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


My hope is that this book prompts a more careful consideration of schools’ role in shaping achievement gaps. The assumption that schools are largely responsible is misplaced and can divert attention from larger social problems that likely are the source.

Consider how we stack up against Canada. Our 15-year-olds score .30 standard deviation units behind Canada’s on international reading tests. Most would blame our schools for this gap but it turns out that the same cohort of children were .31 standard deviation units behind Canadians at age 4-5, before schools had a chance to matter. This pattern highlights how school reform is not the likely explanation for why our teenagers’ skills are behind those in other countries. The problem is rooted in early childhood conditions where too many of our children experience stressful environments. Notably, high-performing American five-year-olds did about as well as high-performing Canadian children. The large gap across the two countries is due primarily to very poor-performing children. The U.S. has more very poor-performing students than does Canada.

So, are Canadian children just genetically superior to American children? That doesn’t seem likely (unless you’re Canadian). A more plausible explanation is that Canadian children, on average, experience better early childhood conditions. And that is likely due to a broad range of policy decisions Canadians have made differently than Americans, such as the provision of universal health care, which reduces stress for the disadvantaged. Of course, the battle in the U.S. over policies like universal health care is a more difficult battle than school reform. But just because it is easier to focus on schools does not mean that they are the appropriate policy lever. Reducing inequality requires us to think bigger than school reform.