A recent spate of reports and books linking family poverty, segregated schools, and academic achievement (see here, here, and here) have concluded that school improvement (insofar as test scores are the measure) has hit a wall. Over the past decade, test scores have plateaued in reading and math or even fallen (see here and here). After thirty years of reform after reform, achievement gaps between high- and low-income schools run to four or more grade levels between schools within and across districts (see here and here) How come?
Researchers have pointed out for decades that the largest influence on school achievement (as measured by test scores), has been family socioeconomic status. No surprise now with the release of new data on test scores that the same findings about poverty and segregation shape student achievement. Such findings have been around since the massive Coleman Report (1966) and have appeared regularly every decade since. With such findings appearing again and again, the question asked a half-century ago is the same questions now: Can schools make a difference when socioeconomic conditions (e.g., poverty) clearly play a large role in determining academic achievement?
Those who say “yes,” then and now, have urged upon elected decision-makers different reform policies from better teachers and teaching, more parental choice in schools, higher standards, more testing, accountability, new technologies in schools, and larger investments in education. “No excuses” school leaders, acknowledge that poverty exists but “good” schools can overcome zip codes.
Those who say “no,” then and now, have pointed out consistently meager outcomes in academic achievement and constancy in test score gaps between minorities and whites. These naysayers have urged those very same decision-makers to improve schools but politically work on reducing poverty in the U.S. (see here) because of the powerful effects of family background on student academic outcomes. The back-and-forth between reformers who see successful schools as the solvent for poverty and their critics who see family and neighborhood poverty as factors that cannot be washed away by the solvent of schooling. That debate has been reignited in 2016 by recent reports documenting gaps in achievement and few test score gains.
Here’s the rub, however. Much has been written (again by researchers) that policymakers seldom use social science research to make decisions. Instead, they define crises that must be solved and use research to support solutions they have already decided (see here, here, and here). Research studies are dragged in to bolster agreed-upon policy directions. At best, then, these research findings get smuggled into the debate after a new policy has been decided. Making policy, then and now, has been far more about political will, mobilizing coalitions to back solutions, and the power to decide what should be done to end the crisis than leaning on rigorous research findings. Educational policy, then, is politics writ small.
Consider what happened to the Coleman Report (1966)–mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. James Coleman, a highly respected sociologist and his team surveyed pupil expenditures, quality of facilities and teacher certification because federal officials then were sure that low student achievement, especially in urban minority and poor districts was due to inequitable allocation of resources. Instead, the Coleman Report showed a weak correlation between resources and achievement but a strong association between family background and student test scores.
When government officials saw results that challenged their assumptions about the “problem” of low achievement, they kept these findings under wraps for months until the results leaked out (see here). These results gave plenty of ammunition to critics of the “War on Poverty,” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), and federal agencies pushing for more desegregation in the nation’s school districts. All of these initiatives had the political muscle of President Lyndon Johnson behind them. Educational policy and political will were joined at the hip then.
The Coleman Report’s controversial findings, however, gave a shot of adrenalin to opponents of these new policies and ventures in the early 1970s, particularly the huge increases in federal spending to end poverty and improve schools. Opponents of desegregating residential communities in order to have blacks and whites attend school together found sustenance in these results also (see here). Schools remained a battleground in these years as the “War on Poverty” became a historical footnote.
So these current policy research findings, either supporting those who say “yes” or those who say “no” to the question of schools making a difference even amid strong socioeconomic influences, like similar studies in the past will revive the same old question that has divided the nation for the past half-century. But the research findings will not answer the question.
Results from 2016 studies such as Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon’s may recapture the argument used by earlier policymakers that investing more money in school improvement might be a fool’s errand, given the results from earlier reforms. Rebuttals to this line of argument come from social scientists who urge expanded investment in pre-Kindergarten, and those, like Reardon and other researchers who point to the tiny fraction of high poverty, segregated schools that somehow perform beyond what researchers would have ordinarily predicted. Ditto for charter school proponents and advocates of “no excuses” schools who point to the high graduation rates, college admissions, and yes, high test scores that they have racked up and, according to their advocates, deserve more money and political support.
What’s missing now in 2016 from this brew of research, policy solutions, and advocacy, however, is what was present a half-century ago, a muscular political coalition, a sizable group of elected policymakers with the will to provide a popularly supported response to this conundrum that has divided this nation for decades over the role of schooling in a capitalist democracy.