In The Age of Inequality, Does Public Schooling Make a Difference?

By: Matt Repka, Policy Analyst

Last week, SBOE staff attended a panel event on Capitol Hill on the implications of rising economic inequality on American public education. Titled “In the Age of Inequality, Does Public Education Make a Difference?” and presented jointly by the American Academy of Political and Social Science and the American Educational Research Association, the panel assembled a group of academic researchers who have published extensively on the role of schools in society.

The panelists’ presentations centered on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 release of the federally commissioned Equality of Educational Opportunity Study, nicknamed the Coleman Report after its lead author. Heather Hill, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, briefly presented a history of the Coleman Report, which compiled survey data from 4,000 schools, 66,000 teachers, and roughly 600,000 students with a focus on identifying and measuring inequalities in education across the country. At the time, it was one of the largest research efforts ever undertaken in American education, and it found significant disparities in achievement across racial/ethnic and economic class lines; more controversially, the author insisted that school climate was not a key driver of student achievement compared to community, family, and neighborhood characteristics. In the fifty years since, the report has inspired dozens more researchers to take on the same task.

Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University Professor who studies poverty and inequality issues in education, presented some of his work comparing achievement and growth across more than 11,000 school districts in the United States. Reardon used 3rd grade and 8th grade proficiency rates in districts as a rough proxy of the value being added through schooling: while 3rd grade proficiency rates are likely more attributable to factors in early childhood and outside the home, proficiency is more likely to be influenced by school-based factors by 8th grade. Tracking the differences between the numbers can indicate whether schools are able to advance their students and prepare them. Reardon found that regardless of whether students were high- or low-performing in third grade, there was variability in outcomes by 8th grade: some districts were able to accelerate their students to grade level, and others did not. He said his work indicates that while no school district is completely eliminating social inequality, positive outcomes are possible regardless of starting point.

Susan Moffitt, the director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy and a professor at Brown University, discussed the research into youth and early childhood interventions in the 50 years since the Coleman Report. She emphasized the importance of early childhood education and the evidence behind several programs including the federal WIC program, Head Start, and nurse-family partnerships. Moffitt said that beyond early childhood education there would remain a need to invest in quality K-12 programming to sustain the positive impacts of early childhood programs.

The dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, Prudence Carter, spoke about the history of schools, communities, and structural racism that created huge “ecological dissimilarities” – family, community, and school – between the most and least affluent members of society. She called for “indicators of educational well-being” that go beyond reading and math test scores and the need to critically examine the disciplinary structures that disproportionately criminalize young men of color. It is difficult to separate what happens in a student’s life outside the school building from what happens inside it, Carter said.

The panelists discussed some of the practices of high-growth school districts that they thought were contributing to that success. Successful districts, Carter said, are careful about aligning instructional design and professional development, and are able to be patient and stick to a plan that could take ten years or more to yield results. Hill said that successful districts are in alignment with state offices on issues of research and strategy, often establishing research partnerships with local universities to generate evidence and measure impact. Reardon said that having quality data allows state and local agencies to target social policies to the areas of greatest need.

State and local education agencies that position themselves as adaptable, learning organizations, the researchers said, will be best equipped to address the ongoing challenge of inequality in academic achievement, even as socioeconomic inequality and racial segrega

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