Lexington versus Detroit: On May 3, Motoko Rich wrote a puzzling report in the New York Times about the state of the public schools.
She focused on a new Stanford study; the study compares academic achievement by public school students with a measure of their socioeconomic status. At one point, Rich tickled the keys of one of our top pet peeves.
In what follows, Rich makes an important point about a type of relative disadvantage faced by some middle-class black and Hispanic kids. In our view, she's also working from script in the highlighted passage:
RICH (5/3/16): What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.According to that passage, middle-class white kids are likely to attend schools with other middle-class students. Middle-class black and Hispanic kids are likely to attend schools with a larger proportion of low-income kids.
Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.
These schools can face a myriad of challenges. They tend to have more difficulty recruiting and keeping the most skilled teachers, and classes are more likely to be disrupted by violent incidents or the emotional fallout from violence in the neighborhood. These schools often offer fewer high-level classes such as Advanced Placement courses, and the parents have fewer resources to raise extra money that can provide enhanced arts programs and facilities.
For middle-class or low-income kids, this represents a possible form of disadvantage. "Schools with high concentrations of poor kids" may well confer serious disadvantages on a wide range of good decent kids.
That said, we're always annoyed by the scripted passage in which the writer notes that low-income schools "often offer fewer high-level classes such as Advanced Placement courses."
That's almost surely true, of course. But it tends to be offered as a snarky criticism of those schools. This type of criticism makes little sense.
Should anyone be surprised when low-income schools offer fewer Advanced Placement courses (or "gifted and talented" classes)? Consider the profile of two systems from the first interactive graphic within Rich's report:
Average achievement levels, two school systems, grades 3-8:Lexington is a high-SES suburb of Boston. Detroit is a large, low-income city which is struggling just to hang on.
Lexington, Mass.: 3.8 grade levels above average
Detroit: 2.3 grade levels below average
Achievement gap: 6.1 grade levels
The achievement gap between the two student populations is both huge and disastrous. In grades 3-8, the average kid in Lexington is 6.1 grade levels ahead of the average kid in Detroit, according to the metrics of the new study by Stanford.
That's a gigantic, disastrous gap. And remember, that's just a comparison of the average students in those two school systems:
Roughly half the kids in Lexington (grades 3-8) are more than 3.8 grade levels above average! Meanwhile, roughly half the kids in Detroit are more than 2.3 grade levels below average.
For those kids, the achievement gap is even wider than 6.1 grade levels. That represents a tragic societal disaster.
That said, should anyone be surprised if Lexington offers more "gifted and talented" courses in grades 3-8 than Detroit? If those districts offered the same number of such courses, wouldn't someone be committing educational malpractice somewhere?
The relative absence of Advanced Placement classes may well disadvantage the higher-achieving students in a low-achieving school district. But it's obvious why such districts offer fewer such courses and classes.
That said, you'll often see showboating journalists snark about this state of affairs. It's an easy way to play the game. It makes us liberals feel good.
Markers of socioeconomic status: According to the first New York Times graphic, Lexington's students come from families whose median family income is $163,000. The corresponding figure in Detroit is $27,000.
Remember, income is only one measure of SES used in the Stanford study. Family structure and parental educational attainment were also used by Stanford in assessing students' SES.
And no—Lexington isn't at or even near the top in median family income around the country. You can see this by clicking around in the Times' first graphic.
Nor is Detroit at the bottom in median family income. Click around; check out our struggling world.