Nation & World

The achievement gap, a look into causes

6 min read

Paul Tough’s prescription for making children better students sounds like a license to have fun: Read to them, sing, play, emphasize encouragement over criticism, and converse a lot.

Research shows a correlation between how many words a child hears in the first three years of life and brain development, he said. The more words, the smarter the child.

Tough is an editor and writer at The New York Times Magazine, and has in the last few years been looking at the achievement gap in schools that separates white children from children of color, and middle-class children from poor children. He spoke Tuesday (March 20) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) in an Askwith Education Forum cosponsored by the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University.

By any measure, the gap is real. It shows up in comparisons of grade point average, standardized tests, and — later — attainment rates for a bachelor’s degree. (Almost 30 percent of whites get one, for example, compared with just over 17 percent of blacks.)

“Why care? Education pays,” said sociologist John B. Diamond, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A high school graduate will make an average of $20,000 less a year than one who gets a bachelor’s degree; a dropout will do even worse — $30,000 a year less.

“It’s not sustainable for society to educate some people and not others,” said Diamond, who studies the roles schools play in issues of race, social class, and equality. He was one of two HGSE faculty members who discussed Tough’s lecture at the forum.

For Tough, closing the achievement gap comes down to what happens in the home: the development of language (using more words) and the use of culture (parenting styles that treat children as “apprentice adults,” rather than unquestioning objects of discipline).

He reported on the achievement gap, and strategies for dealing with it, in “What It Takes to Make a Student” (The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 26, 2006) — and will follow with a book in 2008.

One thing is clear, said Tough: In the intersection of parenting styles and results at school, “there’s something real going on.”

One study of language acquisition, he said, showed that, by age 3, the children of professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words; those of parents on welfare had mastered only 525 words. The difference was reflected in IQ scores: an average of 117 for the first group, and 79 for the second.

Other research showed the advantage of the common middle-class parenting style known to education scholars as “concerted cultivation.” Adults engage in conversation with children as equals, which later gives children more confidence in the classroom. By contrast, the “natural growth” style prevalent in less affluent families emphasizes free play, discipline, and hierarchy. It bestows some advantages, like self-sufficiency, but reflects negatively in academic achievement.

Parenting styles explain the achievement gap better than other prominent explanations, said Tough. The biology argument (“popular on the right,” he said) leaves no opportunity for improvement. The income-and-wealth argument (“popular on the left”) raises a daunting task: solving poverty. But “specific mechanisms” that target the behaviors of poor families “are not only the most accurate, but the most hopeful” ways to close the achievement gap, said Tough.

Middle-class parents see “life as a constant series of educational opportunities” and poorer families do not, he said. It’s a lesson worth teaching.

But it’s a fraught lesson, warned HGSE lecturer Richard Weissbourd, one of the Askwith Forum discussants. “Some people see this as flat-out cultural imperialism.”

Many families, especially those of color, “don’t want to treat children as equals,” he said. “They want to maintain their authority — and I think they’re right.” Keep trying to promote to the poor a rich language environment at home, said Weissbourd, but in a way “that maintains their sense of parenting.”

And there’s another unappreciated factor in the achievement gap, as measured by the “race gap and the income gap,” he added: parental depression. Up to 60 percent of impoverished parents feel “a steady drizzle of hopelessness” that makes reading and communication at home difficult.

Diamond, on leave this year to be a Radcliffe Fellow, acknowledged the merit of Tough’s focus on parenting. “We should try to do everything we can to make a difference,” he said.

But parenting practices alone can’t close the achievement gap, since the approach leaves out a wider social context. “Concerted cultivation takes money, time, and know-how” — assets that are “embedded in networks” more available to white and middle-class parents, said Diamond.

He used a Radcliffe lecture last week (March 14) to lay out his alternative views on the origins of the achievement gap, and how to close it.

Family resources, money, class, nutrition, and poor neighborhoods make a difference, said Diamond. But so do the “structural, institutional, and symbolic disadvantages” that greet black students at the schoolhouse door.

One disadvantage is a school’s racially imbalanced tracking system, in which the best teachers end up teaching the highest-achieving — that is, predominately white — students, he said.

That is a material disadvantage for black students, who get less qualified teachers. It’s also a symbolic disadvantage: students perceive themselves as less capable because they get less challenging work and teachers have lower expectations for them.

These disadvantages show up even in largely affluent suburban schools, where a third of black Americans (and 54 percent of Latinos) are enrolled, said Diamond. He’s one of a group of researchers mining data from a large multiracial sample: 40,000 students in grades six through 12, in 15 suburban U.S. school districts.

By some measures, being schooled in suburbia narrows the achievement gap, said Diamond. White and black students have similar — and by national standards, high — graduation rates (95 percent and 86 percent, respectively). And most go on to college, including 80 percent of whites and 70 percent of blacks.

But that “good news,” said Diamond, is undercut by institutional imbalances. In academic tracks at one representative high school, for example, 86 percent of whites were in the highest of three tracks; but more than 60 percent of black students crowded into the lowest.

Even in stable, integrated suburban schools, opportunity is distributed unequally, said Diamond.

In this context, looking at parenting styles alone “seems misguided” and is an incomplete — though valuable — way of explaining the achievement gap, he said at the Askwith Education Forum.

Better to “scrutinize what schools reward,” said Diamond, and look at the ways “low-income black parents have to struggle to establish their legitimacy” in a public school system dominated by middle-class values.

Institutions, schools included, “have to broaden the idea of what culture looks like,” said Diamond, “what intelligence looks like, what competence looks like.”

Tough acknowledged Diamond’s point, but had an answer. It’s possible “to go too far into cultural contexts,” he said. The most valuable things parents in poor families can learn are simple and direct, and don’t challenge cultural norms.

“If they read with their children, and sing and play,” said Tough, “they’ll be miles ahead.”