I have a very simple proposition: The more we teach, the more students learn—but some students get taught more than others.
There’s plenty of evidence to back me up, so I’ll just go with the most recent study I’ve seen that make this point. Bill Schmidt and his research team found that all around the world, schools are increasing the achievement gap by providing low-income students less opportunity to learn mathematics. Using PISA data, they “found not only that low-income students are more likely to be exposed to weaker math content in schools, but also that a substantial share of the difference in math performance between rich and poor students is related to this inequality.” Across the 62 countries in the study, unequal math content accounted for 32% of the achievement gap, on average. In the US, it accounted for 37%.
This isn’t a simple story of good and bad schools. Most of the variation in opportunity to learn math was within schools, not between them. As Schmidt’s previous research has found, the inequity is often hidden because schools will offer a range of math courses with very similar names—but very different content.
Sadly, other research indicates that systematic inequities in opportunity to learn have a snowballing effect. As Dan Willingham explains, schooling increases IQ by increasing your store of knowledge:
[Research shows that] schooling makes you smarter, but is there evidence that the stuff you remember from school is what’s making you smarter? Maybe going to school exercises your brain, so to speak, so you get smarter, but the specifics of that exercise don’t matter. We have some tentative (but probably not conclusive) research suggesting that the specifics do matter…. Two factors contribute to IQ: the breadth and depth of what you have in memory, and the speed with which you can process what you know…. Researchers have shown that although years of education is associated with IQ, it’s not associated with processing speed. That finding suggests that education increases IQ by increasing the breadth and depth of what you know, which runs counter to the idea that school is like mental exercise, and that the content of the exercise doesn’t matter.
Given such evidence, and common sense, why do low-income students tend to get lesser academics?
Let’s dispense with notions of teachers who are lazy or don’t believe low-income students can learn. Other than a tiny fraction of the profession (recall that all professions have their bad apples), I see no evidence of either. Those who buy into such ideas are being intellectually lazy themselves.
Clearly, much of the achievement gap is caused by low-income students, on average, arriving at kindergarten with lower levels of knowledge and skill, and sliding backwards each summer. But that doesn’t account for why schools are making the problem worse.
My guess is that lesser academic content is, in part, an unintended consequence of the focus on student engagement.
It’s true that some aspect of the educational enterprise has to be engaging. When I found a class boring, I knew that I had a reward coming: I was very fortunate in knowing that I would be able to go to college—if I kept my grades up. That was enough for me to stay engaged. I suspect the same is true of many students in middle- and higher-income families.
But relatively few students so fortunate. When students don’t see a connection between challenging academics, high grades, and their futures, what can teachers do? Revising the curriculum to be more engaging (i.e., based on students’ current interests), which in my experience almost always results in easier texts and assignments, seems like the right choice—at least students will learn something. But is there another way to make education engaging? Is there a way to change the class environment without changing the curriculum? Research in Chicago schools indicates there is. It boils down to two essential ingredients: very rigorous content and high social support.
Summarizing this research, Charles Payne characterized it as “Authoritative-Supportive Teaching” that consisted of a:
- High level of intellectual/academic demand
- High level of social demand
- Holistic concern for children and their future; sense of a larger mission
- Strong sense of teacher efficacy and legitimacy
Rigorous content tells students we believe in them. Social support shows that we mean it.
Policymakers take note: This type of teaching—gap-closing teaching—is exhausting when the educational system is not set up to support it. Across the country, schools with the neediest students often have the fewest resources. To equalize opportunity to learn, policymakers will have to create the conditions for rigor, and teachers will have to embrace it.