Equity & Diversity Opinion

Social Class Leaves Its Imprint

By Richard Rothstein — May 19, 2004 6 min read
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Richard Rothstein is the author of Class and Schools, published jointly this spring by Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Economic Policy Institute (epinet.org).

The 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation decision evokes a sense of national failure. Few whites and blacks mingle in schools, and a big achievement gap remains. Blacks do worse than whites, even when family incomes are similar. Most Americans find this puzzling and assume that schools must not try very hard to teach black youngsters.

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  • Social Class Leaves Its Imprint

But the problem has been poorly defined, making solutions unlikely. The achievement gap has two parts. First, black children perform less well than whites, on average, because blacks are more likely to be lower-class—poor and with other social and economic disadvantages. Second, black children perform worse than whites even from the same social class.

Because class is so hard to define, we can’t know precisely how important each of these might be. But as we statistically control for more social and economic characteristics, not income alone, the remaining race achievement gap gets smaller. Most of it is a social-class gap, unlikely to be closed unless differences in the conditions of lower- and middle-class children can be narrowed.

For example, parents of different social classes often have different child-rearing styles. It makes sense when you think about it: If upper-middle-class parents have jobs where they are expected to collaborate with fellow employees or create new solutions to problems, they are more likely to talk to their children in open-ended ways that differ from how parents address children if their own jobs simply require following orders. Children raised by middle-class parents will, on average, have more inquisitive attitudes toward academic material than children raised by working-class parents. No matter how competent a schoolteacher, lower-class children’s achievement will, on average, almost inevitably be less. Because the achievement gap already exists by age 3, it is unlikely to be narrowed without expensive infant and toddler centers where lower-class children can be exposed to the language of highly educated adults.

Health differences also affect learning. Lower-class children have twice the rate of poor vision of middle-class children, partly from prenatal conditions, partly from how their eyes are trained as infants and toddlers, with more television watching and fewer manipulative toys. They have poorer oral hygiene, more lead poisoning, more asthma, poorer nutrition, and less-adequate pediatric care. Each of these well- documented social-class characteristics may have a small effect for any child, but each palpably influences academic achievement; combined, their influence grows.

Consider that poor children have more dental cavities than middle- class children (three times as many, in fact). If you gave a test to two otherwise identical groups, one of which had more children with toothaches, wouldn’t you expect the healthier group to have higher average scores?

Or consider asthma. Studies of black children in New York City and Chicago find that one-fourth suffer from asthma, a rate six times that for all children. The disease is provoked in part from breathing fumes from low-grade home heating oil and from diesel trucks and buses.

Asthma keeps children up at night and, if they make it to school, they are likely to be drowsy and inattentive. Middle-class children typically get asthma treatment; low-income children get it less often. Low-income children with asthma are about 80 percent more likely than middle-class children with asthma to miss more than seven days of school a year from the disease. No matter how good a school, if it has more asthmatic children it will have lower scores than others, other things being equal.

Growing housing unaffordability for low-income families also affects learning. Children whose families can’t find stable housing change schools frequently. Teachers, no matter how well trained, can’t be as effective with children who move in and out of their classrooms. Black children are more than twice as likely as whites to have attended at least three different schools by the 3rd grade. If black children’s mobility were reduced to the rate of whites, part of the black-white gap would disappear from this change alone.

Differences in economic security also influence student achievement, but we overlook many of these differences when we focus only on annual income to indicate disadvantage. Black families with low income in any year are likely to have been poor for longer than white families with low income in that year. A family’s poverty when children are young influences their achievement on into high school. With black families more likely to be permanently poor, the achievement of low-income black adolescents, on average, will be lower than that of low-income white adolescents. They will seem economically similar, but not be so.

White families typically own more assets that support children’s achievement than black families with similar income. (Blacks and whites save at the same rate, but whites have accumulated capital for longer.) Black median family income is now about 64 percent of whites’, but blacks’ median family assets are only 12 percent of whites’. This makes college less affordable for black than white children, even from families with similar incomes. It stands to reason that children who know their parents can send them to college will have higher aspirations. This may not be a big factor, but the achievement gap is composed of many tiny differences like this.

There are also cultural characteristics that contribute a bit to the black-white gap. A black culture of underachievement is widely discussed and little understood. But one aspect is easy to understand. Because of ongoing labor-market discrimination, education pays off less for blacks than for whites, especially for males who are high school but not college graduates. In a recent study, trained black and white young men delivered applications for advertised jobs requiring only a high school education. Their résumés were similar, except half mentioned a drug conviction. Whites with criminal records got called for interviews more often than blacks who were clean.

Black high school students know the challenges they face in the labor market, often saying they have to be twice as good as whites to get the same opportunities. Of course, we want black students to respond to this insight by studying twice as hard, but not all will do so. If even some reduce effort because they believe it won’t pay off, the average achievement of blacks and whites will differ, even when other traits are the same.

More nuanced understanding of black and white children’s social-class characteristics not only helps explain why an achievement gap persists, but points to solutions that are rarely contemplated in education debates today. It’s not that school improvement isn’t needed. It’s that without social and economic reform as well, school improvement will be stymied.

Recall, for example, that many poor children can’t read because they can’t see. Putting optometric clinics in schools might generate bigger academic gains than many educational reforms we spend so much energy disputing. Dental clinics might do the same. So might enforcing regulations against low-grade heating oil in low-income communities. So might a host of other social and economic programs, large and small, that narrow the achievement gap by getting children to school more ready to learn.

If we try to narrow the gap with school reform alone, we’re bound to be as disappointed 50 years from now as we are today.

Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Social Class Leaves Its Imprint


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