These are especially important times for learning. Too many students returned to school this fall behind where they might have been had the pandemic not disrupted their learning. We need to provide the support, coaching, and guidance they need to build the content and skills necessary to find success. Yet, there appear to be forces operating in our schools and classrooms that make catching up and finding success more difficult for some students than others.
Of course, we want to believe that every child who enters our schools and classrooms has equal opportunities to succeed, regardless of their family background and economic condition. We want it to be true that students with academic talent will be supported to develop and succeed without regard to social class. We do not want to think that our schools systematically undermine the success of any group of students, especially now.
Yet, a 2019 report by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce calls these hopes and assumptions into serious question. The study, Born to Win, Schooled to Lose: Why Equally Talented Students Don’t Get Equal Chances to Be All They Can Be, utilizes data from a variety of federal databases to explore the role of race and family socio-economic status in predicting academic success.
We know that an academic performance gap exists between Black and Latino students and their white and Asian American counterparts. Closing this gap has been a focus of effort and attention for some time. We also know that not enough progress has been made to counter this long-standing and disappointing trend.
However, the Georgetown University report explores this phenomenon at significantly deeper levels. For example, the researchers discovered that students from low socio-economic status families with high test scores in kindergarten are less likely to eventually receive a college education than other students with low test scores, but from the top quartile of socio-economic status. Sadly, the difference in likelihood of a college education was not even close. The high performing, talented kindergarten student has only a 3-10 chance of receiving a college education and a good entry level job following graduation. Meanwhile, their lower scoring classmate from a more advantaged family is more than twice as likely, at a 7-10 likelihood of completing college and obtaining an attractive entry level position.
Further, the report documents that when talented minority students from lower socio-economic families struggle and their grades begin to fall, they are less likely to recover than their more advantaged counterparts. According to the report, when the test scores of more affluent students begin to fall, they have a 3-4 chance of later recovery. Meanwhile, less affluent students have only a 1-3 chance of recovery.
Obviously, this is a complex problem. We can provide general support, expanded academic interventions, improved counseling, and expanded career exploration, but successfully addressing the challenge will likely require more granular and pervasive efforts.
Consider that even talented students from lower socio-economic situated families often lack many of the experiences and much of the family-provided academic background knowledge available to their more advantaged classmates. Consequently, for these students new academic learning may require “back filling” experiences and information already possessed by more advantaged students before they can engage in new learning. If educators are not sensitive to these disparities, even bright, talented, but less informed and experienced students can doubt their abilities and compromise their learning efforts and aspirations. Consequently, their success is compromised.
Further, these students can experience similar disadvantaging consequences because of how homework and projects are structured and assigned. Students without extensive academic background knowledge and limited academic support at home can find that assignments and projects take two to four times longer to complete.
Beyond these specific practices that can reinforce and expand disparities, is the pervasive influence of educator expectations. It can be easy to expect more from students whose families have a history with and value formal learning. Consequently, they receive subtle messages of support and more frequent interventions when they struggle. The opposite can also be true. Over time, educator expectations can have a huge impact on performance, either up or down.
Each of our students deserve our support and a clear shot at success. It is up to us to create the conditions and provide the experiences necessary for success to be within their reach. There has never been a more important time to commit to making the future bright for all students, regardless of where they start and how far they must travel in their learning.