Rothstein: One-Third Agenda Won’t Close Gaps

Teacher quality is not the most important factor determining student success; it is the most important in-school factor, Richard Rothstein clarified in his closing keynote at ASCD’s 2010 Conference on Teaching and Learning.

Decades of social science research have demonstrated that differences in the quality of schools can explain about one-third of the variation in student achievement, he continued. But the other two-thirds is attributable to community factors or what kids bring to the classroom. For example, if we want to improve reading achievement, we must look at and improve literacy in students’ homes. By 3 years old, students from disadvantaged home environments already show gaps in literacy as large as they would be by the time they leave high school, Rothstein noted.

“Efforts to improve schools are undermined by the deteriorating conditions under which kids come to school,” he said. Namely, Rothstein cited the effects of the current economic catastrophe on the home lives of children. Consider, for example, that 15 percent of all black children now have an unemployed parent, compared to 8.5 percent of white children. Widespread economic hardship means students’ lives are more disrupted by stress; poor nutrition and health; and moving around or living in overcrowded, inadequate conditions.

“We’re convinced that the only way schools can influence student achievement is by focusing on what’s going on in the classroom,” Rothstein said. He added that we need to better prepare kids to come to school and improve the effectiveness of education while they’re in school, but also consider how policy can lift up students’ lives outside the classroom.

In addition to teacher quality, Rothstein urged policymakers to consider the full range of in-school factors that affect student achievement: quality of leadership, curriculum, and opportunities for professional collaboration.

Rothstein insisted we have real choices to make at the ballot box and in our schools: establish narrow policies that blame teachers, or consider the full range of supports we can mobilize for our students.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Having now spent 40 years as an urban public school teacher, administrator, parent, PTA president, researcher and advocate, I think that ASCD does its members and public school students a disservice by continuing to bring in major speakers like Rothstein – and NOT people like Dacia Toll, Mike Feinberg, Chris Barbic, etc. etc.
    All over the nation there are public schools, district and charter, that are “beating the odds.” They are bringing low income, limited English speaking students up to middle and upper income students’ skill and knowledge levels.
    Rothstein is part of a long tradition of people who deny that this can happen at all, and now that it is happening, deny that it can be scaled up. So all over the nation low income families are leaving inner city district schools for new options. It does not have to be that way. But when ASCD and other groups have Rothstein et al as their keynotes, you lose the opportunity to learn from the people who are getting it done.

  2. Joe Nathan says “Rothstein is part of a long tradition of people who deny that this (bringing low income, limited English speaking students up to middle and upper income students’ skill and knowledge levels) can happen at all.”
    But the article quotes Rothstein: “we need to better prepare kids to come to school and improve the effectiveness of education while they’re in school, but also consider how policy can lift up students’ lives outside the classroom.”
    In addition to teacher quality, Rothstein urged policymakers “to consider the full range of in-school factors that affect student achievement: quality of leadership, curriculum, and opportunities for professional collaboration.”
    Something seems amiss. I personally believe we need to listen to both kinds of speakers, those who seem to have found solutions and those who have produced research to show that all of educations supposed flaws are not the result of poor teaching and teacher unions.

  3. This article clearly points out that community factors or what kids bring to the classroom makes a difference in their educational achievements. But we continue to point the finger of blame instead of being the bigger people and roll up our sleeves and get on with the hard work of community improvement that leads to improvement in achievement. Is that not what we are here for? Or is it?
    In simple terms, we are working ass-backwards. If you education leaders know so clearly that parents matter, why don’t you hear what we have to say?
    In dysfunctional districts, we encounter barriers to participation. It feeds the dis-functionality and the non-existent “education system” is not there as a social safety net for our kids! It’s the “system” stupid. (Don’t mean that. Just using the terminology for emphasis – did it get your attention?)
    I have yet to be convinced that “the leaders” care to listen, let alone consider and discuss, ideas brought forth by parents or the public. Prove me wrong. Read Education’s Missing Ingredient: What Parents Can Tell Educators and give me a call (e-mail and I’ll give you my number). Confront me, debate me, question me,…allow a meaningful exchange of ideas to occur…think about it.

