Gerald Coles: The Growing Educational Achievement Gap: Don't Think What You Might Think You Should Think
Guest post by Gerald Coles
Last week the New York Times provided valuable, disturbing information by reporting recent research on the growing educational achievement gap between rich and poor students, which has grown substantially over the past few decades, even while the achievement gap between black and white students has narrowed. As the author of one study put it, "family income appears more determinative of educational success than race."
Yet, as is often true of the Times, what it gives with one hand, it takes with the other. For example, as the media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has long documented, while the paper of record frequently provides factual information about events, its interpretation of the facts buttresses against drawing the "wrong" conclusions about political-economic power relationships.
A clue lies in the opening sentence of the article, which offers a summary of a presumed long-held national expectation. "Education," the reader is told , "was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults."
The passive voice in this sentence expeditiously cloaks a contentious history that, if included in the article, would raise critical questions both about the assumption and whether education should be the determining factor for social well-being. With respect to the assumption, as John Marsh documents in his recent book, Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, during the nineteenth century "public education encountered as much opposition as it did support," with few people believing "that education alone or education at all" would offer the nation's children a path out of poverty and to occupational mobility and economic security. Moreover, although during the 20th century, particularly from the Great Depression onward, many Americans did see education as an economic and social elevator, in practice college was less necessary because high wage jobs were plentiful for many millions without higher education. As these jobs have disappeared in the U.S., Marsh argues, a greater focus on educational attainment has served to displace "the debate about social class and economic power" and "the causes of and the cure for sustained poverty and increasing inequality."
The Times article contributes to this change of focus by reporting on the educational achievement gap but then citing "expert opinion" that discourages readers from thinking that poor children's education would be helped by directly addressing fundamental disparities in class and economic power. The Times' expert opinion removes from the reader's focus any thoughts that a redistribution of wealth, which would include the use of that redistribution to create end-of-poverty legislation, would serve to reduce or eliminate the social class achievement gap. Expert opinion makes clear that while affluent families know how to use their income, time and privilege to nurture their children's minds and abilities, these advantages would be wasted in the hands of poor parents.
One of the experts quoted, John J. Heckman, has built a prominent career trying to improve parenting skills and enrichment educational programs for poor children. Assumed in this effort is the belief that the poverty of the families served can be left untouched, that the children can remain poor and that the overall educational conditions of the children can remain in an abysmal state. He warns us, with regard to poverty, not to go back to the time (whatever time that might have been!) when we thought that "poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that -- if they want to redistribute income -- that would be a mistake" (his heartfelt word in the Times article).
This view is reinforced in the article by another expert, Charles Murray of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Murray (co-author of the racist and classist book, The Bell Curve) has devoted his life to the claim that differences between the rich and poor are largely due to genetics, that is, the unequal inherited intelligence favoring the rich. As Murray concluded in the Times article, income inequality is "more of a symptom than a cause" (that is, were Murray to speak frankly, the poor, in his view, are genetically dumber). A great expert for the Times to quote!
The last expert cited is Douglas J. Besharov, also of the American Enterprise Institute, but listed in the article only as a "fellow of the Atlantic Council" which, the article fails to note, is a think tank servicing global corporations. Besharov's aid to the rich, like that of the other two experts quoted, has included his opposition to government policies to end poverty because, in his informed view, the U.S. has no genuine poverty! "Rhetoric about cutting 'poverty' is misleadingly outmoded," Besharov has intoned, because "almost all Americans already live far above subsistence poverty." (Yes, he really wrote that.)
The Times article leaves Besharov with the last word about the growing education gap between the rich and poor, a takeaway message meant to leave the reader scratching her or his head: "The problem is a puzzle. No one has the slightest idea what will work."
Yes, there's an educational gap between rich and poor, but let no reader of the article think that any of the following, using a redistribution of wealth, would significantly end the achievement gap:
--Work that provides parents with a good income for raising a family. That won't help!
--A workweek with reasonable hours that leave a parent time and energy to parent. Forget that!
--National health insurance for all, good housing for all, good nutrition for all, schools fully funded, free college for all, etc. etc. (you can finish the list that you think would serve to create an equitable society and translate into solid educational achievement for all youngsters). Mistakes, mistakes! The implementation of these ideas would be money down the drain.
At least that's what the 1% and their scholarly troops would like us to believe.
What do you think now?
Gerald Coles is a full-time researcher, writer, and lecturer on the psychology and politics of literacy and education. He is the author of several books, including Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies, as well as numerous articles in education, psychology and psychiatry journals. Before devoting himself to full-time research and writing, he was on the faculties of the Department of Psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and the Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester. His chapter, "Reading Policy: Evidence Vs. Power," will appear in the forthcoming Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy (Sage). He lives in Rochester, NY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org