Recycling Poverty, Segregated Schools, and Academic Achievement: Then and Now

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.






Filed under school reform policies

15 responses to “Recycling Poverty, Segregated Schools, and Academic Achievement: Then and Now

  1. The conclusion of this piece is rather disappointing. To observe that a muscular coalition is needed to effect school reform when the reforms themselves do not hold promise of significant improvement is futile. Furthermore, the issue of poverty needs to be examined. It is not the lack of money that is the cause of poverty, but rather choices and behaviors. These latter are based on values such as the four Charles Murray has identified which lift folks out of poverty within a generation: 1) Honesty with money; 2) truthfulness; 3) work ethic; and 4) fidelity in marriage. These can be taught, but public schools are more likely to avoid value judgments (hence our cheating scandals).

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. Your view of what makes people poor is only one–an earlier generation might have used the phrase “culture of poverty.” Other views go beyond balming those who are poor by seeing socioeconomic structures, institutional racism, and other factors that shape those behaviors and choices you describe.

    • Any coalition that is at the national level is a nonstarter. Education reflects a culture, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ national culture. It has to happen locally, and that can’t happen when the fed, via the Dept. of Ed., are imposing the will of the ‘beltway bureaucrats’ on every school district in the country. I’ve lived and worked with bureaucrats inside the beltway my entire career, and these are NOT the best and brightest the country has…that is in the districts. Until they are allowed to decide what works best for them, this madness will continue.

  2. I agree with your analysis, or I should say your repeating the analysis. There is nothing new here. You’re tilting at windmills. There is no “will” in the congress or white house to take any substantive action. The same problems exist now that existed in the 60s, only exacerbated by a political mind control agency, the Department of Education. Reagan swore to dismantle it until he, like every president after him, realized he could use it to impose political will on students. And remember, researchers like Sean Reardon work for research universities, who in turn survive on government and corporation grants. There are outcome expectations that come with those grants. Nothing new here either. So while I support your basic theory, no change will happen until the DoE is history and education is managed by the states and districts. Anything else is Orwellian.

  3. Laura H. Chapman

    A wonderful array of references documenting the many “facts of the matter” ignored or misinterpreted, amid much posturing about data-driven, evidence-based policies and practices. I especially appreciated the historical comparisons, perhaps because I was around in the era of grant-making for “compensatory programs” reviewed some of these touting the benefits of programs in the arts.
    I especially appreciated the link to the Richard Rothstein’s • August 27, 2013, “For Public Schools, Segregation Then, Segregation Since: Education and the Unfinished March.” I wish I could be more confident about the hints of restoration in state and local control, given the ESSA is still about testing and charter school expansion. I live in Ohio where the charter industry has become a national scandal. The new State Superintendent of Public Instruction is an accountant, not an educator, who thinks like Bill Gates who once said (as if true) “over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat.” This morning, the newspaper featured photos of several billboards advertising for preschool enrollments, a well planned campaign to “compete” with our school board’s initiative. Tax dollars this year for ads touting our public schools cost $300,000, an expense created by the promoters of “market based competition” as a panacea. It is really hard to find light at the end of the tunnel when redlining continues as a practice, aided by super-rich foundations and corporations and several federal agencies who sponsor the real-estate steering website,

    • You raise am important point regarding charters schools. I don’t have the numbers, but the people I talk to say the sent their children to charter schools because of the myriad of problems with the public schools. The concern is the charter schools will/have become corporatized to such an extent they will fail. Its a paradox, but I do believe the first step in any solution is to get the feds out of it. Get rid of DoE. There will be a learning curve for the locals/states because they’ve had to maneuver around the idiocy of the DoE for so long, but there is a vested interest locally, where the national interest is political.

  4. David

    Hi Larry–thanks for this–interesting that “critical thinking” is the skill du jour, yet it hardly ever gets used by policymakers. The technology people are very guilty of this–see the new NBER report on technology in education:

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, David, for the comment and URL for the NBER report on technology. It just came out and I downloaded the PDF.

  5. Alice in PA

    One of the many things I love about your blog is that it often syncs with my reading list. I am currently reading “the fierce urgency of now” which is about the legislative process of Johnson’s Great Society. It echoes your ending about the need for a politics coalition even if they do not all agree. Legislators voted for Civil Right and ESEA and Medicare for a number of reasons but they worked to pass something. Often that work was done in smoky back rooms and with pork. Maybe we actually need a little of that back. In an era where compromise is seen as a sign of weakness and our 24/7 news cycle puts the “weakness” on every screen, our legislators are tightly bound to their ideological stance with no movement allowed.
    The Great Society differs from today’s school reforms because it focussed on more than just schools. The current versions of ESEA are stand alone reforms. There seems to be little in the way of helping families move out of poverty.

  6. surfer


    Maybe if you had a little more “critical thinking”, this wouldn’t surprise you.

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