So much of education punditry is hackwork. On the left, the received wisdom is that educators must spend their time agitating for social change because schools can’t be expected to do much when students have had such difficult lives. On the right, the received wisdom is that schools can bring about great changes if they were just reformed, usually through privatization in one way or another.

The debate is so sterile I don’t usually read it. So I was pleasantly surprised to blunder into the middle of an ongoing controversy sparked by an August 6 New York Times article (PDF). Richard Rothstein (PDF) of the Economic Policy Institute discusses, soberly and without jargon, how these entrenched ideas might fit together into something resembling reality.

“At present . . . the average achievement of black and white children in America differs by about a full standard deviation, or about 30 percentile points in a distribution. . . . Social scientists generally consider an intervention to be extraordinarily successful if it has an effect size of 0.5, or more than 15 percentile points.” So even an extraordinarily successful school would leave a significant achievement gap.

There are lots of stories out there about “beat the odds” schools alleged to have done this much or more. But Rothstein notes that “in every case, highly publicized ‘beat the odds’ schools enroll children who are more likely to have higher achievement” in any case, among them “a school where most children are poor but which is the location of a district-wide ‘gifted and talented’ program whose test scores are included in the school’s averages; and schools where most children are poor but where an unusually high proportion of parents have college degrees.”

These may be good schools, or very good, he hastens to add. But no one has done the work of distinguishing “the extent to which the standardized test scores of ‘beat the odds’ schools are attributable to school practices or to students with greater capacity to benefit from those school practices.”

Rothstein advocates “a balanced set of reform policies, covering schools as well as the social and economic conditions that surround them.” After all the ink that’s been spilled, that’s probably about what our moms would’ve said if we’d asked them across the dinner table.

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