Income, More Than Race, Is Driving Achievement Gap

Guests

Amy Wilkins, Vice President for Government Affairs and Communications, Education Trust
Frederick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute

The achievement gap between black and white students has narrowed significantly over the past 50 years. The gulf between rich and poor students, however, has widened dramatically. Several studies suggest that family income serves as a better predictor of school success.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. First the good news: The gap between black and white students in the classroom that bedeviled a generation of educators and policymakers narrowed significantly over the last 50 years. Now the bad news: The same time, the gulf between rich and poor students widened dramatically. Students from poor families are more likely to score lower on standardized tests and less likely to finish college than students from more affluent families.

And if that sounds like old news, consider that while the black-white gap on standardized test scores narrowed, the rich-poor gap jumped 40 percent and now stands at double that of blacks and whites.

So administrators and teachers, what works, and what doesn't as we try to address the achievement gap between rich and poor? Give us a phone call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later Syria on The Opinion Page this week. Daniel Byman joins us to argue that we need to take a longer view before we take steps that might make things worse. But first the rich-poor achievement gap in school. We begin with Amy Wilkins, a vice president at Education Trust, a nonprofit group that works to close the achievement gap. She's with us here in the studio. Nice to have you on the program.

AMY WILKINS: Thanks, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you. Thanks for coming in again. Does this suggest that all the effort and attention given to addressing that black-white achievement gap that we've heard so much about for decades was misplaced?

WILKINS: Oh, I don't think it was misplaced. The black-white achievement gap was, is a terrible travesty in this country. But what it does say is that we have to pay as much attention to the income gap as we have to the race gap. I think one of the sort of - the findings that came out last week only confirm what we've seen from other data sources.

For example, when you look at our performance internationally, what you see is 55 international countries where they've looked at the ability to close the income gap, to move low-income kids up, out of 55 countries, we rank 36th. So this is, you know, this is not news, that we do a worse job than most countries in the world of closing the economic achievement gap.

CONAN: Well, that may not be new news. The size of that gap seems to be new news.

WILKINS: But, you know, what we see is the size of the sort of mobility gap growing, right. I mean, the - education is the bridge, we would argue, from kind of a low-income community to a more middle-class lifestyle, from a low-income existence to the mainstream of our society. And we see in lots of parts of our society that bridge getting narrower and narrower, and education is another place where the bridge is getting narrow.

And we would argue that it's the most important place. Education is the surest route out of poverty. And if we are not working really hard to close that gap, we think this country's in a world of trouble.

CONAN: So we will just perpetuate the kind of inequality that we're seeing now.

WILKINS: Absolutely.

CONAN: And these - we should point out, we're not talking about the one percent or the 99 percent, we're talking about the top 10 percent of income-earners and the bottom 10 percent.

WILKINS: Absolutely, and I think - you know, I just want people not to feel, you know, sort of sanguine and everything is OK on the race front, either. You know, the college-going gap between blacks and whites, still, in this country, is bigger than it was in the 1970s. The college graduation gap between blacks and whites is bigger than it was in the 1970s.

So while we've seen some narrowing, we are a long way from Nirvana on the race gap.

CONAN: Are there some lessons, though, to be drawn from that narrowing of standardized test scores - as limited a test as that is - but are there some lessons to be drawn from successes that could be applied to the income gap?

WILKINS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think the biggest lesson to be drawn is when we put our minds to something, we can do it. I mean, there - we are really, on the achievement gap, whether you look at it by race or by income, by ethnicity, we are way past the point where hand-wringing and oh what should we do, what should we do is the appropriate response.

We know in lots of cases what we should do, and in most cases, it's a matter of political will, not know-how, that's holding us back.

CONAN: Political will is often a code word for resources, money.

WILKINS: Resources, money but also the willingness to do things in new ways, the willingness to stop doing some things in education that don't work but that may be very comfortable, may be habitual, and to try things in new ways.

For example, we spend about $18 billion a year on paying teachers who have master's degrees bonuses for those master's degrees in education. The research says that whether a teacher has a master's degree or a bachelor's degree doesn't matter, that master's degree doesn't add anything, really, to student achievement.

So that's $18 billion a year that we're investing in something that makes no difference in terms of student achievement. We could reinvest that money in other things that have a bigger impact on student achievement and move a lot of kids a lot further.

CONAN: And a lot of people have been saying, over the past several years, that the inability to remove teachers whose performance records are not so great, that's a major drawback, too.

WILKINS: Well, yeah, I mean, there are some people who are perfectly wonderful human beings who don't belong in a classroom - including me, right. I should not be a teacher, but I think I'm still a pretty good person. But yeah, there are - there is a group of teachers who probably ought not be in the classroom.

