Esther Cepeda: A better education for everyone

Esther Cepeda: A better education for everyone

CHICAGO — Robert Putnam's latest book, "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," should put to rest the assumption that race and bad schools are the predominant factors to blame for rising inequality.

Putnam hypothesizes that class-based residential segregation was facilitated not only by the roadway infrastructure that allowed higher earners to flee the city for quieter, higher-income suburbs but also by changes in federal housing legislation that helped affluent minority families move there, too.

The result: More families live in uniformly poor or affluent neighborhoods, which has led to a decrease in race-based segregation and an increase in class-based segregation. "Even when poor and wealthier schoolchildren live in the same school district, they are increasingly likely to attend separate and unequal schools," Putnam writes.

But it is not the schools that determine the students' ultimate trajectory — which right now means that, according to Putnam, kids from the top quarter of families in education and income are 17 times more likely to attend a highly selective college than kids in the bottom quarter.

It is the people who surround the students.

Like many other social scientists before him, Putnam puts a heavy emphasis on the stark contrasts between children growing up in cohesive, resource-rich families and those from chaotic, broken homes with little access to even basic necessities.

Putnam makes these comparisons within races and ethnicities to underscore how affluent black, Hispanic and white parents nurture their children in nearly the same positive ways while low-income families struggle nearly identically regardless of their race.

These descriptions draw the conclusion that functional, two-parent families are the single most important factor to a child's success. But Putnam reminds readers that though liberalism is usually blamed for the breakup of the nuclear family, divorce and single-parent families are especially common in the heavily Republican, socially conservative Bible Belt.

Probably the best contribution Putnam makes to the study of poverty prevention is the synthesis of multiple streams of research that put to rest the myth that poor schools blunt children's life chances.

Putnam says that the totality of data concludes that gaps in cognitive achievement observed at age 18 — which are powerful predictors of who goes to college — are mostly present at age 6, when children enter school.

Schools, he says, are certainly unequal but play only a minor role in alleviating or creating test-score gaps and do little to exacerbate the so-called opportunity gap.

Out-of-school factors such as family structure, economic insecurity, parental engagement and even the amount of household TV watching have a much higher effect on test scores and cognitive and other socioeconomic outcomes than the schools students attend.

"The gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school and by what kids bring (or don't bring) with them to school — some bringing resources and others bringing challenges — than by what schools do to them," Putnam writes. "[But] even if schools didn't cause the growing opportunity gap ... they might well be a prime place to fix it."

Putnam cites several general policies for helping families who are not embedded in a culture of upward mobility to at least move toward it, many of which we've heard before. His school-based interventions, however, seem fresh and should be championed by anyone interested in increasing social mobility.

Struggling schools, Putnam suggests, should offer higher pay to get better-qualified teachers to choose to teach there and stay for more than just a few years. Putnam also calls for de-stigmatization and increased investment in vocational and technical education, and more extracurricular activity opportunities for all students.

Putnam says that extracurricular opportunities were introduced into public schools for the express purpose of fostering equal opportunity for students. But in recent years they have become pay-to-play.

Whereas in the past a school would have provided instruments to students in the band or offered football for free, increased fees have put these programs, which offer safe, long-term adult mentorship, cross-class social integration and the development of communication and leadership skills, out of reach for many. And waivers oftentimes stigmatize, rather than help, needy students.

Putnam says parents should visit schools and advocate for more accessible extracurricular opportunities because everyone in a school will be better off if anyone can participate in them. We already have many extracurriculars in place, we just have to make better use of them.

Esther Cepeda writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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