Mend the Gap Between Rich and Poor in School Achievement

By Peter Gray PH.D.

We know how to reduce the school achievement gap, but we do the opposite.

Our compulsory public school system is supposed to be “the great equalizer.” By providing the same schooling to everyone, it is supposed to promote equal opportunities for young people regardless of their socioeconomic background.  In fact, however, the system has never been a great equalizer, and research indicates that it is even much less an equalizer today than it was in the past.

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A few years ago, Sean Reardon (2012) of Stanford University published an analysis of the findings of many studies showing, over all, that the gap in achievement test scores between students from the richest 10% of families and the poorest 10% grew by 40 to 50 percent between the mid 1970s and the early 2000s..  The gap exists at all grade levels, but is much larger in the later years of schooling than in the early years.  By the middle of high school, the average test scores for students from the bottom 10% in income are three to six grade levels (depending on the type of test) below those of students from the top 10% in income.

Here I’ll describe some unsuccessful and successful attempts to reduce the achievement gap, and then I’ll explain why I think public support for Self-Directed Education would be a great way to reduce or even eliminate the gap.

Some failed attempts to reduce the gap

More money spent on schooling  hasn’t solved the problem.

Over the past few decades, federal, state, and local governments have increased greatly their spending for public education and have decreased the spending gap between poor and rich school districts.  Over those same decades, the achievement gap has increased.  Indeed, some research indicates that the average gap between rich and poor who are attending the same school, even in wealthy districts, is nearly as great as that between rich and poor who are attending different schools (Deruy, 2016; Tucker, 2007; Schmidt et al., 2015).

Reducing class size hasn’t solved the problem.

One might think that with smaller classes teachers would give more individual attention to those students who need the most help, which would reduce the gap.  However, research to date shows little or no relationship of class size either to overall student achievement or to the size of the gap between rich and poor (e.g. Hoxby, 2000; Cho et al, 2012).  In fact, those few studies that do show increased achievement for smaller classes generally reveal that rich students benefit more than do poor ones (Jackson & Page, 2013; Li & Konstantopoulos, 2017).  Perhaps reduced class size leads teachers to spend even more time with the high achieving students, while still neglecting the needier ones.

More pressure, drill, testing, and standardization hasn’t solved the problem.

The “No Child Left Behind” act and, more recently, the “Every Child Succeeds” act were designed, in part, to reduce the achievement gap.  These programs, in theory, would reduce the differences among schools and among teachers in how they taught and would ensure that all students are subject to essentially the same curriculum and experience the same pressures to succeed in school.  However, over the period that these programs have been in effect, the gap has increased.

Elsewhere (here), I have explained why this result should have been predictable.  Many research studies have shown that high pressure improves performance for those who are already skilled at a task and worsens performance for those who aren’t skilled.  The best way to learn something new is to learn it in a playful, non-stressful environment.  If economically poor students start school knowing less of what is taught in schools than do rich ones, then high pressure would decrease their scores and increase those of the rich.  {For much more on this idea, see here.)  Moreover, standardization in teaching and testing reduces the opportunity for teachers to respond differently to the needs of different students, so it would likely result in neglect of the real needs of economically poor students.

Starting academic training at younger ages hasn’t solved the problem.

Another failed approach to reducing the achievement gap has been to start teaching academic skills earlier—in kindergarten and even in pre-kindergarten.  As I have documented elsewhere (here), these programs have generally produced short-term benefits, if benefits are measured as improved test scores in first grade, but have produced long-term harm, as measured by academic test scores and social skills assessments in later years.  The early learning promoted by academic training in preschool and kindergarten is apparently shallow and not founded on intellectual understanding, so it interferes with deeper learning of literary and mathematical skills later on (for more on this, see here).

The gap decreases when “school climate” improves

Another approach to school reform–quite opposite to the pressure, drill, and standardization approach—is that of improving “school climate.”  “Climate” here refers to the attitudes that permeate a school’s culture.  A positive climate is one where teachers are warm, supportive, trustful, and respectful toward students as unique individuals and where students feel supported, empowered, and good about their school and the people in it.

Recently, Ruth Berkowitz and her colleagues (2017) published a review of research linking school climate to academic achievement.  The review showed, over all, that improved climate correlated with increased academic achievement and, in at least some of the studies, with a decline in the achievement gap.

Apparently, one reason for the achievement gap is that rich students tend to believe they “belong” at school and poor students tend to believe they don’t.  A concerted effort by teachers and other staff to show that everyone belongs—that everyone is respected, cared for, and welcome—therefore tends to increase the participation, and hence the achievement, of economically poor students more than it does that of wealthier students, thereby reducing the gap.

Closely related to research on school climate is research assessing the value of “inquiry-based teaching.”  This is a style of teaching that is less top-down than what usually occurs in schools.  It is aimed at bringing students’ own questions to the forefront and taking students’—all students’–ideas seriously.  When done well, it engages all students, including those who would otherwise be the most disengaged.  Several studies have indicated that this style of teaching helps previously poor performers improve even more than it helps previously high performers, and thereby reduces the achievement gap (Marshall & Alston, 2014; Dickinson, 2016).

A one-year experiment in Binghamton, NY, with remarkable results

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