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11.5 Improving Schools and Education

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how helpful good schooling can be to improve the lives of low-income children.
  2. Discuss the importance of good teachers.
  3. List any three strategies that will improve the education of low-income students.

This concluding section focuses mostly on elementary and secondary education, given its critical importance for young people’s development. As we consider how to improve the nation’s schools, and especially how to improve outcomes for low-income students and students of color, we need to keep in mind an important consideration: Good schooling can make an important difference for these students, and good teachers can greatly help low-income students (Chetty et al., 2011).Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., Hilger, N., Saez, E., Schanzenbach, D. W., & Yagan, D. (2011). How does your kindergarten classroom affect your earnings? Evidence from Project STAR. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126, 1593–1660. However, a large body of research demonstrates that students’ family and neighborhood backgrounds actually matter much more than the quality of schooling for their school performance (Downey & Gibbs, 2012; Ladd & Fiske, 2011).Downey, D. B., & Gibbs, B. G. (2012). How schools really matter. In D. Hartmann & C. Uggen (Eds.), The Contexts Reader (2nd ed., pp. 80–86). New York, NY: W. W. Norton; Ladd, H. F., & Fiske, E. B. (2011, December 12). Class matters. Why won’t we admit it? New York Times, p. A23. Good schooling, then, can only go so far in overcoming the many strikes that low-income students and those of color have against them even before they enter kindergarten and the problems they continue to experience thereafter. As one education writer observes,

Let’s be realistic: Teachers aren’t miracle workers. There’s only so much they can do to address problems that troubled students bring to class every day, including neglect, abuse, and unaddressed medical and mental health issues. The obvious and subtle ways that poverty inhibits a child’s ability to learn—from hearing, visual and dental problems to higher asthma rates to diminished verbal interaction in the home—have been well-documented.

So let’s seek to improve the state of families. Attacking schools and teachers makes everyone feel like a reformer, but the problems begin long before a child steps through the schoolhouse door. (Farhi, 2011)Farhi, P. (2011, May 20). Five myths about America’s schools. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Teachers and School Reform

This understanding of low-income students’ school performance has important implications for school-reform efforts. For example, if good schooling cannot ordinarily be expected to have a large impact on poor students’ lives, this fact calls into question certain aspects of the “No Child Left Behind” movement of the last decade. This movement, begun by the federal government, uses students’ scores on standardized tests to assess the quality of their schools. Perhaps inevitably, the subsequent growth in standardized testing has meant that teachers’ performance ratings have become increasingly tied to their students’ standardized test scores. However, because students’ test scores reflect their socioeconomic backgrounds and other nonschool factors much more than the quality of their schooling, these scores are not a good measure of teachers’ performance. As one education specialist summarizes this situation, “Of all the goals of the education reform movement, none is more elusive than developing an objective model to assess teachers. Studies have shown that over time, test scores do not provide a consistent means of separating good from bad instructors. Test scores are an inadequate proxy for quality because too many factors outside the teachers’ control can influence student performance from year to year—or even from classroom to classroom during the same year” (Russell, 2011, p. WK12).Russell, H. B. (2011, May 1). A new measure for classroom quality. New York Times, p. WK12.

The Need for More General Social Reform

The importance of students’ family and neighborhood backgrounds has a significant implication beyond the issue of teacher assessment: To improve low-income students’ school performance, our society must address the problems of poverty and racial/ethnic inequality. As two sociologists argue this point, “If we are serious about improving American children’s school performance, we will need to take a broader view of education policy. In addition to school reform, we must also aim to improve children’s lives where they spend the vast majority of their time—with their families and in their neighborhoods” (Downey and Gibbs, 2012, p. 85).Downey, D. B., & Gibbs, B. G. (2012). How schools really matter. In D. Hartmann & C. Uggen (Eds.), The Contexts Reader (2nd ed., pp. 80–86). New York, NY: W. W. Norton. Chapter 2 "Poverty" and Chapter 3 "Racial and Ethnic Inequality" discussed strategies to reduce poverty and racial/ethnic inequality; these strategies would also help improve the school performance of low-income students and those of color.

A School Reform Agenda

Despite the need to address poverty and racial inequality, it remains true that schools with decaying buildings, uncommitted teachers, and other problems cannot be expected to produce students with even adequate levels of academic achievement. It is thus critical, says poverty expert Mark Robert Rank (2004, p. 208),Rank, M. R. (2004). One nation, underprivileged: Why American poverty affects us all. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. to do everything possible to provide a quality education to the nation’s poor children: “To deny children the fundamental right to a decent education is both morally wrong and bad social policy. It flies in the face of the American concept of equality of opportunity…Countless studies have documented the immediate and lingering effects of disparate educational outcomes on later life. Improving public education for low-income children is absolutely essential.”

