Teachership is not just about principles and practices in the classroom. Other people are writing about education. Let’s do some critical thinking about what they write, shall we?
Today’s selection is from U.S. News and World Report, dated 28 May 2018, labeled “Commentary.” The article is by “The Hechinger Report,” with the title “The Growing Achievement Gap: Income inequality is exacerbating the gap between rich and poor school children.”
The article opens with this: “Kids arrive at school with large achievement gaps between rich and poor, and that achievement gap grows over the summer.” We’ll ignore that “gaps” became “that … gap,” because there are bigger fish to fry here. The commentary does not provide facts that support what they meant to say. This is apparently a premise.
The article announces that “two new studies show that the summer learning gap between the lower and middle classes may be narrowing while the rich surge ahead of everyone.” Note that “the rich” are separate from “everyone,” but “everyone” is in the lower or middle classes.
The authors started with a statement about gaps that exist when students arrive at school. They then asserted that the gaps grow. What happened to the gap during the school year? What was the gap when the students left for the summer?
The first study the authors address concerned kindergarten students in 2010-11. These students are now entering seventh grade. Apparently there was a gap between lower and middle class kids. Middle class kids didn’t appear in the first statement at all. Where do they fit? Am I to assume that middle class kids and poor kids are experiencing similar results, which are diverging more from those of wealthy kids? The categories are muddled, and I am left to assume much.
The next statement that grabs me is “By many measures, poor kids participated in fewer educationally enriching activities over the summer than middle class and wealthy kids.” I feel the authors ought to give us a contrast for perspective. Which “many measures” are we discussing? Can we have an example of a measure that produced a contrary result? The examples listed in the article are summer camp, cultural outings, “an art gallery, a museum, or a historical site,” as well as “a concert or a play.”
Did anyone send this checklist home with the kids in June, so that parents could get with the program? Do the kids live near such things? Kids in Montana might struggle to tour Civil War battlefields. Are we likely to find an art gallery or museum near low-income neighborhoods? Could it be that poorer folks had to trim budgets in 2011 and cut back on cultural outings?
Next: “More than half of rich and middle-class parents said they read to their children every day during the summer. Fewer than 40 percent of poor kids’ parents did so.” Why do parents read more or less to their kids? Why would poor kids’ parents read less to them? It seems that we are left to assume that if the parents had more money, then they would read more to their kids.
Not everything in these studies matched the authors’ preconceptions: “But there were surprises too. A larger subset of poor families than non-poor families said they had their children work on math and writing activities every day.” Categories remain vague. Poor kids’ parents are mean: “We won’t send you to camp or introduce you to our culture, but we’ll make you write your letters and do math!”
Now we encounter a fragment and a sentence bearing news the authors seem to welcome: “A couple of pieces of egalitarian news: three-quarters of kids played outside every day, regardless of household income. And one-third of kindergarten graduates of all income levels looked at or read books every day.” These statistics are not good news to me. Four quarters of kids should be playing outside every day. Three thirds of kindergarten graduates should be looking at or reading books every day. These statements herald a less-literate generation with insufficient vitamin D. Distributing deficiency equally is still distributing deficiency.
The authors drop a bomb on us in the next paragraph: “The last time [the National Center for Education Statistics] studied how kindergarten students spent their summer, in the summer of 1999, the questions were slightly different.” What could we possibly do to alleviate problems based on such infrequent and out-of-date analysis? Is this problem even important? Important problems merit constant investigation, not a check-in every decade or so.
Here is good news from the article, as out of date as it is: parents in 2011 were more likely to participate in activities with their children than parents in 1999. Note again that the authors have stopped separating the families into categories of relative wealth, and there are no data in this article to suggest a reason for this change.
Now that we are two-thirds of the way through the article, the authors are ready to tell us how the 2011 NCES study addressed economic differences. “All the non-poor children are lumped together, be they middle, upper-middle, or upper class, and their summer experiences are all averaged into one number.”
I have a confession to make. I read the entire article before starting to write this. Why did I act like I did not? To make a point about articles like this one: if you want to draw conclusions from such commentary, you must read the article carefully and to the end. Why am I making that point? Because most people do not read entire articles, particularly at news websites. They read enough to confirm their biases or to determine that they don’t agree with the authors, and move on. The authors or the editors know this, so they bury anything that might help to cure confirmation bias late in the piece.
Remember that there were two studies. The second is not by the bureaucrats at NCES, but by researchers at UC-Berkeley and Colorado State University and published in the American Sociological Review. Our authors report that these researchers report a divergence in parental investment over the last forty years — that’s 1978 to 2018, or so — driven by increased spending by the most affluent Americans on education and enrichment.
Is this so shocking? Have the authors also noted the increase in the price of higher education, and what people are paying for degrees? Were the resources involved and the money adjusted for fluctuations in prices for cultural outings and other educational investments? Is anyone studying the actual achievement or economic value — not necessarily the same thing — created by the investment of these additional dollars? This is a sociological study, not an economic study, so the answer to that question is “no.”
Okay, here’s one that will chap any decent math or science teacher’s hide: “They also found that this increase in parental investment in children was directly related to growing income inequality. That is, in states where income inequality grew a lot, so did disparities in parental investments. The higher the income inequality, the larger share of their income rich people spent on their children.”
This paragraph asserts a correlation between “parental investment” and “income inequality,” but we know that correlation and cause are not identical. Are the authors claiming that, in states where the gap between the “rich” and the “poor” is growing, the “rich” are exacerbating it by spending a greater portion of their income on their kids? If so, then it’s not “income inequality” that exacerbates the “achievement gap”: it is rich parents who choose to spend their wealth not on themselves but on their children.
I know this is true. I’m living it. My wife works at a summer science camp that we could not otherwise afford for our children. We planned a vacation for our daughters to see a sunrise over the Atlantic and then took them on an expensive aquarium adventure. We make sure our daughters have access to technology and know how to use it. We will refurbish an old piano soon and hire a piano teacher for them. We paid for our kids to take a seven-month tumbling course. My wife will continue to work in a Catholic school next year, but I will not, because I want to make more money. Why? So we can spend a lot of it on my kids, so that my children will be as far from “poor” in the future as they want to be.
The rest of the article repeats this warning that rich people are exacerbating income inequality by investing in their children.
I will conclude each of these reviews with a summary reaction, pretending a student submitted this article to me for a grade:
“Please tighten up your reasoning by limiting your assumptions and making them more explicit. Avoid disguising advocacy as factual reporting. If this is an essay with a call to action, then write it that way. Establish clear definitions early in the piece for your categories. Finally, make the timelines for your data more explicit. You may come to me or send an e-mail to me with any questions until 5:00 PM Friday. If I do not receive a revised article by Monday morning at least five minutes before classes begin, then the grade will be F.”