Class and Schools Looks Beyond Classroom for Learning Gap Solutions

K-12 Testing

With his new book, Class and Schools, former New York Times education columnist Richard Rothstein makes an important contribution to the debate over how to close the academic achievement gap. He clearly and compellingly reframes the education reform discussion, asserting that while good schools can and do make a difference for low-income children, it is impossible to close achievement gaps by focusing on schools alone.


Rothstein takes on conservative and liberal proposals, saying neither standards and testing nor increasing teacher pay and decreasing class size alone will make a substantial dent in the gap. He urges reformers to look outside of school and focus on closing large and growing gaps in income, housing, health care and nutrition.


Rothstein cites a wealth of evidence that refutes much current thinking about education reform. In a chapter devoted to standardized testing’s shortcomings, Rothstein explains why test scores provide inaccurate and misleading information about the gap, so are a poor tool for fixing it. In response to NCLB’s use of what is widely viewed as an unreasonable definition of “proficiency,” Rothstein says states’ own proficiency definitions will be lowered so that all children can attain them “with little improvement in instruction.” All of this “opens education policy to almost endless political manipulation,” Rothstein says.


He also details tests’ inaccuracy and how they fail to align with important learning standards. He gives an exceptionally clear explanation of statistical problems with NCLB’s accountability mechanism, one consequence of which is that more integrated schools are more likely to fail and be punished. “Can all this be fixed?” he asks. “Not if we insist on a mechanistic system that allows federal officials to judge whether schools are successful or failing simply by examining data reports from annual tests.”


Rothstein also shows how tests fail to measure important nonacademic skills. Countering arguments that employers are well served by tests showing high school graduates have basic math and English skills, Rothstein cites numerous surveys that put such cognitive skills relatively low on employers’ list of priorities. Instead, businesses emphasize communication skills, honesty, integrity and interpersonal skills, none of which are measured by standardized tests. He also cites surveys confirming that most parents, too, expect more from schools than preparation in a few academic subjects.


Class and Schools effectively challenges the conclusions reached by Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom in their No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, which points to “black culture” as an overwhelming negative influence on academic achievement. Rothstein acknowledges that culture plays a role in children’s academic success, but he shows it is minor compared with economic and social gaps that limit children’s ability to succeed before school begins.


Another chapter, entitled “Schools that ‘beat the demographic odds,’” looks at the so-called “no excuses” schools cited by the Thernstroms and others as evidence that good instruction can overcome the influence of poverty. Rothstein notes that a Heritage Foundation list of 21 supposedly successful “no excuses” schools is “less impressive than it appears.” For example, only six of the 21 were fully nonselective neighborhood schools. Rothstein also examines a similar list by the liberal group Education Trust, which names 1,320 schools with high test scores, but “in only one grade, in only one subject…and for only one year.” (See also Examiner, Winter 2001-2002).


Countering the “no-excuses” crew, Rothstein’s book details the ways in which poverty leaves children way behind before they start school and makes it nearly impossible for them to catch up. But Rothstein’s intent is not to “excuse” schools from doing what they can to provide excellent educations to poor children but to reframe the discussion so policy proposals that take a broader view can be brought to the table and implemented, thereby taking seriously the Children’s Defense Fund’s injunction to “leave no child behind.”


• Class and Schools, ($17.95+S&H) can be ordered online at