Social Class in Public Schools


Hochschild JL. Social Class in Public Schools. Journal of Social Issues. 2003;59 (4) :821-840.

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Social Class in Public Schools


Jennifer L. Hochschild

Departments of Government and Afro-American Studies

Harvard University

Journal of Social Issues,  November 2003


*Correspondence for this article should be addressed to: Jennifer Hochschild, Government Department, Littauer Center, North Harvard Yard, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138, E-mail: [].  This article derives from (Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003).  My thanks to Nate Scovronick for all his work on our joint venture, and to Elizabeth Cole and Joan Ostrove for their engagement and encouragement. 


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This article shows the pattern of socioeconomic class differences in schooling outcomes and indicates some of the causes for those differences that lie within the public realm. Those causes include “nested inequalities” across boundaries of states, school districts, schools within a district, classes within a school, and sometimes separation within a class.  Urban public schools demonstrate a particular set of problems that generate differential schooling outcomes by economic class.  The article also demonstrates ways in which class biases are closely entwined with racial and ethnic inequities.  It concludes with the broad outlines of what would be necessary to reduce class (and racial) disparities in American public schools. 



The American dream will succeed or fail in the 21st century in direct proportion to our commitment to educate every person in the United States of America.

-- President Bill Clinton, 1995 (Clinton, 1995: 617) 


There is no greater test of our national responsibility than the quality

of the education we provide.

                       --Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, 2000 (Gore, 2000)


Both parties have been talking about education for quite a while.  It’s time to come together to get it done, so that we can truthfully say in America: No child will be left behind.

-- President George W. Bush, 2001 (Bush, 2001)


That presidents and candidates were all saying the same thing is no coincidence. They were echoing what the American public said in survey after survey throughout the past decade: education is “the most important problem facing the nation” (e.g. CNN/ U.S.A. Today, 2000; Gallup Organization, 2000), or “most important in [my] vote for president” (e.g. ABC News, 2000; Kaiser Family Foundation & Harvard University School of Public Health, 2000; see also Wilgren, 2000).  In the election of November 2000, fourteen states offered 24 measures about K-12 schooling for citizens to vote on directly. The Economist lectured Britain’s former subjects that the next American president “will have to get to grips with… the public education system.  This is America’s last best chance to tackle” what it called the “failure” of public schooling ("And Now, Mr. President...", 2000: 27).

Citizens, politicians, and journalists are correct, at least about the importance of schools.  Education largely and increasingly determines an individual’s job choice and income (Danziger & Reed, 1999, p.16). It more and more determines whom one will marry (Kalmijn, 1991; Mare, 1991). It has more impact than any other factor, possibly excepting wealth, on whether one participates in politics, what one believes politically, and how much political influence one has (Verba, 2001; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). It is the arena in which the United States has sought to overcome racial domination and class hierarchy, to turn immigrants into Americans, to turn children into responsible citizens, to create and maintain our democracy (Cremin, 1988; Gutmann, 1987; Kluger, 1975; Spring, 2000; Tyack, 1974).               

In many ways public schools in the United States have responded to these aspirations.  Compared with a few decades ago, dropout rates have declined (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002, tables 108, 109); children with disabilities are in school buildings rather than institutions that could be described as “human warehouses” (Braddock & Parish, 2001; McDonnell, McLaughlin, & Morison, 1997; National Center for Education Statistics, 2002: tables 53, 110); resources are more equally distributed (Education Week, 2002;  Reed, 2001; Rothstein, 2000); black children are not required by law to attend inferior schools for fewer hours a day and shorter school years than white children (Orfield, 1978; Salomone, 1986; Tushnet, 1987); overall achievement scores are up (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002, tables 112, 115, 124, 125).  Most importantly perhaps, the gap in nationally-recognized achievement test scores between students with poorly- and well-educated parents has declined since the 1970s (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002, tables 112, 124). 

