Recently I had a conversation with my mother about education, since that’s all I can talk about these days, and achievement gaps. Having spent the last few months looking at report after report of data on various gaps in achievement in K-12 reading, math and science, I thought I would get her take on the matter, especially since I have an elementary school age sibling whose education she takes very seriously.
The achievement gaps I’m most focused on currently in K-12(+) achievement scores are gaps that indicate race, gender and socioeconomic status (SES) as significant factors, however, there are more (first language, ability/ableness or special needs, parent’s education level, etc.). I’m amazed at how students of color score consistently lower than their white counterparts, with black students usually scoring the lowest…Maybe “amazed” isn’t the right word, because I can reason how and why that would be the case to some degree and, therefore, am not surprised. I think I’m just bothered (upset, outraged…) by the consistency of it – over decades, since the 60s or 70s when collection of this information began in earnest for many national assessments. How can this be? How is this possible? It’s very interesting to see what people claim as possible causes of and reasons for these relatively consistent findings in these reports and various other research studies. Some name racism explicitly, others implicitly, still others gloss over it and say things like “it just boils down to the teachers” (which is another topic for another day). The reasons seems really obvious from the standpoint of structural and institutional racism, however complicated by the various social and personal factors that play into what and how students learn and what they can and do achieve.
But, back to the conversation. I was basically speaking from the structural inequalities side and, somewhat to my surprise, she disagreed. Not completely, but she thought it was more a consequence of parental involvement – if the parents aren’t involved, then the kids aren’t involved and they don’t do as well as they could. Period. If the parents aren’t there encouraging the children, checking out the schools, seeking out educational opportunities for the children, etc., then it’s not surprising they don’t perform as well (although I hate to use the word “perform”) and the structural inequalities have a greater impact. If many people in a particular group don’t make the effort to do this, then that group will not do as well as they could. Here she was referring to my comment on how black kids tend to, on average, have the lowest achievement levels. She also mentioned how we need to have a greater commitment to education.
Here I partially agreed. Yes, if parents are more involved, the children will, on average, be more involved and more likely to attain higher achievement levels. I agree completely. And yes, a greater emphasis on and commitment to education is also needed (for everyone, really). But, what do you do if your kid is at a school that doesn’t have a much money? What do you do if your kid is at a lower SES school that doesn’t have enough textbooks? Or at a school where the student population keeps rising and teachers keep leaving because of poor pay or extremely high demand, leading to more and more students taught by little-experienced/inexperienced teachers? Or at a school that utilizes tracking, and places your kid in the lower track? Or at a school that, being underfunded, focuses on basic skills and test prep so they can get higher test scores to get more funding, reducing the overall educational experience?… All situations that more often occur at schools that are disproportionally filled with students of color and/or lower income students.
Had you asked me five years ago which I thought had a greater impact on student achievement, parent involvement or structural/institutional inequity, I probably would have leaned more toward parent involvement. But the more and more I look at the data, reports, case studies, eye-witnessed events, and the gaps that have persisted for decades… I’m amazed, in that bothered, outraged sort of way. It seems impossible, almost incorrect even, to weigh parental involvement more heavily than structural inequity as the main reason for racial achievement gaps. I agree that parent involvement is important, but it’s hard to ignore inequity.