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What If Education Reform Got It All Wrong in the First Place?

That’s the conclusion of a growing number of researchers who argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty and the broadening divide of income inequality.
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(Photo: Cherries/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Cherries/Shutterstock)

It’s been just over 30 years since war was declared on America’s public schools. The opening salvo came with 1983’s A Nation at Risk, the Ronald Reagan-era Department of Education report that alleged that lax schools and ineffective teachers constituted a dire threat to national security.

Yet three decades later, and in spite the opening of a second front comprised of school vouchers, a 2.57-million student charter school network, and a classroom culture tied to test preparation, the nation’s education outcomes have barely budged, and rather than narrowing the education gap, the chasm between rich and poor appears only to be significantly widening.

But what if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions, got it all wrong in the first place? That’s the conclusion being drawn by a growing number of researchers who, armed with a mountain of fresh evidence, argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in America’s public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty—the worst among developed nations—and the broadening divide of income inequality.

"The most striking takeaway, was that the students that need the least in this country, who are already coming in with every possible privilege and advantage, are getting the most resources."

It represented a fundamental misreading, claim the husband and wife research team of professors Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara. The pair, who investigate education inequities for the University of California-Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project, say this represents a tragic distraction from addressing the real roots of educational inequality.

"The Reagan revolution basically said, 'No, we don’t have to worry about any of those things,'" Orfield explained to Capital & Main. "'[It said] it’s all the schools' fault, and inside the schools it's the teachers' fault and the teachers' organizations. And if we just beat up on them, we can eliminate all the gaps and so forth. And if they don't do it, we'll just privatize everything. ... And we don’t even have to measure that, because we know that's true.'"

One area of agreement for both sides in this battle is that quality education remains crucial to both achieving economic security and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. More education typically leads to better jobs and more pay—a fact that has become increasingly critical due to the loss of middle class-manufacturing jobs to globalization—and it directly correlates to better-life outcomes for children. Added to that are the considerable social costs of educational deficits, including an incarceration rate of one in every 10 young male high school dropouts landing in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates.

For California, the implications couldn’t be more profound. In sheer numbers, the state leads the nation in its share of students from low-income, predominantly immigrant families, and claims the largest percentage of English learners. It also consistently lags far behind comparable states in K-12 per-student spending—it was ranked 44th as recently as 2012-13, though that is expected to change, thanks to a boost in base funding from Proposition 30. The state is ranked 48th when it comes to adults with high school diplomas, beating out only Mississippi and Texas.

It is facts like these that recently led the Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council to place California at the top of its educational inequality index in December’s Portrait of California: 2014-15 report. Using its own 10-point scale based on such factors as preschool enrollment and high school graduation rates, the report measured a dizzying eight-and-a-half point spread between Santa Clara County’s gilded Silicon Valley and the educational sub-basement of Los Angeles neighborhoods like Huntington Park City, Florence-Graham, and Walnut Park.

How that plays out on the ground is the day-to-day reality of the frontline teachers who struggle to reach the state’s most disadvantaged and at-risk children.

For five years, education writer and blogger Ellie Herman was one of these instructors, putting in time as an 11th grade English teacher at Green Dot Public Schools’ Ánimo South Los Angeles Charter High School, in the heart of one the city’s lowest-performing neighborhoods.

“We were sort of enacting a lot of the prescriptions that are currently being given as remedies to close the achievement gap,” she said. “And after five years working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life on anything—I burned out. Partly from exhaustion, and partly from feeling [frustrated over], ‘Why are we not seeing more success here? What is really going on?’”

To find out, Herman spent the 2013-14 school year in the back of classrooms, observing high school teachers and filing reports on what she saw, both on her blog and for the online education site LA School Report. She ranged across the city’s socioeconomic spectrum, from the most elite of private schools in exclusive enclaves like Holmby Hills and Studio City, to affluent public schools in South Pasadena to those in extremely poor communities such as Watts and South Los Angeles.

She was infuriated by what she saw, characterizing the disparities as a form of apartheid.

“The most striking takeaway,” Herman recalled, “was that the students that need the least in this country, who are already coming in with every possible privilege and advantage, are getting the most resources. When you get to the students who need the most, students that are living in foster care, students who are living in extreme poverty, these students are being packed as many as 50 to a classroom in schools that don’t have enough books, in schools where the libraries have been closed  ... there’s no after-school enrichment, there’s no art, there’s no one-on-one attention. All of the things that these students arguably need more, they’re not getting, or they’re getting way less of.”

That argument is mostly grounded in an understanding of the significance that early childhood and family environments play in predicting educational and life outcomes. A rash of data, including both a key longitudinal study conducted by University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman, and findings from the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, argue that parenting and home enrichment matter as much as, if not more than, what happens in the K-12 classroom, especially in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality in the years before children start school.

“I guess the most important thing [the studies show] is that the education gaps don’t have to be there,” said Dr. Larry Schweinhart, an early education program researcher and an author of the HighScope study. “That they are at least partially controlled or influenced by public policy.”

Schweinhart, who advocates for quality childcare and universal preschool, says the preschool group he studied demonstrated dramatic decreases in crime and significant increases in all positive measures compared to a control group. That, he insists, not only makes early intervention programs a smart social investment but it makes blaming public schools similar to shortsighted attitudes he’s seen in criminology.

"I guess the most important thing [the studies show] is that the education gaps don't have to be there. That they are at least partially controlled or influenced by public policy."

“They talk about different degrees of prevention,” he explained. “So there’s ‘primary prevention,’ ‘secondary prevention,’ and so forth. I remember once seeing that somebody had defined ‘primary prevention’ as what you do after the first crime is committed, which I considered to be preposterous. Certainly there must be a better name for something than to claim you can prevent the second crime, but you can’t prevent the first one.”

Preventing the first crime in education equality was precisely the purpose behind last year’s failed universal preschool bill pushed by then-Senate Pro Tem Democrat Darrell Steinberg. The bill, which attempted to expand the state’s transitional kindergarten program to all four-year-olds, regardless of income, was dismissed by the Los Angeles Times editorial board as potentially privileging pre-kindergarten over other targeted programs for the working poor during tough times.

The repercussions of that kind of narrow logic are nowhere more keenly felt than at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s stately looking Angeles Mesa Elementary School, in South Los Angeles’ economically hard-pressed Hyde Park neighborhood. That’s where 10-year kindergarten teacher Erika Jones encounters the dramatic effects of early-childhood inequities on a daily basis.

“You can see a big difference between students who have gone to preschool and who have not,” Jones told Capital & Main in her tidily organized classroom. Aggravating the situation, she adds, is that Angeles Mesa is surrounded by charter schools that tend to siphon higher achieving students and attract more motivated parents, who are drawn as much by safety concerns as academic excellence. That has created an additional inequality within an inequality, as Angeles Mesa is left with a disproportionate population of underachievers lacking in basic social and learning skills.

“It is definitely difficult to have a child come into kindergarten who’s never been read to,” Jones explained. “And it’s not that they haven’t been read to because their parents don’t want to—it’s just when you’re a single mom and you’re working four jobs, it doesn’t always work out that way.”

If there is a lesson in evidence-based research for California policymakers, say Orfield and Gandara, it is that there are limitations to what even the most inspired teachers alone can achieve in a society plagued with inequities.

“I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts,” Orfield noted, “and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school. The schools actually made as much progress each year as the [wealthier] kids did, but the gap never closed at all. So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.”

“I always say, if money doesn’t matter, then why is it that people who have money send their kids to schools that have many, many more resources?” Gandara adds. “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development. We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.’”

This post originally appeared on Capital & Main, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Inequality in California's K-12 Schools."