Yet this progress has met limits.  Hispanics drop out much more frequently than others, as do poor students and students in large urban schools (Driscoll, 1999; Rumberger & Thomas, 2000; Hauser, Simmons, & Pager, 2001; National Center for Education Statistics, 2002, tables 107, 108).  Achievement scores have changed little in the 1990s; the gaps between black and white achievement, and between the scores of the highest and lowest achievers, have remained static or even risen over that decade (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002, tables 112, 113, 124, 125). Disadvantaged children continue to score roughly ten percent below the national average on NAEP tests while advantaged children score several percent above (author’s calculations from data in National Center for Education Statistics, 2000c).  Some urban schools seem to teach very little despite teachers’ and students’ valiant efforts (Anyon, 1997; Education Week, 1998; Hayward, 2000; Henig, Hula, Orr, & Pedescleaux, 1999). 

Most importantly, adults’ life chances depend increasingly on attaining higher education, but the number of young adults completing college has stalled since the 1970s and class background is as important as ever in determining who attends and finishes college (Ellwood & Kane, 2000; Kane, 2001). Over three-quarters of well-off young adults go straight from high school to college, compared with half of poor youth. Well-off students are also more likely to go to a four-year rather than a two-year college (Card & Lemieux, 2001; National Center for Education Statistics, 1994).

               This article shows the pattern of class differences in schooling outcomes and indicates some of the causes for those differences that lie within the public realm.  It also points out the implications of the fact that the poor in the United States are disproportionately African Americans or recent immigrants; class biases are closely entwined with racial and ethnic inequities.  I conclude with the broad outlines of what would be necessary to reduce, even if we can never eliminate, class (and racial) disparities in American public schools.

Nested Inequalities

Disparities in schooling outcomes can be understood as two deeply embedded patterns of inequality.  The first is a system of nested inequalities affecting all students.  It begins with states. Children in Iowa, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and North Dakota have more than a 50 percent likelihood of enrolling in college by age nineteen, but children in Florida, Arizona, Alaska, and Nevada have less than a 30 percent chance (Hodgkinson, 1999, figure 2).  Fewer than three percent of students in Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Iowa drop out of school; more than seven percent do in Louisiana, Arizona, Georgia, New Mexico and Nevada (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002, table 105). 

Overall, about a third of the variation in students’ achievement is determined by what state they live in (Murray, Evans, & Schwab, 1998; National Center for Education Statistics, 2000d, p. 40-42).  But inequalities within a state can be just as severe.  Connecticut provides unusually detailed evidence on this point. The district that spends the most provides almost twice as much per student as the district that spends the least.  There are over 150 times more poor students in the poorest town than in the richest town; some districts have no minority students whereas in others virtually all students are non-Anglos; in some districts all students speak English at home whereas in others up to two-thirds of the students speak some other language with their families (Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, 1997, p. vii-ix).   These disparities correspond to equally great differences in educational outcomes across districts:  “On the Connecticut Mastery Test, the best performing municipality has scores nearly three times as high as the lowest scoring community…. In the worst-performing municipality, 49% of the class of 1995 dropped out during the four years before graduation; in the best performing community the drop-out rate was 0%.  The rate of graduates who continue their education beyond high school ranges from less than 50% to 98%” (Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, 1997, p. viii).  Many, although not all, of the indicators of class-based advantage or disadvantage correlate highly with the differences in educational outcomes.  Districts with a lot of poor students have lower average test scores and higher dropout rates; districts with a lot of minority students, or a lot whose native language is not English, also have lower average test scores.  (These districts are often the same.)  The highest spending districts report high test scores, and some of the lowest spending districts report the lowest test scores, although the pattern in the middle-wealth districts is less clear (Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, 1997, p. 5, 10-12).

Third, schools vary within districts.  In Yonkers, New York, for example, schools in the northern and eastern section were built relatively recently and have beautiful grounds and excellent facilities; schools in the southwestern section were built in some cases a century ago, with tiny playgrounds of cracked and slanted cement (or none at all) and dismal laboratories and libraries.  It is not difficult to figure out the racial or ethnic and class composition of the students in these schools (Hochschild & Danielson, 1998).  Yonkers is not alone. In New York City, funding for regular students in elementary schools varied by as much as $10,000 per student in the late 1990s; per capita operating funds were particularly low in schools with many poor or immigrant students. In some New York City grade schools all of the teachers are certified, and in some the pupil/teacher ratio is well below ten; in others, only two out of five teachers are certified or the ratio of students to teachers is well over 20. Schools with a lot of poor students or limited English speakers had significantly fewer certified teachers and higher student/teacher ratios.  In some New York City schools, all of the students perform at least at the fiftieth percentile in reading tests, but in others barely one-seventh do (data on New York City are in Iatarola & Stiefel, 2003; see also Hertert, 1995; Rothstein, 2000).

