Douglas B. Downey


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

Cover Interview of April 07, 2021

In a nutshell

This book is about understanding how schools influence achievement gaps. The traditional story is that schools are part of the problem and that large differences in school quality make achievement gaps worse. This view is so widely accepted that it is now asserted without evidence. But if we do look at the evidence, we find some surprising patterns.

First, socioeconomic gaps in math and reading skills are already large at kindergarten entry, and then do not appear to increase during the school years. This pattern is better known now that we have high-quality data that begin at kindergarten, follow children for many years, and use scales of math and reading skills that allow an understanding of how gaps change over time.

Second, schools serving mostly advantaged children (high-socioeconomic status and white) do not produce any more math and reading learning than schools serving mostly disadvantaged children (low-socioeconomic status and black). Of course, schools serving advantaged children tend to have higher test scores than schools serving disadvantaged children, but careful analyses indicates that these differences are due to the skills the students develop outside of school. Once in school, both advantaged and disadvantaged children learn at roughly the same rate. This pattern replicates across many datasets but, surprisingly, is hardly talked about in the policy world.

Combined, these two patterns suggest that, when it comes to achievement gaps, schools are more part of the solution than the problem. Rather than focus our attention on schools, these patterns prompt us to consider the way that highly unequal early childhood conditions generate and maintain achievement gaps.

There are many policymakers interested in reducing achievement gaps, but most of their solutions focus around school reform. Those attempts are not without merit, but they are unlikely to do much to reduce societal-level achievement gaps, because the gaps are mostly developed when children are not in school. If we really want to reduce these achievement gaps we will need to think bigger than school reform. We will need to consider reforms that reduce the widely unequal family and neighborhood conditions children experience when not in school.