Schools Serving Disadvantaged Kids Are Just As Good—Here’s the Real Problem

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Schools in disadvantaged areas may be a lot higher quality than they’ve been given credit for. 

Despite public perception that schools in affluent areas offer better education, a new study shows this might not be the case. Research published in Sociology of Education studying the distribution of school quality found that “schools serving disadvantaged children produce as much learning as those serving advantaged children.” 

The difference isn’t inside the schools—it’s outside the schools.

How do researchers reconcile these findings with the fact that test scores are generally higher in suburban, wealthier school districts? Signs point to a stronger influence from environmental, social, and economic stresses in lower income areas and schools serving disadvantaged youth.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA,) children with a lower socioeconomic status tend to begin school less prepared. The APA offers “literacy gaps in children from different socioeconomic backgrounds exist before formal schooling begins.” Notably, children in these areas often struggle with nutritional needs as well as health and safety concerns that can make even getting to school a challenge. 

The researchers on this study, led by Douglas Downey, professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, compared learning among early elementary children while school is in versus while school is out. “What is remarkable is not what happens in summer, but what happens when these disadvantaged students go back to school: The learning gap essentially disappears. They tend to learn at the same rate as those from the wealthier, suburban schools,” Downey told the Ohio State News. So, while kids in poorer, urban areas experience greater loss of knowledge during the “summer slide,” they learn just as much as their peers when school is in session.

The solution likely lies outside the school walls, too.

First, some districts are taking action. Instead of evaluating schools by test scores alone, which clearly don’t tell the whole story, they’re using a “value added” method of measuring the impact of individual teachers. 

If schools are doing everything they can to correct for disadvantages, what else can be done? Downey believes “we are probably better off putting more energy toward addressing the larger social inequalities that are producing these large gaps in learning before kids even enter school.” 

Our efforts may be better focused on work in the community: Making sure that children and their families have the tools they need to build success. Balanced meals and age-appropriate books can go a long way. Perhaps a study on the impact of poverty on educational outcomes for children, published in Paediatrics and Child Health, offers the best advice: 

“Never miss a personal opportunity to support the potential educational success of the children and youth who we come into contact with.”

Jessica Watson is a freelance writer, author and the blogger behind Four Plus an Angel. Mom to five kids, four in her arms and one in her heart, she tries hard to enjoy them every moment but sometimes dreams of a week alone with a pile of her favorite books. "Four Plus an Angel" -