Education Letter to the Editor

Social Class Is the ‘Real Culprit’ in Inequality

May 03, 2005 2 min read

To the Editor:

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann’s lament about the persistent educational inequality for members of minority groups (“A Commitment to Equity,” Commentary, April 13, 2005) erroneously identifies as its major cause the failure of American society to fully embrace and fund public education via such initiatives as the No Child Left Behind Act, or its predecessor, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The real culprit, which continues to be immune to “educational reform/racial equity” issues, is social class.

If Ms. Lagemann’s historical research and statistical analysis were focused on the socioeconomic factors that affect students’ school performance, rather than on federal legislation, we would undoubtedly see an almost perfect linear relationship between social status and school performance and test scores, regardless of race.

Any thoughts that the No Child Left Behind Act will fix the problem, as Ms. Lagemann hopes, don’t address the fundamental flaws that make the law unworkable in many school systems.

For example, while the law requires equity in educational outcomes for all students, many parts of the country fund school districts primarily through local property taxes. Thus the same state goals and requirements for progress are applied to a wealthy district like Wilmette, a suburb of Chicago, and a poor, inner-city Chicago public school. This is in spite of the fact that school districts are funded locally, and the first district has almost double the per-pupil expenditures, infinitely better infrastructure and resources, and virtually none of the socioeconomic problems of the second.

The No Child Left Behind Act has been widely criticized for its failure to account for special student subgroups, and, to a limited extent, a few changes have been made in an attempt to level the playing field. But for the most part the law, along with its state and local variations, not only continues to ignore most socioeconomic issues, but also treats poor results punitively, with teacher and principal firings, school closings, and the like.

This has been a common result in school systems like Chicago’s and Philadelphia’s, where inner-city schools have failed to meet minimal standards. If trends continue, one wonders how many more inner-city schools will be closed between now and the 2014 deadline for bringing students to proficiency.

The answer to this problem does not lie in the classroom or the laws related to education, but in society as a whole. We can’t produce high test scores through legislative mandates, but we can level the playing field with equal funding of all schools, or dispensations for those schools that are underfunded.

Tom Sharp

Chicago, Ill.