In honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, LAUSD’s lame duck superintendent Ramon Cortines announced that he has convened a committee to help black students finally close the achievement gap. In LAUSD, 71% of white students were proficient on the English CST exams last year, compared with only 36% of black students. In math, 65% of white students were proficient, compared to 30% of black students.
Of course these numbers are appalling and should be of great concern to everyone. However, Cortines’ announcement was really much more about political showmanship (considering its timing with the King Holiday) than about finding a real solution. Student achievement depends mostly on socioeconomic factors that affect children at home and in their communities. University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber argues that as much as 60% of academic achievement is based on non-school factors like family income. Eric Hanushek believes that teacher quality accounts for only 7.5-10% of student test score improvements.
Therefore, unless Cortines has a plan for the decreasing wealth gap, or the political and social alienation of poor families and people of color, achievement gaps will continue to plague our schools and his committee is unlikely to make much of a difference.
This does not mean that teacher quality or school structure are irrelevant. However, spending lots of money and time on these small influences on student achievement will be inefficient and less effective than fundamental social changes that reduce poverty and structural racism.
Speaking of structural racism, Dana Goldstein points out that American schools are more segregated today than they were 43 years ago. The average white child attends a school that is 77% white and only 32% poor, compared with the average black child who attends a school that is 59% poor and only 29% white. She also notes that over the last 40 years, the largest shrinking of the achievement gap occurred during the 1970s and 80s, when there were relatively high levels of court-mandated desegregation. A plan that re-desegregates L.A. schools might get the biggest bang for Cortines’ nonexistent buck, but that would mean going up against nimby middle class parents who’ve successfully sequestered their kids into the better schools and who don’t want to give up their privileges.
Good luck Ramon and Deasy. You’re gonna need it!