The Becoming Radical: Questioning the Questions Asked about Education

Considering all the things I like about Twitter, having discussions or debates by Tweeting is not one of them because I often get lost and the character count works against elaboration and nuance.

Yesterday, I was added to a debate that appears to be about the impact of poverty on student achievement—and a central question about why some high-poverty students excel although most do not. One person seems to be seeking research that focuses on comparing high-poverty students against each other to tease out the reasons for why some achieve higher than most.

First, let’s consider that when we talk about student achievement we are almost always defaulting to high-stakes test scores. In that context, we must frame all questions about success, excelling, and/or achievement within some solid facts about what standardized tests reveal (and what they don’t).

The SAT remains a fair representation of how all student scores on high-stakes standardized testing remain strongly correlated with race, social class, parental education levels, and gender. See for example from the 2015 SAT:

2015 SAT ethnicity

2015 SAT fam income lev edu

Therefore, in virtually all high-stakes standardized data sets, we find that being affluent, white, and male correlate strongly with high scores while being poor, of color, and female correlate with low scores.

Therefore, when we ask why do some (a few) high-poverty students excel while most do not, we could just as easily ask why do some (a few) wealthy students score low when most do not. And these are in fact the same question for a couple of reasons:

  • Poor students with high test scores and affluent students with low test scores are statistical outliers, and thus, provide little descriptive power for making decisions about the general populations of students. [As I cannot stress this enough, please reread that sentence until you get it.]
  • The question about why do some low-income students excel is a loaded question (and that we do not ask the parallel question about the few affluent students who score low is telling) because the real intent of that question is to suggest that student achievement is mostly controlled by the student, her/his teacher, and her/his school. Therefore, by isolating why some low-income students excel, we would be able to “fix” the majority of low income students, their teachers, and their schools.

This second point is huge, and complex, because it is deeply flawed in its essential implication. Student achievement remains in the U.S. a stronger indicator of social realities than student effort/ability, teacher quality, or school effectiveness.

That stated, could student achievement be positively impacted by addressing individual student qualities, teacher quality, or school effectiveness? Of course, and what education reform is attempting in these areas continues to be more harmful than helpful.

For example, charter schools and Teach For America are increasing educational inequity for the vulnerable populations of students (greater segregation and assigning low-income students of color beginning teachers without adequate training).

Now, if I return to the Twitter debate, yes, there are high-quality researchers looking at why low-income students struggle and achieve (see Sean Reardon here, here, and here), but the fundamental question about comparing success and failure within low-income student populations is an inherently flawed process that focuses our gaze almost exclusively on individuals while giving systemic forces a pass—the exact systemic forces that account for the greatest percentage of the scores we use to claim success or failure.

That social class, race, and gender are predictive of student scores on high-stakes standardized testing is not fatalism (using those characteristics as an excuse to do nothing), but a call to shift proportionately our questions to both systemic and individual sources for why some students excel and some struggle in formal schooling.

Race, class, and gender inequity in our society drive low test scores for many students—students who are then too often mis-served by inequitable school practices and policies such as tracking, teacher assignments, and discipline codes.

Why do some high-poverty students excel academically while most do not is one hell of a complicated question. But in most cases, it is the wrong question because of the misguided implications at its root (discussed above) and we remain unwilling to address social inequity and continue to use inequitable tools (high-stakes standardized tests) that create the very gaps we claim we want to close.

We need to prioritize questions about our broken systems before we can even begin to assess why individual students compare differently than their peers—and even then, outliers will never serve as valid gauges for all students.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate? (Springer,...