their institutions than they did five years ago. It’s not an intuitive conclusion, considering how popular the harbingers of the apocalypse seem to be doing in our presidential election.

But make no mistake: most of today’s problems — especially those in financial malpractice, racialized policing and education — are systemic and need to be solved in that manner.

The Divide, written by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and selected for this year’s UC Davis campus book project, is particularly concerned with the propagation of inequities within the criminal justice system. Taibbi focuses on street dealers and Wall Street bankers, making the case that an invisible set of rules has effectively made different justice systems for these groups and for the rich and poor in general. You can guess who gets the short straw.

It seems that, more than ever, people attribute the sources of their frustration to these invisible rules and rigged institutions. And in no field do they pose a greater threat than in education.

Achievement gaps refer broadly to any sort of discrepancy in academic performance that falls along lines of race, sex or socioeconomic status. These gaps aren’t the result of any one variable, but it’s clear that they start growing from the earliest stages of education — and are increasingly divided along class lines. Fifty years ago, the achievement gap between black and white students was up to two times as large as the income gap. Now, the opposite is true, and income has become the primary source of educational inequities. Despite making progress in closing one gap, our country now faces another one that threatens our core values about economic fairness.

According to a 2009 report by McKinsey and Company, impoverished students (defined by the study as being eligible for federally subsidized free lunches) were, on average, two years behind in their learning than their wealthier peers. The consequences poor children face when they are unable to make up this difference are staggering, and they have serious impacts on not only their own future, but on the health of the country at large. The McKinsey report suggests that economic losses of not closing the international achievement gap are close to those sustained during the “Great Recession.”

There are two primary reasons that these disadvantaged students have a hard time moving up the academic ladder as they get older.

The first is the tendency of schools to divide students into classes that best fit their specific learning needs. Think GATE programs in elementary school and AP classes in high school. In effect, this practice — known as tracking — will often separate students along racial and economic lines. The proponents of tracking, who include many educators, say that with growing class sizes, having a great diversity of needs in a classroom hinders the teaching process. That’s a fair point.

But for as many students who start out on these higher tracks, there are even more stymied below. Students on lower tracks will not usually have the quality teachers or resources that would allow them to make the jump to an honors class. Critics have cited research on the divisiveness of tracking to liken it to a modern form of segregation.

A second, more latent form of early division comes in the form of childrens’ upbringings. Unlike tracking, which disproportionately affects its victims based on race and income, parenting styles seem to differ almost exclusively by class. Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, describes the middle-class childhood as one defined by “concerted cultivation.” Kids who fit under this model typically enjoy a host of structured activities through school and other sources. Their parents facilitate communication with teachers and other authority figures.

Lower-income children are more likely to experience what Lareau describes as “the accomplishment of natural growth” — a far less organized way of growing up that doesn’t put as much of a focus on the child working in tandem with educators. The difference in parenting style is a result of the resources available to each family. For example, piano lessons are expensive, so not every child will grow up learning the patience such an endeavor could afford.

Policymakers need to consider these factors before they continue to make decisions on how to best serve students.

2016 is already shaping up to be a watershed year in education. In an unusual show of bipartisanship, the US Congress replaced the failed No Child Left Behind Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The new law, written by senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), drops the punitive punishments levied by the federal government on schools that failed to raise test scores year to year. More importantly, ESSA recognizes that states should control their education policies individually and that no single model can address the vastly different problems that can exist from one school district to the next.

With these revisions, civil rights groups will need to play a more involved role than ever in checking the states, which have a dismal record of dealing with their individual achievement gaps.

With college education becoming a necessary tool for social mobility (and with UC Davis leading the way), students of all economic backgrounds need to first be ensured a fair path to that education.
You can reach ELI FLESCH at ekflesch@ucdavis.edu or on Twitter @eliflesch.


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