Finally, children’s schooling varies even within a school.  Almost all high schools, many middle schools, and some elementary schools sort students by measured ability; well-off children, who are disproportionately white and Asian, almost always dominate the high tracks (Argys, Rees, & Brewer, 1996; Lucas, 1999; Mickelson & Heath, 1999).  Students with disabilities or with limited English proficiency are not likely to be in high tracks regardless of their talents (August & Hakuta, 1998; McDonnell, et al., 1997). Students shunted into low-ability classes or nonacademic tracks frequently end up with poorly- or inappropriately-trained teachers, few resources, trivial curricula, and no accountability (Heubert & Hauser, 1999; Ingersoll, 2002).

Thus every student sits at the center of at least four nested structures of inequality and separation – states, districts, schools, and classes.  Well-off or white and Asian parents usually manage to ensure that their children obtain the benefits of this structure; poor and non-Asian minority parents have a much harder time doing so (Mollenkopf, Zeltzer-Zubida, Holdaway, Kasinitz, & Waters, 2002). As a result, the United States has not witnessed the full equality of educational opportunity between classes that one would expect from all the reforms since the 1960s and from Americans’ commitments to equality of opportunity (Hochschild, 1995).  Analysts talk about “speed bumps on the road to meritocracy” (Hout, 1997, title) or “(re)emerging inequality in the opportunity structure going into the 21st century,” (Biblarz & Raftery, 1999, p. 249) or an “increase [in the] relative importance of social background for college entry” (Lucas, 1996, p. 511). Details vary in these analyses but the pattern is clear: the progress our nation made toward equal opportunity in schooling up until the 1980s has stopped and perhaps even reversed (see also Acemoglu & Pischke, 2001; Biblarz, 2000; Ishida, 1993).

Failing Inner City Schools

“We have kids without teachers, teachers without classrooms, and a district without a clue. The system is broken.  Students and teachers are a forgotten priority here,” says the president of the Los Angeles teachers union (White, 1999, p. 3).  City schools like these demonstrate the other deeply embedded pattern of class disparities in schooling.  Disastrous schools affect only a minority of children, but them very seriously; “for years it was like storming the Bastille everyday,” reports one urban teacher (Olson, 1998, p. 1).

As there is with the system of nested inequalities, there is plenty of evidence pointing to the disproportionate failures of urban schools. More than twice as many students attend high-poverty schools in urban than in nonurban districts (Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1998, p. 16-17), but in some states, urban districts spend less per pupil than do nonurban districts (National Center For Education Statistics, 2002, indicator 56). Urban districts have larger classes and contain the largest schools  (Education Week, 1998, p. 19;  National Center for Education Statistics, 2001, table A). Compared with suburban districts, teachers in city schools are less likely to be certified or to have studied in the areas that they teach, and more likely to leave before the end of the school year.  In some years and for some subjects, it is hard to find any teachers at all to fill slots in urban schools (Education Week, 1998, p. 16-17). Urban schools are more likely to have inadequate buildings, classrooms, and technology (Education Week, 1998, p. 21; General Accounting Office, 1995).  They suffer from much more administrative and behavioral turmoil and have a higher level of disruption, violence, and anxiety about safety (Education Week, 1998, p. 18-19).  All of the big districts with high dropout rates are in large cities (Education Week, 1998, p. 13; Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003, p. 25-27; 61-63, 78-80, 84-87; National Center for Education Statistics, 2001, p. table 16).

