Low Funding and Ineffective Teaching Don't Explain Test Score Gaps
Research casts doubt on the usual suspects--so what's the real explanation?
The common wisdom is that students from lower-income families experience worse outcomes than their more affluent peers because they have less effective teachers and their schools get less funding. But recent evidence casts doubt on both those explanations.
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One study found that children from both lower- and higher-income families have “nearly equal access to effective teachers.” Analyzing data from 26 school districts over five years, the researchers did find that lower-income students are more likely to get novice teachers but concluded that the disparity is small and contributes “a negligible amount to gaps in student achievement.”
As for school funding, it used to be true that schools serving more affluent students were better funded than those with lower-income populations. But, while some high-poverty schools still lack money for basic needs (see here and here), over the past 50 years the situation has generally become far more equitable. In 28 states, supreme courts have required fairer state funding formulas. In addition, the federal government has targeted funds to schools that serve poorer kids. The result, a study from the Urban Institute concluded, is that when all government funds are taken together, “almost all states allocate more per-student funding to poor kids than to nonpoor kids.” Only two or three allocate less.
At the same time, overall school spending in the U.S. has been increasing. Although per pupil spending dipped after the 2008 recession, we spend far more now than we did in 1990—more than $15,000 as compared to less than $11,000. And that doesn’t take account of the historic infusion of nearly $190 billion in federal Covid-relief money over the past couple of years—an amount that is five or six times the usual annual federal spending on K-12 education.
And yet, reading scores have been stagnant or declining since 1998 and math scores since 2010, and gaps between low- and high-scorers have been widening. At the high school level, there’s been no progress in test scores since the early 1970s. Effective teachers and sufficient funding are important, but they’re no guarantee of success.
That becomes clearer when you start comparing different jurisdictions and countries. Washington, D.C., spends $22,759 per pupil, the second highest level in the country (as compared to states) and far more than the U.S. average. But many students still get an inadequate education. Of the 128 students who graduated from D.C. schools and enrolled in the University of the District of Columbia a few years ago, it’s been reported that 126 needed remedial assistance. And the U.S. as a whole spends more per pupil than many other countries where students do better on international tests.
So if the explanation for education disparities isn’t access to effective teachers or the level of school funding, what is it?
It’s not just racism and poverty either
Two answers offered in recent years are racism and poverty. Education reformers used to say those factors were “no excuse”—that schools could overcome them. But, discouraged by a lack of significant progress, many have now concluded that it’s just not possible to improve outcomes for students from low-income families and historically disadvantaged groups without first addressing those issues.
Clearly, we need to attack racism and poverty. But they’re not the whole explanation for disparate education outcomes, and we don’t need to wait for them to be “fixed” before we fix education.
Let’s take race first. Some have argued that standardized tests are inherently racist because, as a group, Black and Brown students score lower than their white peers. Many educators also believe that the primary reason non-white students suffer academically is that they don’t see themselves and their cultures reflected in the curriculum, as white students do.
We should of course do whatever we can to ensure that standardized tests are not culturally biased and that the curriculum provides “mirrors” as well as “windows” for all students. But many thousands of white students also score low on standardized tests. In Rhode Island, for example, almost 3,500 white 8th graders scored below the proficient level on a national reading assessment in 2019, as compared to about 2,000 Hispanic and 800 Black students. It’s true that Black and Hispanic students were more likely to score below proficient than white students, but if the basic reason for low scores is racism, why do so many white students score low as well?
Then there’s poverty. There are certainly factors associated with poverty that make it hard to learn—things like food and housing insecurity, which create stress. But we also have evidence that it’s not poverty itself that causes lower levels of academic achievement.
Consider a study done in 2012 by the Brookings Institute that looked at whether children were ready for kindergarten. As you would expect, they found that poor kids were far less likely to be ready than their higher-income peers. But when they looked at kids whose mothers had at least a BA, they found that 91% of poor children in that category were ready for kindergarten, as opposed to just 84% of higher-income kids in the same category—the only category in which poor kids were actually better prepared.
Having college-educated parents doesn’t guarantee academic success. On the 2019 national reading test, 59% of the eighth-graders who scored below the 25th percentile had parents who were college graduates. But it does make success a lot more likely. Of the students who scored at or above proficient on that test, only 17% had parents who hadn’t finished high school, while 44% had parents with college degrees.
What schools can do
The point is not that all parents need to go to college. Rather, it’s that schools can give all students what college-educated parents often provide: academic knowledge and vocabulary. That’s essentially what enables students to do well on standardized reading tests—not to mention in high school and in life.
For complex reasons, most schools aren’t doing a good job of that, especially at the elementary level. Instead of immersing children in the subjects that build academic knowledge—history, geography, science, and the arts—elementary schools spend the bulk of the day having students practice illusory reading comprehension “skills” on easy-to-read books about random topics. That standard approach leaves them without the background knowledge they need to understand high school-level texts—or, often, the passages on reading tests.
An increasing number of schools are switching to a fundamentally different kind of elementary curriculum, one that systematically build kids’ academic knowledge beginning in the early elementary years—while also teaching them to decipher written words, another aspect of reading instruction for which teachers have gotten inadequate training. At higher grade levels, schools are beginning to use explicit, carefully sequenced writing instruction to identify and compensate for gaps in knowledge that prevent students from learning what the curriculum expects. But these approaches are still far from being the norm.
Yes, we need effective teachers—but the best way to enable teachers to be effective is to provide them with a knowledge-building curriculum and the training to implement it well. Yes, we need fair and adequate school funding—but unless we know how to spend it wisely, it won’t make much difference (and a good curriculum costs no more than a bad one).
And yes, we need to fight racism and poverty—but we have to simultaneously change what and how schools teach, so that they truly educate all students. Otherwise, we may find that eliminating racism and poverty, assuming we can manage to do that, isn’t actually enough to create a fairer education system and a fairer society.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com in a slightly different form.
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