Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Achievement Gap


reviewed by Michael Williamson - 2005

coverTitle: Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Achievement Gap
Author(s): Richard Rothstein
Publisher: Economic Policy Institute, Washington
ISBN: 1932066098, Pages: 210, Year: 2004
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Since passage of the 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, titled the No Child Left Behind Act, the issue of “adequate yearly progress” has dominated education policy debate. There are those who see adequate yearly progress, or AYP, as the vehicle through which the federal government will finally foster quality education in America ’s public schools. There are almost as many individuals, at least according to popular polls, who view AYP as the tool opponents of public education will use to dismantle our traditional system of public schools.


The AYP debate has fostered the publication of numerous journal articles and not a few books. These articles and books have argued the issues from all possible political persuasions and ideological viewpoints. Some of them have been polemical, some academic. Some have argued their point of view with poignant anecdote; others have depended on table after table of data. In this context Richard Rothstein has authored a thoughtful and provocative offering, Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Achievement Gap


This eminently readable book is based on a highly popular series of lectures delivered by Rothstein at Teachers College. In a clear and straightforward way this book challenges the myths and addresses the realities of reforms designed to close the achievement gaps among black and white children, rich and poor children, in America . This book should be on the reading list of every educator who plays a role in public policy development.


Rothstein gives full recognition to the achievement gap among poor and middle class students in America ’s public schools. He explores its possible causes, but he never excuses it or attempts to justify or explain it away. His recognition of the gap and his acknowledgement of it as a serious national problem give legitimacy to his discussion. Even those who may oppose or be discomforted by his conclusions or recommendations should find the book informative and thought provoking.


A thorough review of the social, cultural, and economic issues associated with the gap in achievement among groups of students anchors Rothstein’s discussion and subsequent recommendations. Issue by issue Rothstein addresses the complex of cultural and social variables limiting the opportunities of children. Rothstein begins his discussion by disposing of the shibboleth of genetic influences and then one by one he addresses the social class influences and the complex of economically influenced variables of health, housing, mobility, and income. Rothstein explains in clear terms the role that the availability or absence of after school and summer learning opportunities play in explaining, and expanding, the achievement gap.


Next, Rothstein explores the evidence behind the notion of “break the mold” schools that some reformers claim have closed the achievement gap or made real progress to that end. The efficacy of these schools has become an ‘article of faith’ among many school reform advocates. The leaders of these schools have often become folk heroes who have appeared on stages all across America to explain how schools can be ‘fixed’.


Rothstein documents the fact that each one of these schools has been identified as successful on the basis of inadequate or misleading data. Many of them are schools that serve selected populations. Others are schools that provide programming far in excess of that which might be contemplated in any public school serving a traditional school population in any city in America . In other words, exemplary though these schools might be, they do not represent scalable models for America ’s poor and minority children. Each is a school that deserves commendation, but not one of them offers a formula for making all schools successful, at least as far as success is defined as achievement measured by paper and pencil tests.


The inadequacy of these paper and pencil tests of achievement forms a third pillar of Rothstein’s critique of the popular school reform movement. Rothstein questions whether these assessments do, or even can, provide an accurate measure of proficiency. He points out the difficulty in defining proficiency, indicating that, “Proficiency …is not an objective fact but a subjective judgment” (p. 88). Further, Rothstein demonstrates that the federal government’s own studies have labeled the National Assessment of Educational Progress proficiency levels as “fundamentally flawed” (p. 88).


It is not just that the measurement instruments are flawed; Rothstein points out that the standards set vary dramatically state by state. Further, the alignment of delivered instruction with the assessments varies school by school, and is often tenuous at best. Worst of all, Rothstein suggests that the heavy handed, test-based accountability efforts required by NCLB may reinforce non-cognitive differences among children in ways that further handicap poor and minority children. 


Rothstein makes a compelling argument that when schools are measured only on the basis of cognitive skill assessment, the attention given to proactively teaching non-cognitive skills may be diminished. He suggests that such skills, including pro-social behavior, leadership, and persistence are often as powerful as cognitive skills in shaping adult success, and consequently should be a strong focus in formal schooling.


This book does much more than list, and describe, the variables associated with the achievement gaps among America ’s student population and critique the efforts under NCLB to diminish the gap. It describes the pattern of relationships among the variables in a way that is logical and compelling. The book moves the focus from merely identifying examples of success to a focus on the scalability of success across the population of schools serving poor and minority children. In this regard it makes an important contribution to the school reform debate. 


Importantly, this book does not pretend or imply that the social and economic reforms that are likely to reduce the achievement gap can be accomplished cheaply. Rothstein articulates an estimated cost for each reform he proposes. He is clear, however, in quantifying not only the cost but also the effect each of the reforms he proposes can have on the mission of closing the achievement gap. 


Income inequality, stable housing, school-community clinics, early childhood education, after school programs, and summer school programs may not sound like school reforms, but Rothstein argues that they address the underlying issues that are manifested as an achievement gap on our imperfect measures of cognitive skills. These are not easy issues to address. They require a different approach to public policy than we have seen for some time. They require what some would call a massive investment in new programs. Rothstein offers, however, a powerful argument for reconsidering how we fashion public policy to begin to address some of these important issues, if we believe that closing the achievement gap really is important.


This book deserves to be carefully and thoughtfully read by all who shape policy for America ’s public schools. It should provoke thoughtful reflection and discussion at the federal, state, and municipal level. It belongs on the ‘must read’ list of every politician and every educator.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 2, 2005, p. 311-314
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11404, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 10:03:51 AM

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