From an educator’s perspective, interactions among these characteristics can be overwhelming. The San Diego school district, for example, offered each of twenty failing schools $16,500 of extra funds in 1998.  An evaluation of one such school then called for a full-time nurse, a full-time counselor, a parent room, a pre-kindergarten program, an adult literacy program, and an end to assigning teachers by seniority (a union regulation; Reinhard, 1998).  Ninety percent of the children in this school are poor, 40 percent have limited English proficiency, many move frequently. Two of the twenty teachers are out on “stress disability,” and a third are brand new.  In the face of these substantial challenges, the principal claims that “we’ve pulled together, and we’re going to do the best we can” (Reinhard, 1998, p. 15).  But her chances of success seem slim, and the children in her school will probably have little chance to pursue their dreams or to share meaningfully in the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

            Thus the worst-off students and schools have a completely different educational experience from the best-off, with predictably different outcomes. Here is where class and race are most tightly entwined, since in the 100 largest school districts, almost 70 percent of the students are non-Anglo (compared with 40 percent of students nationally), and over half are poor or near-poor (compared with fewer than 40 percent nationally) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001, p. 4-5).  And the interactions among race and class are becoming tighter: during the 1970s and 1980s, “the gap in the quality of schools that blacks and whites attend has widened … due entirely to a worsening in the relative quality of schools located in poor, inner-city areas and in schools that are less than 20% white” (Cook & Evans, 2000, p. 747).  In fact, black students in nonurban schools actually did better during this period, even while black students in urban schools did worse (Cook & Evans, 2000).  Similarly, during the 1990s, the least accomplished quarter of fourth grade readers lost ground in NAEP tests, while the most accomplished improved their test scores.  The top scorers were mostly white, the low scorers were disproportionately black and Latino boys in poor urban schools (Zernike, 2001).

Increasing Inequality among Communities

Both patterns of class disparity – nested inequalities among all students, and utterly disastrous schooling for a few students – are made worse by the fact that socioeconomic separation across the society is growing, even as racial and ethnic separation is slowly declining (Abramson, Tobin, & VanderGroot, 1995; Rusk, 2002).  Residential separation between well-off and poor Americans declined in the 1950s and 1960s; by 1970, the typical affluent American lived in a neighborhood where two-fifths of the residents were also affluent.  But residential separation rose as the wealthy moved to outer suburbs, so that by 1990, the typical affluent American lived in a neighborhood where over half of the neighbors were also affluent (Massey, 1996, p. 396-399).  Conversely, the proportion of poor people living in poor neighborhoods in inner cities increased from 55 to 69 percent over the same twenty years. From 1970 to 1990, every one of the 48 largest cities, from the poorest in comparison to its suburbs (Hartford) to the wealthiest compared with its suburbs (Greensboro, North Carolina), became poorer in relation to its suburbs (Madden, 2000, p. 3-7). The very poorest Americans have become even more concentrated; the 100 largest cities’ share of the nation’s welfare recipients grew from almost 48 percent in 1994 to over 58 percent in 1999 (Allen & Kirby, 2000). 

Not surprisingly given these demographic changes, in the decade after 1982 economic disparities between school districts rose, whether measured by household income, poverty rates, or rates of housing vacancy (Ho, 1999). In my view, if leaders of the American system of public schools truly sought to promote equal opportunity, they would enact policies to offset these growing disparities.  And sometimes they do, as we have seen in the context of efforts to promote desegregation of schools, to equalize funding across wealthy and poor districts, and to improve test scores of poorly-achieving students. But too many policies have the effect if not the intent of reinforcing inequality and helping to maintain acute deprivation, as I demonstrate in the next section.

Policies That Reinforce Inequality

               Poor children bring many problems to school that more affluent children usually avoid, all of which affect their readiness to learn and their ability to take advantage of what they are taught. These problems include poor health and nutrition, greater family instability, more frequent moves, less safe communities, fewer books and educational resources in the home or neighborhood, a greater likelihood of having parents or other caretakers who have little formal education and/or speak little English, and anxieties about racial or ethnic discrimination (Anyon, 1997; Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Klebanov, & Sealand, 1993; Garfinkel, Hochschild, & McLanahan, 1996; Pogue, 2000).  If policy-makers seek to reduce class disparities, they must attend to these problems, for which the educational system cannot be blamed.  Nevertheless, public schools could do much more than they do to offset the harms that poor students bring to school. In particular, three features of schooling correspond to the system of nested inequalities and worsen the disadvantages of poor urban schools, thereby reinforcing social class inequities. They are financial inequality across states and districts, disparities in the quality of teaching across districts, schools, and classrooms, and excessive ability grouping and unequal curricular offerings across schools and classrooms.