  4. What does this one-third statistic tell us, concretely? How about: if we do not address out-of-school factors, students will only improve 1/3 of what they would if they were given middle-class advantages outside of school? Any attempt to use this abstract stat in planning brings its essential uselessness to light. It cannot be predictive of how students will perform. It is only correlating in and out of school variables with existing student performance data. This info does not tell us what to do next, in fact it works to inhibit action. The fact is that there are schools where 100% of children of color living in poverty perform as well as their middle class peers. These schools apparently did not read the studies that would have told them not to aim so high. Maybe most schools are still not doing what those successful schools are doing, and if they did, all the existing data that spits out “one-third” would be instantly obsolete.
    The school v community debate has not been productive. Waiting for Superman seems to endorse the absurd view that bad schools actually create poverty in the inner city. Not neighborhood disinvestment, lack of jobs and transportation and health care, not the black market drug economy and high rate of male imprisonment, not unstable families and anti-establishment culture arising from all those effects of systemic racism. On the other hand, no one should feel that social equality has been served by having a high-performing school in a neighborhood crumbling under poverty. No one should feel they have succeeded when students graduate college ready while their families don’t have decent paying jobs, health care, healthy food options, safe streets or parks. Schools shouldn’t be made to carry the full burden of social equality. How about No Families Left Behind? Because clearly the assumption in the hyper-focus on schools is that getting out of the neighborhood equals success. This does not mean that schools should not be expected to fulfill their specific mission of educating every child. It should be a concerted effort and Promise Neighborhoods are a promising approach, if only they were fully funded…

  5. Rothstein’s stance is yet another instance of failed professionals trying to blame others for their collective ineptitudes.
    An example of this in another field is where many traditional therapists have been blaming poor treatment outcomes on their clients/patients. Excuses like the clients/patients have not been invested enough in their recovery to allow for successes has been commonplace in some segments of the Behavioral Health field. However, contemporary and evidence-driven therapies, delivered by current and well trained therapists, are verifiably more effective. Numerous treatment failures have been turned around by improved techniques, refined competencies and altered professional cultures.
    Asserting that failure to improve learning in core-city schools is 2/3 the fault of community and other factors ignores the recent successes that many “best practice” and “alternative” programs have had [Harlem Children’s Center; Kipp Charter Schools and recent program advances in other large districts like Washington D.C. and NYC]. There are increasing numbers of centers of excellence that have met the challenges of core-city schools by increasing their community outreach/student expectation levels and improving their teaching methodologies and staff supports. The resultant changes in what these teachers and adminstrators do have created notably more positive student outcomes compared to those districts/centers who have ongoing histories of ineffective methodologies, change-toxic staff cultures and ineffective leadership. Many Public Education entities would do well to emulate some of the “Change Management” approaches being increasingly used in progressive companies and organizations.
    Claiming to almost be a victim of things like community problems is counter-productive and sure to support contiued education program failures. Blaming poor families for educational failures also keeps some segments of Public Education at, or near the top of the list of disrespected professions in this country. It’s past time for us to not only “talk the talk,” but to finally “walk the walk.” We Are Most of the Problem in under-performing schools and We Are Most of the Solution.

  6. “Asserting that failure to improve learning in core-city schools is 2/3 the fault of community and other factors ignores the recent successes that many “best practice” and “alternative” programs have had [Harlem Children’s Center; Kipp Charter Schools and recent program advances in other large districts like Washington D.C. and NYC].”
    What a ridiculous statement. Programs like Harlem Children’s Center address the community factors, get involved from before birth. This is a major factor in their success. Reread the statistics on “advances” in D.C. schools. A change in how statistics are gathered and recorded accounts for most of the increase. Michele Rhee herself called this the “low hanging fruit.” Since then, achievement has stagnated.
    “Rothstein’s stance is yet another instance of failed professionals trying to blame others for their collective ineptitudes.”
    No, it’s just stating the reality that this is hard work that needs to be taken on by more than just education professionals.

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