But more importantly, there are a lot of teachers out there, right now, who are struggling to improve their craft, and we aren't giving them the support and help they need. We are not going to fire ourselves, you know, to the teaching force that we need. You know, a small percentage of them do need to go, but we need to concentrate on two things: building up the skills of the people who are in the teaching force and ensuring, as we're talking about the achievement gap, ensuring that poor kids and kids of color get their fair share of the strongest teachers. Because what we do have, is a pattern where we have the most able teachers teaching the kids who have the most advantages.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear from teachers and administrators today. What works? What doesn't? As we try to address the gap between achievement by affluent students and those who are not so well-off. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Dave(ph), and Dave's with us from Rockland in California.

DAVE: Hi, Neal, this is Dave from Rockland, California, Sacramento area. I spent 19 years as a school principal in various places in California, and the last five as a curriculum director at a small district in the Sacramento area. And one of the things that I found out - I worked on as a principal, was understanding that the parents of those children who seem to be not performing and who may come from a more impoverished background, oftentimes feel as if they are disenfranchised from the school, that perhaps as kids themselves they were unsuccessful as students or maybe even manifested with behavior problems.

So one of the tasks I put before myself, and oftentimes before my teachers, was to try to figure out a way to break down the barriers and embrace the parents - kind of get them where they are. So a couple of strategies were things like making sure that before there's a conflict or an issue of performance that seems to be - would be an emotional time for the parent and the child, try to find a commonality in terms of interest or in terms of our personal histories and open up to that parent a little bit so that it's not just the...

CONAN: It's not just in a crisis where you're reaching out to them. And Dave, I think when we hear phone calls like you, I think teachers should get campaign ribbons, like they do in the military, so you'd be able to say ooh, five years in - wow, but anyway. Amy Wilkins, let's have your response, reaching out to parents.

WILKINS: Dave is exactly right. And, you know, there are two strategies that we've seen work a lot. Dave is absolutely right that often the parents of poor kids did not themselves have good experiences in school. So school is not a comfortable place to come back to. And so we have to figure out ways to make schools more comfortable.

One is catching kids being good, right. I mean, we - too often the calls from school are about kids, you know, getting into trouble. It's great when schools call home and say do you know what your kid did today, he/she did something absolutely fabulous. And that's a way to start building connections with parents.

The other is a really simple thing, is when you do parent-teacher meetings, or you do events at school in the evening, make sure there's child care for the younger sisters and brothers. Make sure - and meals really help. You know, you've got a working mom who's trying to figure out how to get to the PTA meeting or how to get to the parent-teacher conference plus how to feed the child and the siblings, you know, really simple meals can help bring parents into schools.

CONAN: Dave, did you have that experience?

DAVE: Well, yes we had that experience. A couple of other things that we've tried to put together, one was kind of an easily accessible parent communication, a newsletter. And I may be a bit of, I don't know, an old-timer, but I didn't believe that the best way to do that was always electronically, that if we put a hard copy of a newsletter that not only covered activities in school but some parenting tips, volunteer opportunities, in the hands of the kids to take home, and we checked occasionally to make sure that parents got that, we didn't eliminate those people who may not have access to a computer, which many times, in my opinion, are those people who are of lesser income.

And the other thing was to make sure that they knew that their presence on campus was welcome and that there were volunteer activities, whether they would like to do something with a small group of kids to reinforce some instruction or maybe just staple papers, that they were always welcome to be at school volunteering, and by doing that, kids would see that the school as a community was an important place and a safe place for their parents to be, and therefore, in my opinion, the kids felt safer, more comfortable and I think more willing to perform.

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate the tips, too.

DAVE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: There is some aspects of this, you see in the study that affluent parents who provide a lot of extracurricular help to their kids, those kinds of resources are not going to be available to the poor.

WILKINS: Well, the question is why not, right. You know, my kid comes home with homework, and he has two college-educated parents who can help with the homework. If you know a kid is going home to a family where nobody has a college education, where maybe, you know, somebody dropped out of high school, and that family is less able to help with the homework...

CONAN: Or a single parent who is working two jobs.

WILKINS: Right. Why do we believe that that's OK? I mean, why - we can, and we've seen schools where they in fact do homework at school. Right, you have study hall in the library after school, and you make the librarian, you make high school students available to help with the homework.

I mean, we continue to do things where we know there's a better way to do it, right. And so we can compensate for some of the things that kids don't have at home, but we again and again refuse to do it.