Financial Inequities: The nation as a whole spent about $7,080 per student in 2001.  Controlling for regional cost differences, the most generous states were New Jersey at $9,360, New York at $8,860, Connecticut at $8,800, and Wisconsin at $8,740.  The most abstemious states, with the same controls, were Utah at an astounding $4,580, Arizona at $5,010, and California at $5,600.  In six states, virtually all of the students attended school in districts with per pupil expenditures at or above the U.S. average; in an additional six states, six percent or fewer of the students enjoyed similar levels of resources (all data in Education Week, 2002, p. 86-87).   

            Befitting a structure of nested inequalities, disparities in funding across districts within a state may be almost as great. Some states have very slim bands of inequality; Delaware, Florida, Iowa, and West Virginia show less than eight percent variation among all districts around the average-spending district. But in other states the variation around the average-spending district is huge -- 33 percent in Alaska and close to 20 percent in Vermont, Montana, North Dakota, and New Hampshire (the measure here is the coefficient of variation; data are adjusted to control for local cost differences and weighted for student needs [defined as poverty and special education]; all data in Education Week, 2002, p. 88-89).   In New York and New Jersey, disparities between the schools in the top and bottom deciles of funding grew dramatically in the two decades after 1973-74 (Schneier, 2001, p. 229).  That trajectory was reversed in New Jersey in the 1990s; we do not know how typical these two states are.

            In my view, more money is not all that is needed to improve schooling outcomes for poor children, and I, like others, have observed schools with few resources doing a fantastic job of teaching poor children.  But usually more money is necessary if not sufficient to provide better schooling; it enables preschool, smaller classes, better libraries and labs, higher-paid teachers, newer textbooks, art and music classes, professional development, and all the things that contribute to improved educational outcomes.  It is unlikely that a parent chooses to move to a lower-spending district if she can afford to live in a higher-spending district, and districts never vie to spend less in the endless disputes in state legislatures over funding formulas.  So money matters, although how and how much needs more careful consideration than we can give it here (for more on school finance reform and its effects, see Burtless, 1996; Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003; Ladd, Chalk, & Hansen, 1999; Ladd & Hansen, 1999; Ludwig & Bassi, 1999).

            Quality of Teaching:  The evidence is clear on the positive effects of good teachers and the harm that can be done by bad ones; in one study, elementary students taught for three years in a row by highly ineffective teachers ended up in the 45th percentile or below on state math tests, whereas students with three particularly good teachers scored over the 85th percentile (Sanders & Rivers, 1996; see also Bembry, Jordan, Gomez, Anderson, & Mendro, 1998; Mendro, Jordan, Gomez, Anderson, & Bembry, 1998; National Center for Education Statistics, 2000e, p. 5-7). As these studies suggest, the impact of poor teaching can be dramatic, cumulative, and difficult to reverse.

Yet students who live in poor districts, or poor students (often students of color) in a given district or school, are much more likely to be taught by less effective teachers, no matter how effectiveness is defined (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Education Trust, 2000; Puma & Drury, 2000; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 1998: 32; Wenglinsky, 2000). Schools with the highest levels of poverty and the largest proportion of minority students have twice as many new teachers as the best-off and whitest schools (Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002; see also National Center for Education Statistics, 2000e, p. 13-14), despite the fact that experienced teachers are more effective ( National Center for Education Statistics, 2000e, p. 13; Ogawa, Huston, & Stine, 1999, p. 661). Teachers are especially likely to leave high-poverty schools, which makes it difficult to develop a sense of community and a shared culture of learning (Recruiting New Teachers, 2000).  Some studies assert the effectiveness of state certification and licensure requirements (Darling-Hammond, 2001; Darling-Hammond, Berry, & Thoreson, 2001; for counter-arguments see Abell Foundation, 2001; Goldhaber & Brewer, 2000) -- but more noncertified teachers work in high-poverty and/or urban schools than in their wealthier or suburban counterparts (Ingersoll, 2002).  Even in the context of an overall decline in academic qualifications of new teachers over the past few decades (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000e, p. 7-10), students in poor districts are most likely to have teachers who themselves test poorly (Education Trust, 2000, p. 8).  Minority children, students in high-poverty schools, and lower-achieving classes more often have teachers who have not majored or minored in the subject they are teaching, especially in math and science (Ingersoll, 2002). These are, however, the fields for which the relationship between subject area knowledge and effectiveness has been most clearly demonstrated (Goldhaber & Brewer, 2000).

