Author decries federal goal to eliminate achievement gap
By Alice Gomstyn
The goal of closing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children is, as Richard Rothstein puts it, absurd.
Rothstein, the author of several books on education and a former education columnist for The New York Times, spoke at a luncheon yesterday at Rockland Community College's conference on No Child Left Behind, where he made a case for why eliminating the achievement gap by 2014, as dictated by the law, is an impossible challenge.
Educators, he said, can help narrow the gap, but they cannot close it because of various socioeconomic factors.
He said, for instance, that middle-class parents differ from lower-income parents on how they instruct their children. A middle-class parent, he said, may offer his or her child indirect instruction, which encourages the child to engage in "higher-order thinking." Rothstein used the phrase, "You don't want to beat up on your baby sister, do you?" as an example.
Working-class or welfare parents are likely to provide direct instruction — "Stop beating up on your baby sister" — which only requires children, "to do what they're told," he said.
The different approaches to language, he said, are reflective of the different environments in which parents work.
Rothstein said that poor health directly interferes with a child's ability to learn. The health of lower-income children tends to be worse than that of middle-class children, he said, in part because of the availability of healthcare — fewer physicians are based in lower-income neighborhoods, he said — and because working-class parents often can't afford to take time off to provide preventative care for their children.
Rising housing prices, he said, can also put lower-income children at a disadvantage. Working-class wages, he said, aren't keeping pace with rising housing costs, forcing families to move and interrupt their children's education.
Rothstein offered several solutions to such problems: give incentives for physicians to move to lower-income areas; establish health clinics inside schools; and secure funding for both federal housing programs and after-school and summer programs.
Audience members varied in their reactions to Rothstein's speech. Gail Koss, who represents Clarkstown on the BOCES board, said what Rothstein said was "absolutely true, and most of it was obvious."
Bryan Burrell, the president of the Nyack Board of Education, disagreed, saying, "I don't want teachers to come to school thinking there are kids who can't learn, who won't learn, and that they shouldn't teach them."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES