Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Education Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap

By Richard Rothstein (Economic Policy Insitute, 210 pp., $17.95) BUY NOW!
reviewed by Jill Davidson

Many of us in the CES network, accustomed to focusing intently on what schools can do, create educational environments that support all children to learn, grow, and thrive. At the same time, we know that schools nationwide have not been able to close the “achievement gap,” the persistent difference in performance between students of color and white students. Class and Schools argues with force and facts that creating the equitable conditions that would support all students of all backgrounds to achieve at high levels should not solely be the burden of schools. Instead, a constellation of social and economic factors – health and social services, racial discrimination, parenting habits, access to high quality early childhood education, availability of enriching summer and afterschool programs, reliable income and accumulated wealth, housing conditions, family mobility, environmental risks and more – are the alchemy of social class. Examining the achievement gap between black and white students, Rothstein posits that class and race are intimately connected, and that factors associated with class create disparities in school and beyond, declaring, “Raising the achievement of lower-class children requires amelioration of the social and economic conditions of their lives, not just school reform.” Our current policy of increased pressure on schools as the only strategy to close the achievement gap won’t work.

Rothstein characterizes his detailed portrayal of the effect of class on achievement as “unpleasant,” and most readers will likely agree as they make their way through the first chapter, which reviews the causes and effects of the many factors that conspire to create and preserve socioeconomic status. While careful to maintain that the well-documented conditions of lower-income America that he presents do not depict particular families’ lives or the likelihood of success for any particular child, the aggregate impact of the complexities of disadvantage is deeply disturbing – and very revealing. For example, Rothstein’s discussion of the vision, hearing, dental, respiratory illness, nutrition, lead exposure, and lasting effects of prenatal conditions with which minority and lower-income children come to school illustrates how very unlevel, how damagingly tilted, the playing field is for so many children. We are reminded that the success stories of individual students who we know, measures of our own achievement as educators, exist in a broader, starker context.

Rothstein moves on to putative successes with poor urban student populations of the Jaime Escalante-Lean on Me variety to demonstrate what many longtime educators know well: that many such odds-beaters, while worth celebrating on their own merits, can’t reliably indicate that school as an institution can completely reverse students’ aggregated socioeconomic legacies. Policymakers and thought leaders have misused these schools’ results to suggest that all schools everywhere can transform all students’ lives, Rothstein argues. Such classrooms and schools depend on unrepresentative student populations, off-the-chart financial largesse, badly reported or analyzed data, admirable but unreproducible teacher commitment, and so on. We love success stories; it’s chilling that many of the data points that have been used to try to leverage change for poor urban schools are not the harbingers of hope that they seem. Yet Rothstein’s cold water is also bracing, reminding us that what works for one community is precious, valuable, and also quite possibly impossible to reproduce in other settings.

Class and Schools’ richest argument for CES educators unfolds in the fourth chapter, which contains an overview of the social gap in “non-cognitive” skills: socialization, leadership, persistence, self confidence, and civic participation. Detailing employers’ emphasis on these skills, Rothstein demonstrates the systemic social injustice that as a group, lower-class and black students are at a grave deficit and suggests that improving students’ intra- and interpersonal skills would be both a worthy and attainable goal for schools, an affirming argument for many Essential schools structured to support the intellectual and personal habits of mind that contribute to the likelihood of success.

The final chapter takes Class and Schools’ powerful analysis through to the conclusion that the changes we need to close the achievement gap and make education a meaningful foundation for life demand big money: $156 billion annually, Rothstein calculates, a figure he describes as politically unlikely but, at two-thirds the cost of average annual tax cuts since 2001, not impossible. Even though sweeping changes such as economic equality measures, school-community health clinics, pre-, after- and summer school programs, and stable housing initiatives are unlikely to happen together as a result of political leadership, Rothstein’s suggestions outline the depth, length, and breadth of the commitment we as a society have to make and that individual schools and educators make to their student and communities every day. Though it is not long on solution – Rothstein’s strength here is in his analysis of the problem – Class and Schools sketches what a collective effort for change could begin to look like.