The evidence continues.  Schools, and especially classrooms, with high concentrations of poor or non-Anglo children have fewer and older computers, and less access to the internet (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000a). More generally, teachers in high-poverty or urban schools are more likely to report inadequate teaching resources (Education Week, 1998, p. 21).  In California, the number of unqualified teachers rose dramatically in recent years, mainly in classrooms with Hispanic, disadvantaged, or low-achieving students ( CSR Research Consortium 2002; Ogawa et al., 1999; Jepson & Rivkin, 2002).

The challenges here are as analytically simple as they are politically and organizationally huge; without a large number of qualified, dedicated, experienced teachers for poor children, and classrooms with reasonable resources for those teachers to use, the odds against their participation in the American dream are almost insuperable.

Ability Grouping and Curricular Offerings:  Finally, in the fourth level of the structure of nested inequalities, students are separated by socioeconomic class as well as by measured ability into different experiences within a given school.  Arguments flourish about the causes and consequences of tracking and ability grouping, but several things seem clear. 

First, although tracking used to be racially discriminatory, by now “the claim of racial discrimination in group placement by teachers is not supported by research, once conventional indicators of merit or economic standing are accounted for” (Ferguson, 1998, p. 329). However, analysts almost universally agree that there is considerable discrimination in ability grouping on the basis of class, even controlling for achievement and other factors.  The raw facts are startling enough – almost three times as many high-income as low-income students enroll in college preparatory tracks. In more sophisticated analyses, achievement and ability (typically measured by test scores, prior placements, and teachers’ judgments) almost always show up as the chief determinants of students’ placement – but class-based factors usually come in second (Dauber, Alexander, & Entwistle, 1996; Gamoran & Mare, 1989; Jones, Vanfossen, & Ensminger, 1995; Miller, 1995, p. 237-240; National Center for Education Statistics, 2000b).

There is a more worrisome problem with the practice of ability grouping.  If achievement tests are racially biased, or if poor (especially poor black and Hispanic) children consistently receive the worst teaching and therefore learn the least, then the fact that measured prior achievement most strongly determines a student’s placement is not reassuring to those concerned about equal opportunity in schooling or diversity in classrooms.  So the congruence among poverty, minority status, and low quality of teaching becomes reinforced by ability grouping, even when it relies more on measured achievement than on teachers’ (perhaps biased) judgments or parents’ insistence.

The thorniest issues, however, present an even more severe challenge to the goal of equal opportunity: if grouping by ability harms the chances of many, even while benefiting some, its costs may be too high. The empirical literature on the effects of ability-based separation does frustratingly little to help resolve the issue of whether the costs outweigh the benefits, since careful studies show all possible combinations of results.  Some find that all grouped students can benefit (Camarena, 1990; Epple, Newlon, & Romano, 2002; Epstein & MacIver, 1992; Ferguson, 1998; Figlio & Page, 2002; Lou et al., 1996; Valli, 1990).  Others find that grouping makes little difference compared with other schooling variables, or that it reduces overall achievement levels (Gamoran, 1992; Slavin, 1990a; Slavin, 1990b). The most recent and methodologically sophisticated articles in this literature, however, find that students in high tracks benefit from grouping and students in low tracks are harmed, or at least are not helped (Argys, et al., 1996; Gamoran & Mare, 1989; Garet & DeLany, 1988; Lucas, 1999).

