Public Schools and Educational Inequality: Some Thoughts* (Part 1)

Do tax-supported public schools replicate or even worsen educational inequalities? Past and present critics of schools would answer “yes” (see here, here, here, and here).

But maybe they are wrong. Maybe public schools are either neutral or even ease inequalities over a student’s career in age-graded schools. Maybe public schools have been blamed unfairly for what is a societal problem and not a “school” problem. And even stranger in light of today’s full-bore indictment of schools, maybe they moderate societal effects and give the most disadvantaged children and youth a boost rather than a boot.

This argument over whether schools increase, have little impact, or even decrease educational inequalities has raged for decades among policymakers, pundits, and researchers (see here and here). Yet these arguments often skip over basic facts of U.S. schooling that few would dispute.These facts provide an essential context for those taking any position in this ongoing argument.

First, how much time does the average U.S. student spend in and out of school?



Because ways of calculating time in school vary, estimates range from 13 percent to the 20 percent in above pie chart (see here). Contending estimates still underscore that U.S. children and youth spend the vast majority of their time away from school at home and in the neighborhood. This fact, then, makes clear that most influence on what students do behaviorally and academically in school comes from home and community. Of course, 13-20 percent of a year’s time in school can make a difference in the lives of children and youth. But the fact remains: 80-87 percent of a year those kids are at home.

Another essential fact concerns the high correlation between parents’ education and income and their expectations for children’s achievement and test performance (also see here).






Out-of-school factors such as parental level of education and annual income influence students’ academic achievement. Multiple studies over the past century have established this steel-linked chain between parents’ socioeconomic status and their children’s school performance on standardized tests (see here, here, here, and here).

And when parents are asked which factors influence their children’s academic attainment, they clearly pointed to themselves.



And do not forget money. The huge variation in state and local funding of public schools establishes the base from which educator salaries (the bulk of a district’s expenditures), facilities, equipment, maintenance, and scores of other costs occur. Because most state and local money supporting schools come from property taxes, comparing Massachusetts and Mississippi, for example, spending per pupil gets at national variation. Recent teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma underscore not only the importance of money but the unequal allocation of resources across states.

Ditto for districts within states. Those districts fortunate to be located in high wealth areas   (e.g., Arlington, Virginia; Scarsdale, New York; River Forest, Illinois) get far more money to spend on schools than those in low wealth districts (Roanoke, Virginia, Rochester, New York, or Springfield, Illinois). Note  further that federal funds only account for a dime out of every dollar states and local districts spend on public schools.  So money matters particularly when it comes to providing equal spending. Another basic fact that often goes unnoticed.

These inescapable facts, however, have failed to clarify past or contemporary debates over the role of the school when it comes to reducing educational inequalities. Or get critics to modify their positions.

Having spent decades in urban and suburban schools as a history teacher, superintendent, and researcher I have placed myself along the continuum of this policy argument somewhere in the middle, tilting toward schools moderating educational inequalities but neither eliminating achievement gaps nor lifting families out of poverty. Some schools can reduce inequities by providing well-funded  compensatory actions (e.g., preschool, differentiated curriculum, effective teachers, individualized instruction, longer school days, etc.).

Where I stand is anchored in my experiences within schools, research I have done, and intuition. While I believe that some schools can (and do) moderate educational inequities–they make a difference in children’s lives–for many years, I lacked  a conceptual framework, language, and data to make a coherent case for the position I have taken.

Data came first. In 1966, the federal government published a school survey study it had commissioned sociologist James Coleman to conduct.  Coleman’s conclusion was succinct:

One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

This conclusion, underscoring the above essential facts of U.S. schooling, has been confirmed repeatedly in the past half-century (see here, here and here). None of these data, however, have stilled critics who have argued (and continue to do so) that public schools not only reproduce but worsen inequalities.

OK, home, neighborhood, and peers have outsized influence on what students achieve in school. But can schools with 13-20 percent of time that children and youth attend during the year moderate that huge effect? Or can inadequate funding of schools be overcome? Yes, to a limited extent.

How do I know?

The familiar framework for looking at what schools do is to view academic achievement narrowly as measured by test scores. Student scores capture the effects of schooling within this narrow framework. And historically, using these test scores, a yawning achievement gap between white and minority students has remained nearly the same for decades. Moreover, as some policymakers have pointed out, “dropout factories” in urban school districts exist. And low-income minority five year-olds entering school are already at a disadvantage compared to middle-class white kindergartners.

There are other frameworks, however. Schools account for how much is learned (e.g., acquiring cognitive skills, getting along in groups, etc.) that go beyond what standardized tests measure. There are also studies, for example, that capture what students learn (including those standardized tests) while in school as opposed to when they are out of school (e.g., summer breaks, going or not going to preschool). One measure of impact, then, is researchers examining how much students learn in school compared to when they are not in school, such as summers and three- and four year-olds who stay home (see here and here). And the evidence shows that students do pick up cognitive and other skills while in school thus having an impact and compensating for out-of-school factors.

Such a framework of comparing attending public school to not attending using in- and out-of-school data may influence the continuing debate over the role of schools in either worsening or improving educational inequalities but it will not end it. But it does give me the framework and data, a way of seeing how schools can influence students academically beyond what I have experienced in classrooms and schools, researched reforms, and intuition.

So what?

Part 2 takes up that question.


*I thank Professor Douglas Downey (Ohio State University) who gave a recent seminar at Stanford University for getting me to re-examine this contentious and on-going debate over the role of schools in influencing the large gaps in the distribution of wealth in the U.S. over the past century.



Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

4 responses to “Public Schools and Educational Inequality: Some Thoughts* (Part 1)

  1. David F

    Hi Larry, also the issue of how schools are funded and whether that creates inequalities needs to be factored in. As long as local property taxes are the main income stream to fund schools, wealthier communities will have superior schools and poorer communities will be inferior. Money certainly does matter!

    • larrycuban

      Yes, David, thanks for the reminder about inequalities starting with funding. In the revising of this post, the huge spread in local and state funding across states (and within states) will be one of the essential facts that I have included about time in school and parents’ income and education.

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