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

By Romero, Mariajosé | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

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


Romero, Mariajosé, The Journal of Negro Education


Social Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap, by Richard Rothstein. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University; Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2004, 210 pp. $17.95, paperback.

In Social Class and Schools, Rothstein sets out to explain the persistence of the Black-White achievement gap despite 50 years of school desegregation and reform since Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In his view, the achievement gap results not from failed policies, poor school quality, or ineffective schools, but from social class disparities between Black and White students, which impact every aspect of their lives. A research associate at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and former education columnist for the New York Times, Rothstein has written extensively on student achievement and school reform. The book stems from lectures he gave in 2003-2004 at Teachers College, Columbia University, although some of the chapters expand on work previously done at EPI or published elsewhere.

Chapter 1 examines the mechanisms through which social class influences academic performance. For Rothstein, the Black-White achievement gap arises from class-based differences in socialization, health status, housing, wealth, and learning outside schools. In his view, middleclass students outperform their lower-class counterparts because middle-class parents often read to and use complex language with their children; enforce behavioral norms consistent with those of schools; provide effective homework assistance; promote future orientations; and as role models, attest to the payoff that investments in education have for the middle class. Rothstein argues that, in comparison to their middle-class peers, lower-class children are more likely to suffer nutrition, vision, hearing, and other health problems that undermine their ability to learn. Likewise, they may lack access to stable, high-quality housing and experience considerable geographic mobility, which fragments their school experience. Due to lack of wealth, lower-class children may be exposed to parental unemployment, economic, and food insecurity, and poverty spells that seriously hamper their learning, especially during the early years. Lastly, unlike some lower-class families, some middle-class ones may provide meaningful learning experiences prior to kindergarten and during after-school and summer hours, which strengthen school readiness and performance, and prevent the summer learning loss typically observed in lower-class children.

Rothstein recognizes that improving the quality of schools may help diminish the BlackWhite achievement gap. But, in his view, school reform alone is insufficient since it leaves classbased disparities untouched. Chapter 2 reviews initiatives purporting to have eliminated racial disparities in achievement. For Rothstein, these claims are unfounded: in some instances, proposals owe their success to the selective students served, who typically perform better than lower-class students; in other instances, improved achievement scores are due to health interventions rather than to educational changes; and in still others, claims are based on a selective reading on test scores or lead to unrealistic policy goals.

Two chapters in Social Class and Schools are devoted to the important question of what we actually know about the achievement gap. In Chapter 3, Rothstein contends that school reform efforts cannot be evaluated because of limitations of existing standardized tests, and their misuse in response to political pressures of the current accountability environment. Chapter 4 examines the gap in non-cognitive skills, that is, "character traits like perseverance, self-confidence, selfdiscipline, punctuality, communication skills, social responsibility, and the ability to work with others and resolve conflicts." For Rothstein, these skills ought to represent key goals of public education since they have stronger impact than cognitive skills on future employment and earnings. …

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