Two conclusions shine through this morass.  First, contradictions in the research point to differences in practice that call for a careful policy choice. Experimental studies that control for most factors affecting students’ outcomes show that, when curriculum and instructional methods are similar for all students, skill grouping by itself neither consistently helps nor harms students (e.g. Ferguson, 1998).  But studies of actual school settings usually find that students in the low groups do worse than they should, even given their presumedly lower ability (Shepard, 1992). The proper debate, then, is whether educators should seek to abolish ability grouping on the grounds that it will never be fairly done, or whether they should concentrate on ensuring a challenging curriculum, equal teaching quality, and a fair allocation of resources across groups (Exchange, 1994).

            Second, the contradictory research results imply that “decisions about grouping are preliminary and what matters most comes next: decisions about what to do with students after they are assigned to classes. Given poor instruction, neither heterogeneous nor homogeneous grouping can be effective; with excellent instruction, either may succeed” (Gamoran, 1993, p. 44; see also Ferguson, 1998; Oakes, Gamoran, & Page, 1992).  As the most influential book seeking to abolish tracking put it, “the most significant thing we found is that generally our entire sample of classes turned out to be pretty noninvolving places…. Passive activities… were dominant at all track levels…. Any statements that can be made about differences between tracks… must be seen in this context” (Oakes, 1985, p. 129).

              The deepest problem, then, is that too many students are poorly taught, and students in low ability groups – disproportionately poor students, who are disproportionately of color -- usually are the most poorly taught of all (Good, 1987; Ingersoll, 1999; Weiss, 1997).  And these failures and inequities have long-term effects:  the intensity and quality of secondary school curriculum have the greatest impact on completion of a bachelor’s degree, a far greater impact than SES, ethnicity and race, and even test scores and high school class rank (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1999, Executive Summary).

The issue of curriculum quality points us toward “tracking” at the level of schools or districts rather than students.  Middle schools in poor or non-Asian minority communities frequently do not offer algebra in eighth grade, even though it is essential for high-level mathematics in high school (Jones et al., 1995; Monk & Rice, 1997; Raudenbush, Fotiu, & Cheong, 1998; Spade, Columba, & Vanfossen, 1997).  Poor schools are less likely to offer advanced mathematics or science courses, Advanced Placement (AP) courses, or honors English and history courses than schools in wealthier and predominantly white communities  (Oakes et al., 1992, p. 589; National Center for Education Statistics, 1995, table A2.2b). Children of parents who have not attended college, who are disproportionately poor and nonwhite, are twice as likely to attend schools that do not offer algebra in eighth grade as children whose parents completed college (National Center for Education Research, 2000b).  

In 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against the state of California, claiming that “129 California public high schools with 80,000 students do not offer any AP courses; and 333 schools offer four or fewer.  In contrast,… 144 public high schools in California offer more than 14 AP courses” (Sahagun & Weiss, 1999, p. A13). Small rural schools and schools in poor urban districts were least likely to offer AP courses, thus disadvantaging African Americans, recent Latino immigrants, and poor whites, especially since the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA weigh AP courses and their test scores heavily in admissions decisions.  The general counsel for the state’s department of education agreed that “this is a genuine equity issue and I think it will have enough political push to bring about a solution” (Bathen, 1999, p. M3). Prodded by this lawsuit, the College Board set up a program to ensure that all public high schools offer AP courses within a few years (currently 40 percent do not), and some schools are encouraging more students to take them (Viadero, 2001).

Directions for Public Policy

This is not the place to analyze in detail what ought to be done to reduce the patterns of nested inequalities and concentrated harms in public schooling; any serious policy change is enormously complicated, particularly in the diffuse and decentralized world of public schooling. Nevertheless, the outlines of the moves needed to weaken the link between social class and educational outcomes are clear.

