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How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong

How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong

by Douglas B. Downey

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Most of us assume that public schools in America are unequal—that the quality of the education varies with the location of the school and that as a result, children learn more in the schools that serve mostly rich, white kids than in the schools serving mostly poor, black kids. But it turns out that this common assumption is misplaced. As Douglas B. Downey shows in How Schools Really Matter, achievement gaps have very little to do with what goes on in our schools. Not only do schools not exacerbate inequality in skills, they actually help to level the playing field. The real sources of achievement gaps are elsewhere.

A close look at the testing data in seasonal patterns bears this out. It turns out that achievement gaps in reading skills between high- and low-income children are nearly entirely formed prior to kindergarten, and schools do more to reduce them than increase them. And when gaps do increase, they tend to do so during summers, not during school periods. So why do both liberal and conservative politicians strongly advocate for school reform, arguing that the poor quality of schools serving disadvantaged children is an important contributor to inequality? It’s because discussing the broader social and economic reforms necessary for really reducing inequality has become too challenging and polarizing—it’s just easier to talk about fixing schools. Of course, there are differences that schools can make, and Downey outlines the kinds of reforms that make sense given what we know about inequality outside of schools, including more school exposure, increased standardization, and better and fairer school and teacher measurements.

How Schools Really Matter offers a firm rebuke to those who find nothing but fault in our schools, which are doing a much better than job than we give them credit for. It should also be a call to arms for educators and policymakers: the bottom line is that if we are serious about reducing inequality, we are going to have to fight some battles that are bigger than school reform—battles against the social inequality that is reflected within, rather than generated by—our public school system.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226733227
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/03/2020
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 335,296
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Douglas B. Downey is professor of sociology at the Ohio State University.

Table of Contents


Part I: Why We Shouldn’t Be Blaming Schools So Much

Chapter 1: The Forgotten 87 Percent
Herbert Walberg’s outrageous claim
Trying to understand how schools matter when you have an eight-hundred-pound gorilla problem
Chapter 2: Chickens, Eggs, and Achievement Gaps
When do achievement gaps emerge?
Scaling matters
Why the early years are so important
Relative deprivation matters too
Chapter 3: One Very Surprising Pattern about Schools
Soccer coaches and schools
Trying to understand how schools matter
Seasonal comparisons
What do we learn from the few studies that have collected data seasonally?
Chapter 4: And Now a Second, Even More Surprising Pattern
School achievement, growth, and impact
Part II: A New Way to Think about Schools and Inequality

Chapter 5: More Like Reflectors than Generators
Schools generating inequality
Two examples of schools reflecting broader society
What about those high-flying schools?
Underestimating early childhood
Conclusion: A diminished role for schools, an enhanced role for early childhood
Chapter 6: As Helping More than Hurting
Schools as compensatory: The weak form
Schools as compensatory: The strong form
Chapter 7: A Frida Sofia Problem
Schools and inequality: Stuck within the traditional framing
Our value for limited government
Fear of “blaming the victim”
Gender and the vulnerability of schools
Chapter 8: The Costly Assumption
Rich guys trying to reduce achievement gaps
The never-ending quest to reform schools
The great distractor
So what should we do?
Appendix A: The Early Childhood Longitudinal Datasets (ECLS-K:1998 and ECLS-K:2010)
Appendix B: Limitations of Seasonal Comparison Studies
Appendix C: How Should Social Scientists Study Schools and Inequality?

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