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

A close-up

If you believe that widely unequal schools are responsible for achievement gaps, open my book to page 17 and look at Figure 2.1. That figure shows that high-SES children are ahead of low-SES children in reading skills by .64 standard deviations at kindergarten entry. At this age, we are really measuring mostly pre-reading skills, like knowing letters and the sounds they make, and recognizing a few simple words and short sentences. The standard deviation is a useful way to gauge the gap between two groups because it allows us to assess the magnitude of that gap, even when the kinds of reading skills assessed are different at later ages. If schools increase inequality, we should observe a growing gap (as measured by standard deviations) over time. Over the next nine years, however, this gap does not increase in the way it should if schools are the culprit. Instead, it declines to .55 standard deviations by the end of the eighth grade. The math results, Figure 2.3 on p. 19 in the book, show the same pattern.

If these patterns were unique to the ECLS-K:1998 data, we might be able to dismiss them, but the overall pattern replicates in a wide range of nationally representative datasets. It is really hard to develop a story about schools that is both consistent with this pattern and defines them as a source of achievement gaps. Instead, the patterns suggest that children arrive at kindergarten on highly unequal learning trajectories. Once in school, however, achievement gaps largely stop growing and even begin to narrow somewhat—the very opposite of what we would observe if schools were a source of achievement gaps.