Where it has been reasonably implemented, educating poor children with students who are more privileged, or educating them like students who are more privileged, has improved their performance and long-term chances of success (Kahlenberg, 2000; Rubinowitz & Rosenbaum, 2000).  Quality preschool, individual reading instruction, small classes in the early grades, assignment to classes with peers who take school seriously and behave in ways that enable them to learn, and consistently challenging academic courses have been shown to help disadvantaged children achieve, just as they enable middle-class children to achieve (for reviews of this extensive literature, see Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003; Puma & Drury, 2000).  Most importantly, qualified, knowledgeable teachers make a difference, as described above.  Well-off children almost always attend schools that have most of these features; poor children too frequently do not.

An honest attempt to secure a good education for poor children therefore leaves policymakers with two difficult choices.  They can send them to schools with wealthier children, or they can, as a reasonable second-best, seek to give them an education in their own neighborhoods that has the features of schooling for well-off students.  The former has proved so far to be too expensive politically, and the latter has often been too expensive financially (for histories of and evidence on school desegregation and school finance equalization efforts, see Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003).  After a decade of studying the subject, I conclude that if Americans really wanted all children to have a real chance to learn, they would

  • eliminate disparities in funding across states, districts, and schools and provide extra funding for the poorest schools and districts as needed;
  •  provide the resources needed to overcome the social, health-related, and physical problems that poor children disproportionately bring into schools;
  • redistribute the teaching staff and enhance the quality, training, and deployment of all teachers;
  • implement clear standards for higher-order learning, with appropriate supports, and hold schools and educators as well as students accountable;
  • eliminate the forms of ability grouping with no demonstrated benefits and ensure that all schools and classrooms offer stimulating and difficult curricula;
  • redraw district and neighborhood assignment lines to ensure a broad mix of students across economic strata (and races or ethnicities) within a school.

The worst urban schools would be reconstituted or shut down, and the children in them dispersed among schools with a much higher proportion of middle class students.

Moving poor children into more affluent schools is not a panacea. When poor families move from deeply poor neighborhoods into communities with very little poverty, the children typically have more behavioral problems in school, even though their test scores improve (Ludwig, Ladd, & Duncan, 2001).  African American students also report more racism among their new classmates and neighbors, and worry about holding their own socially in their new environment  (Rubinowitz & Rosenbaum, 2000).  These social and emotional difficulties warrant concern, but they pale beside the much larger problem of racial and class isolation; I think it would be a sign of enormous progress if our chief problem was encouraging poor and well-off children in the same school and classroom to engage with each other more effectively.

Similarly, improving the quality of schooling in impoverished schools is extraordinarily difficult.  Educators within a school develop a culture, and some urban schools have developed a culture of failure (Payne, 1997).  In others, educators focus more on workplace concerns, racially based frustrations, a search for power in their community, or other issues of real importance but remote from a focus on teaching and learning (Henig et al., 1999; Orr, 1999; Rich, 1996).  These problems similarly warrant concern, but probably most urban schools suffer more from the less exotic problems of insufficient resources, lower quality teaching, and students’ needs for intensive instruction.  In any case, it would be worth finding out.

Public schools are essential to enable Americans to succeed, but schools are also the arena in which some children first fail.  Failure there almost certainly guarantees failure from then on.  Americans would like to believe that failure results from lack of individual merit and effort; in reality, failure in school too closely tracks structures of racial and class inequality.  American schools too often reinforce rather than contend against those structures; that is understandable but not acceptable. 



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Author Biography

Jennifer Hochschild is a Professor of Government at Harvard University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Afro-American Studies.  She received a B.A from Oberlin College in 1971 and a Ph.D. from Yale University in 1979.   She is the author of Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation (Princeton University Press, 1995); The New American Dilemma: Liberal Democracy and School Desegregation (Yale University Press, 1984); What's Fair: American Beliefs about Distributive Justice (Harvard University Press, 1981) and a co-author of Equalities (Harvard University Press, 1981).  She is a co-editor of Social Policies for Children (Brookings Institution Press, 1995).  Prof. Hochschild is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a former vice-president of the American Political Science Association, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Russell Sage Foundation, and a member of the Board of Overseers of the General Social Survey.  She has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, the Spencer Foundation, the American Political Science Association, the Princeton University Research Board, and other organizations.  She has also served as a consultant or expert witness in several school desegregation cases, most recently the on-going case of Yonkers Board of Education v. New York State.