CONAN: We're talking with Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, an education nonprofit that focuses on closing gaps in achievement and opportunity.

We want to hear today from administrators and teachers: What works, what doesn't to address the achievement gap between rich and poor? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll continue in just a moment. We'll also have a different view, that the achievement gap mania shortchanges kids. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Conversation about the achievement gap in schools shifted in recent weeks. While divide by race has narrowed significantly, new research shows the gap between rich and poor continues to grow dramatically. That's even before the recession is factored in.

So administrators and teachers, what works, what doesn't to address the achievement gap between rich and poor students? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, which is a nonprofit focused on closing achievement gaps, is with us here in Studio 3A. Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote an article last fall for National Affairs called "Our Achievement Gap Mania" and joins us now by phone from his home in Arlington, Virginia. Nice to have you with us.

FREDERICK HESS: Hey, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Our achievement gap mania?

HESS: Sure. You know, what I argued was that for the last decade or a bit longer, we have really discussed school improvement in this country almost entirely of the language of closing achievement gaps, that to be taken seriously by foundations or policymakers, it was essential that everything be framed in terms of closing achievement gaps between children of different ethnicities, between children of different incomes.

And I've argued that this has had some really unfortunate effects on the way that we've approached school improvement.

CONAN: Such as?

HESS: Well, three in particular jump out. One is we have, I think unfortunately but very explicitly, tended to give folks the sense that outside of the schools that are failing, outside of these kids who are getting shortchanged, everything else is doing - everything else is reasonably OK, despite the fact, for instance, that when you look at the international assessments, we tend to lag the pack at the high end in very much the same way we do at the low end.

Second, that children actually, based on how they're doing when they come to school and based on achievement, have really different needs. Kids from the bottom of the socioeconomic scale tend to come to school with vocabularies of about 5,000 words. Kids from more fortunate backgrounds tend to start school at age six with vocabularies of about 20,000 words.

They're in a position to learn from different things, to benefit from different kinds of instruction, and yet when we look at the investment - in Investing in Innovation Fund created by ARRA, when we look at foundation priorities at federal programs, really everything is geared to trying to drive up proficiency for the worst-served kids. And I think this has particularly shortchanged us when it's come to issues like world language or advanced science.

And third and perhaps most practically, we essentially dealt middle-class and suburban families out of school improvement. We have said that this isn't about your kid, that you're supposed to do it because it's the right thing. But at the end of the day, so many of the policies we talk about, like trying to identify effective teachers and move them into the worst-served schools, will essentially entail strip-mining those teachers out of middle-class and suburban schools. This is no way to build or sustain public support for improvement efforts.

CONAN: Yet there's no question that these gaps do exist.

HESS: Sure they do, and they're going to exist in 3014 and in 5014. And we absolutely should make it - you know, one of our priorities should be trying to make sure that we're doing better by the worst-off kids. But the way we've tended to do this in education in the last half-century is we tend to have these wild swings of the pendulum from, in 1958, right after the Soviets launched Sputnik, we passed the National Defense Education Act, and it was all about foreign languages and science and gifted kids.

And ever since that point, we have tended to kind of wildly swing back and forth. And right now, I think, we're unfortunately - we've been in a decade-long moment when we have systematically ignored the needs of kids - of high achievers. We've systematically pursued school reform in a way that has really caused suburban and middle-class families to find little of value to them and their children. And I think this is an unfortunate direction for school improvement.

CONAN: It seems counterintuitive to say that the poorest are falling further and further behind, and we've been focusing on a system that disadvantages the wealthiest.

HESS: Sure, it does. I mean, one of the problems, for instance, is that we know that low-income children do poorly when they are in, you know, schools that are segregated by class. Unfortunately, when we have school reform strategies that are built entirely around relatively crude remedies, the way we're talking about using value-added assessments today to simplemindedly evaluate and reward teachers, when we look at NCLB-style accountability...

CONAN: That's No Child Left Behind, yeah.

HESS: You know, the danger here is we make it really hard for folks to start coming up with creative ways to solve problems. Sure, I mean, I think it is - you know, one of the interesting things, of course, is that NCLB has, in significant ways, moved our attention to racial achievement gaps and away from income achievement gaps.

And, you know, I think it should surprise no one to see that we've made modest but limited progress on the racial gap front the last decade, we have not made that same kind of progress on the income front. But I think at the end of the day, I don't think we're satisfied with any of these directions, with the progress on any of these scores.

And, you know, partly, if you really want to build sustainable, broad-based improvement efforts in the U.S., the model that one goes with has historically been Social Security and Medicare, not Medicaid, and right now we're talking about school reform as a redistributive social program, and those tend not to succeed in the U.S.

