A recently-released study by Harvard and Stanford universities shows the “achievement gap is as big today as it was for children born in 1954, with disadvantaged students three to four years behind their more affluent peers.” There are of course, multiple reasons offered for this stagnation, but the Boston Globe reports that researchers Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson suggest “a decline in teacher quality through the years may be offsetting gains made in education reforms such as head start school desegregation, and federal aid to districts with low-income students.” Peterson said, “There is every reason to believe that the quality of the teaching profession will have a particularly adverse effect on low income…disadvantaged students, because those are the students who are unfortunately encountering the most inexperienced teachers.”
Hanushek and Peterson (H&P) write in EducationNext, that, “while some might see income inequality as the result of adult life choices about matters such as how hard to work or where to live, educational inequality seems unfair, because the economic status of a child is outside the child’s own control. It is an inequality of opportunity that runs counter to the American dream.” This is my point when I hear someone say something like, “it isn’t the school’s job to feed kids breakfast…their parents should be feeding them at home.” Uh, well yes, their parents should be feeding them. But…what do we do about those children that come to school hungry because their parents don’t properly care for them or, those who don’t even have parents in the picture?
H&P agree there is an achievement gap affected by socioeconomic status, writing that,
“A variety of mechanisms link socioeconomic status to achievement. For instance, children growing up in poorer households and communities are at greater risk of traumatic stress and other medical problems that can affect brain development. College-educated mothers speak more frequently to their infants, use a larger vocabulary with their toddlers, and are more likely to use parenting practices that respect the autonomy of a growing child. Higher-income families have access to more-enriching schooling environments, and they generally do not face the high rates of violent crime experienced by those in extremely impoverished communities. All these and other childhood or adolescent experiences contribute to profound socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement.”
But, they disagree with past research is that the gap is widening to correspond with ever-increasing wealth inequality. They posit that negative and positive factors in family demographics such the increased age of the mother at birth, higher number of single-parent households at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, higher overall education attainment levels, and the number of siblings, could result in a stagnant impact of the family contribution to the achievement gap.
Likewise, opposing forces in the educational system could be helping maintain the status quo there. Positive moves such as Head Start, Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Disabilities Education Act, a quadrupling in overall funding between 1960 and 2015, and accountability mandates disproportionately directed toward schools serving low-income students, may have all been largely countered by a “decline in the quality of the teaching force.”
Critics of H&P’s findings are pushing back. Sean Reardon, a Stanford professor of poverty and inequality in education, says growing income inequality is linked to an expanding achievement gap, and says the H&P report “paints an oversimplified picture of the issue”. Likewise, Richard Rothstein, author and fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, says H&P’s report showed results from desegregation, indicating that reforms do work. He also chided H&P for not owning up to their past support of the failed No Child Left Behind law and their previous criticism of people making the very same points they are making now, regarding the ties of socioeconomic status on achievement.
When answering why the achievement gap hasn’t closed, Peterson says,
“the simple answer is that nothing has changed out there that is relevant”.
And, what he and Hanushek believe is relevant is improving teacher quality, especially for disadvantaged students, and focusing on improving high school achievement (where any gains made are lost) is key.
Arizona is on the right track with its Arizona Teachers Academy, but until the pipeline is flowing at an adequate rate to compensate for the 25% of teachers eligible to retire, and those who just choose to do something that either pays better or is less frustrating, it is an uphill battle. Salaries that are still well below the U.S. median, and a lack of adequate autonomy in the classroom and respect for the critical work they do, aren’t helping. Quality teachers are the most significant in-school factor to improve student achievement. Doesn’t it then, stand to reason that educating, hiring, and retaining them, should be our collective focus?