Jan Resseger analyzes a new study by Sean Reardon of Stanford University that demonstrates what has been widely known for decades: Schools alone don’t cure poverty.

Those who insist that they do are either uninformed, selling something (TFA founder Wendy Kopp has claimed that inexperienced teachers can overcome poverty and close achievement gaps caused by poverty), or just don’t want to pay taxes to provide the resources schools need (think the Koch brothers, the Waltons, the DeVos Family, or other billionaires).

She begins:

Here is the succinct conclusion of a complex, technical, and nuanced report released on Monday by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon and a team of researchers, Is Separate Still Unequal? New Evidence on School Segregation and R...: “We use 8 years of data from all public school districts in the U.S.  We find that racial school segregation is strongly associated with the magnitude of achievement gaps in 3rd grade, and with the rate at which gaps grow from third to eighth grade. The association of racial segregation with achievement gaps is completely accounted for by racial differences in school poverty: racial segregation appears to be harmful because it concentrates minority students in high-poverty schools, which are, on average, less effective than lower poverty schools… We find that the effects of school poverty do not appear to be explained by differences in the set of measurable teacher or school characteristics available to us.”

In the report, Reardon defines academic test score gaps: “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

“In sum, our analyses provide evidence that racial school segregation is closely linked to racial inequality in academic performance.  This implies that segregation creates unequal educational opportunities.  Although our analyses do not identify the specific mechanisms through which segregation leads to inequality, they make it clear that the mechanism is linked to differences in schools’ poverty rates, not differences in schools’ racial composition.”

In their review of the academic literature, Reardon and his colleagues emphasize the importance of studies which have demonstrated the importance of public policy that would invest more in schools serving poor children and in making state funding formulas more equitable.  But they conclude finally: “(W)e have no example of a school district where minority students disproportionately attend high poverty schools that does not have a large racial achievement gap. If it were possible to create equal educational opportunity under conditions of segregation and economic inequality, some community—among the thousands of districts in the country—would have done so… If we are serious about reducing racial inequality in educational opportunity, then, we must address racial segregation among schools.”

I am pleased to see Reardon so clearly describe the realities his research exposes, but I am frankly concerned that—in a society his own 2011 research demonstrates is rapidly resegregating economically as families with means move farther and farther into the exurbs—it will be politically difficult to address the concerns his research uncovers.

What is certain is that this new research confirms what many have believed is a catastrophic mistake in two-decades  of “accountability-based school reform.”  This is the test-and-punish regime imposed at the federal level by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, followed by programs like Race to the Top and policies adopted across the states to punish teachers who were supposed to work harder and smarter to close achievement gaps or their schools would be punished.

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