CONAN: Rick Hess, thanks very much for your time today, appreciate it.

HESS: My pleasure.

CONAN: Rick Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, with us from his home in Arlington. And Amy Wilkins, just a brief chance to respond, I think everybody would agree that, well, probably none of these scores are all that encouraging.

WILKINS: Yeah. I think a couple of things about what Rick said. It seems to me that one of the most important forces in education over the last at least five years has been the move of the states, 44 of them, to raise their standards so that all kids graduate from high school college-ready. That's a clear acknowledgement that we are not doing well enough by any of our children and that even our middle-class and affluent children need to be challenged more.

So Rick's analysis fails to sort of take this big move that is going to fundamentally change education in every classroom in most of the country into account in his analysis.

The other thing that's disturbing to me about Rick's analysis is that he seems to sort of - he says when we deal with gaps by race and class that we are somehow, you know, forgetting the smart kids, as if there's no such thing as a smart kid of color, or there's no such thing as a smart poor kid.

Where we in fact see the biggest achievement gaps in the country is at the top. We see too few kids of color at the advanced level, too few low-income kids at the advanced level. I don't think anybody who's concerned with closing the achievement gap is only talking about bringing the bottom up.

We have to figure out, again, to get out of this mediocrity in international comparisons that Rick referred to, we have to raise all children, and we have to make sure that black kids, Latino kids, poor kids who have the ability to soar can indeed soar because there are many, many smart kids who are at the wrong end of the achievement gap only because of the circumstances of their schools not because of their abilities.

CONAN: But one of your suggestions is we reallocate teachers and put the best teachers in the schools that need them the most. Is that - he used the word strip-mining, and you might not agree with that, but isn't that taking the best teachers from some schools and moving them to others?

WILKINS: Yeah, and what we've found, the school district that has done this kind of the most successfully is the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District, and you don't just sort of strip-mine the teachers out of there. You give teachers a choice, and essentially what it becomes is a value proposition, recognizing - and the teachers recognize this themselves, that educating the easiest-to-educate kids is not as much of a professional challenge, that you have to be up to a bigger professional challenge to go into a high-poverty, high-minority school and be truly successful. And so we have to change the incentive structure to make teachers who are up for a bigger challenge to reward them for that.

CONAN: Let's go back to the phones. This is Bailey(ph), Bailey with us from Phoenix.

BAILEY: Hi, I'm a Montessori charter schoolteacher here in Phoenix, and I wanted to bring up the charter school system here in Arizona, as well as I know in Louisiana, has been a big help by raising academic standards. Charter schools, you know, have their own (technical difficulty) each school, so changes can actually be made faster within the school because you have such a small body overseeing it.

I'm also at a Montessori school, which provides each child their level, whatever level that child's at is the level that I teach them. So the ones that are a little bit lower, I'm pushing up. The ones - I have a first-grader who's doing fractions and is getting into multiplication. So whatever their ability is is what I'm teaching them.

CONAN: Obviously there's a mixed record with charter schools and poor kids, but Montessori program, which is not always available to everybody, that does show some good results.

WILKINS: But, you know, teaching - taking kids where they are and moving them up is what we have to do in every school, not just the charters. Yeah, charters do have a mixed record. But, you know, what it takes to make a good school you can do in a charter. You can do in a regular school. It's strong teachers, rigorous curriculum and really high expectations. And if we put those pieces together, along with, like, not wasting as much time, you know, we can get somewhere.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Bailey.

BAILEY: Can I add one more thing?

CONAN: Sure.

BAILEY: Just the thing about charters that I really enjoyed - I went to a charter school growing up - is that I didn't have to go to the school that was in my area, you know, the school that was in my district. My parents chose to send me to a better school out of our district. And that's a choice that anyone in Arizona can make.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that.

BAILEY: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: This email from Curtis(ph): I'm married to a professional teacher who works at a socio-economically disadvantaged school. Her kids come to school with adult problems on their minds, and this impedes their learning opportunities. This impacts conduct and behavior of the students. Many have existing intellectual disabilities that are being untreated, which erodes the motivation to be an effective teacher. What do you think effective teachers remain - why do you think better teachers, effective teachers remain at better-performing school districts?

WILKINS: Well, I think a couple of things. We know - and the successful teachers I know at high poverty schools know that these kids come to school facing, you know, steeper challenges than other kids. And what those teachers do is look those challenges in the eye and understand that they, as a teacher, are the best chance that kid has of overcoming those circumstances. You know, Barbara Adderley, who, for a long time was a principal here in D.C. and then moved to Philadelphia and now is back in D.C. working with principals, said, you know, she knows that the world that many of these kids come from is really tough.

