Category: Education

Short Course on Some Origins of Inequality

no child left behind.jpg

Recently my law school’s clinic “filed a class action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of all parents of children attending Newark Public Schools who are being denied their rights under the No Child Left Behind Act.” BlackProf regular Shavar Jeffries is lead counsel for the plaintiffs, who charge that the “Newark Public Schools district has systematically failed to meet even the Act’s minimum notification requirements.”

In honor of that effort, I’m highlighting a fascinating article from the NYT Magazine by Paul Tough on the challenges facing the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) effort. The article notes that NCLB aims to erase a persistent achievement gap between African American and white, and lower and middle/upper class, students (by 2014). It summarizes two bodies of literature on the subject:

The first is about causes; the second is about cures. The first has been taking place in academia, among economists and anthropologists and sociologists who are trying to figure out exactly where the gap comes from, why it exists and why it persists. The second is happening among and around a loose coalition of schools, all of them quite new, all established with the goal of wiping out the achievement gap altogether.

The “causes” literature is fascinating. I’ve heard about studies like Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods for some time, but the quantifications provided in the article are compelling:

By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another — all of which stimulated intellectual development.

I’ve heard similar explanations of a new gender gap in academics; social critics claim that boys too often succumb to a “dude culture that demeans academic achievement” and discourages expression of ideas.

So what are the solutions? They involve massive effort, and will test whether NCLB is mere opportunistic “symbolic politics” or a real effort to address inequality.

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Compulsory Education At Age 8

Today I attended an ABA Roundtable session on children at risk. The discussion was led by Karen Mathis, president of the association. One of the most remarkable facts that surfaced during this conversation was that, each year, 3000 kids don’t start in the Philadelphia school system until age 8. Apparently only Pennsylvania, and one other state, begin compulsory education at such a late date. As one can imagine, many of these 8 year olds start first grade at a huge disadvantage compared to kids who entered school at age 3 or 4. While these aged youth may be lagging educationally, they’re physically out of place as well. Compared to the 5 and 6 year olds, the older children are sometimes massive. And that physical gap explodes around the time these children are in 6th grade (at age 14.) As a result of the behavioral difficulties that follow, many kids in this cohort drop out – at age 16 or 17- while they’re still in middle school.

I found this state of affairs both surprising and sad. With all the other challenges we have focusing kids on education, who knew that we were failing at this most fundamental level: the minimum age for compulsory education?