In short, good schools and good teachers do matter. In particular, good elementary- and middle-school teachers have been shown to have a lifelong impact on their students: students with good teachers are more likely years later to have lower teenage pregnancy rates and higher college attendance rates, and they are also more likely to have higher salaries in adulthood (Lowrey, 2012).Lowrey, A. (2012, January 6). Big study links good teachers to lasting gain. New York Times, p. A1.

Education experts urge several measures to improve the nation’s schools and the education of American children (Madland & Bunker, 2011; Rokosa, 2011; Rothstein, 2010; Smerdon & Borman, 2009).Madland, D., & Bunker, N. (2011). Middle-class societies invest more in public education: A stronger middle class is associated with higher levels of spending on education. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress; Rokosa, J. (2011). Fighting the war on poverty with early childhood education. Retrieved January 7, 2012, from; Rothstein, R. (2010). How to fix our schools. Retrieved January 11, 2012, from; Smerdon, B. A., & Borman, K. M. (Eds.). (2009). Saving America’s high schools. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press. These measures include the following:

  • Have smaller schools and smaller classrooms.
  • Provide more funding for schools, especially those in low-income neighborhoods.
  • Repair decaying school buildings.
  • Increase teachers’ pay to attract more highly qualified applicants.
  • Hold teachers more accountable for their students’ learning, while recognizing the obstacles that teachers of low-income students must overcome.
  • Expand early childhood (preschool) education.

On the national level, these steps will cost billions of dollars, but this expenditure promises to have a significant payoff by saving money in the long run and reducing crime, health problems, and other social ills.

As the United States tries to improve its schools, it is also important to attend to the emotional and physical health needs of low-income children (Lowe, 2011).Lowe, J. I. (2011, January 13). To boost learning, start with emotional health. Education Week. Retrieved from Because of the many problems these children experience in their families and neighborhoods, including alcohol and drug abuse, hunger, illness, marital conflict, and violence, their emotional and physical health may often suffer. They cannot be expected to do well in school unless they are in good health in both respects. For this reason, many schools are now partnering with community health organizations and other agencies to address the emotional and physical health needs of schoolchildren, often by establishing well-staffed and well-equipped health centers inside the schools. Another effort involves recess (yes, recess!), as evidence indicates that children are healthier and better behaved if they go out for recess for a sufficient amount of time.

In a related issue, it is also important for the nation to try to improve parenting skills if it hopes to improve the educational performance and attainment of low-income students (Roksa & Potter, 2011).Roksa, J., & Potter, D. (2011). Parenting and academic achievement: Intergenerational transmission of educational advantage. Sociology of Education, 84, 299–321. As Chapter 10 "The Changing Family" discussed, low-income parents are less likely to read and talk with their young children, and this problem impairs their children’s cognitive and neurological development. Home visits and other efforts by professionals to encourage parents of infants and toddlers to engage in these activities regularly hold potential for improving their children’s ability to learn and do well in school.

School violence and bullying are two other problems that must also be addressed. Several of the steps just outlined should reduce school violence, but other measures should also help. One example involves antibullying programs, which include regular parent meetings, strengthened playground supervision, and appropriate discipline when warranted. Research indicates that these programs reduce bullying by 20–23 percent on the average (Farrington & Ttofi, 2009).Farrington, D. P., & Ttofi, M. M. (2009). Reducing school bullying: Evidence-based implications for policy. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, 39, 281–345. Any reduction in bullying should in turn help reduce the likelihood of school massacres like Columbine, because, as noted earlier, many of the students committing these massacres had been humiliated and bullied by other students. More generally, because the roots of school violence are also similar to the roots of youth violence outside the schools, measures that reduce youth violence should also reduce school violence. As discussed in previous chapters, such measures include early childhood prevention programs for youths at risk for developmental and behavioral problems, parenting training programs, and policies that provide income and jobs for families living in poverty.

At the level of higher education, our discussion highlighted the fact that social inequality in the larger society also plays out in colleges and universities. The higher dropout rates for low-income students and for students of color in turn contribute to more social inequality. Colleges and universities need to do everything possible to admit these students and then to help them once they are admitted, as they face many obstacles and difficulties that white students from more advantaged backgrounds are much less likely to encounter.

Key Takeaways

  • Good schooling can be very helpful for low-income students, but these students’ socioeconomic backgrounds have more impact than schooling on their futures.
  • For this reason, more general social reform must accompany effective school reform.
  • Several strategies, including smaller classes and better-paid teachers, will help improve the learning of low-income students.

For Your Review

  1. Write a short essay in which you outline what a school’s superintendent might do to improve the learning of the school district’s elementary school students.
  2. Why do you think the United States has not more vigorously pursued the school reform agenda outlined in this section?