But in this school, we will teach you really well. And that is the best principals can do. We see a lot of schools that stop when they see the challenges that kids face outside of school, and they say, oh, we can't do anything. We can't do anything. Or worse, they say, oh, because this child comes from more challenging circumstances, we can't really expect her to learn algebra. No, these kids need algebra. They need higher level skills than other kids do. And it is really teaching through that that makes you an extraordinary teacher.

CONAN: What's the dumbest thing we do, do you think?

WILKINS: The dumbest thing we do? We constantly under-challenge our kids. When you see surveys of children, you know - and this is all students, you know, poor students, students of color, white students - they're all saying that they know that too many of them know they're skating by. There was a survey done a year ago, which I think was called Getting By, and all of them know that they could work much harder if we're expecting more of them.

CONAN: I only skated by for 12 years, anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We're talking with Amy Wilkins. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Norm. Norm with us from Whitehall in Michigan.

NORM: Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

NORM: This is a great topic. You know, it brings together a myriad of issues that, you know, could be discussed for weeks. But the point I'd like to bring up is the importance of early childhood education, especially in helping students who come from a background of poverty. You know, I was fortunate to grow up in a home with a Ph.D. and an M.D. as parents, and, you know, I was one of those kids who probably had a 25- or 30,000-word vocabulary when I showed up to school.

I've been a teacher in public schools for the past 14 years. I'm not currently employed. I taught special education, the last 12 of which at the high school level. And I've dealt with a lot of kids who come from poor backgrounds, and they come to school with a - what a psychologist friend of mine described as a poverty of thought. And that needs to be addressed at a very early level, because by the time they matriculate up to high school, they don't have the skill set that they need to be successful.

Programs like Head Start have been proven to be very effective. The critics have rightfully maintained that the effect of Head Start wear off over time because as the kids matriculate they don't continue to get the level of support that they got when they were younger. A lot of this has to do with the way that we fund public schools. And Mr. Hess made a good point that sometimes we're robbing from Peter to pay Paul, you know, shortchanging the gifted and talented kids in order to help the kids who don't have the kind of skill sets that they need.

And this just points to the fact that we really need to better fund public education. I could go on for days about this, but I'd like to hear what you guys have to say.

CONAN: Better funding public education has not been seemingly a priority in many states over the past couple years.

WILKINS: We do need to better fund public education but we also - and I want to be clear about the robbing Peter to pay Paul - in many states and in many school districts in this country, we have funding formulas that disadvantage high poverty schools, that disadvantage high poverty school districts. So we have to, you know, pouring more money through a formula that is unfair is not necessarily the right thing to do. We've got to level up these high poverty schools because, as you said, kids who go to Head Start get, you know, good support in the beginning. Then we put them in, you know, not so good public schools. And by third grade, the impact of Head Start begins to wane, and that kills me because they always, like, you know, they blame Head Start for that. But that's, like, blaming my gym that I'm getting fat when I stop going to the gym. But we've got to provide, you know, Head Start recognizes the fact that it takes more to educate poor kids. And if we could take that same ethic up through the public schools, we'd be a lot better off.

CONAN: Just wanted to follow that up, and this is an email from Barbara. It starts in infancy, she says. Why is nobody talking about the powerful research done by the Urban Child Institute in Memphis about brain development ages zero to three? Wouldn't our money be better spent focusing on teaching young mothers how to stimulate their children's brains as infants?

WILKINS: And there's some really good work going on. And it, you know, the in-home visitors program, I think, one of the more famous ones is called HIPPY, that's built on an Israeli model, is doing some really nice work with low-income moms. There's some nice visiting nurse programs that are doing really wonderful work with low-income moms around the country. But what I think is sometimes too often, as a matter of fact, we say, well, if they didn't get, you know, the right stimulization - the stimulation zero to three, or if they didn't get Head Start, then we get them in public school, and we say they're lost causes.

You aren't a lost cause when you're four no matter what. I mean, you know, the best early childhood researchers say that human brains, children's brains are terribly resilient. If they weren't so resilient, the species wouldn't be as successful as we have been. And so while there's lots we can do before they get to school, we cannot allow what didn't happen before they get to school be an excuse for not doing well by them in school.

CONAN: As I said earlier, this is a subject we can go on and on about. Unfortunately, our time is up. But thank you, Amy Wilkins, very much for your time.

WILKINS: Thanks so much. Have a good afternoon.

CONAN: Amy Wilkins, vice president at the educational nonprofit Education Trust, and she was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

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