A Tale of Two Rothsteins

Response Essays
April 11, 2008

After reading his current essay, it occurred to me that there might as well be two Richard Rothsteins writing about the schools. First there’s the Rothstein who trumpets the success of America’s public schools and their teachers. In this essay, and in some of his other publications, Rothstein contends that since World War II the nation’s K-12 education system has continued to perform well above the minimum level needed to sustain a productive and competitive economy. Why then do so many highly knowledgeable people continue to believe that America is saddled with a failing public school system that, in turn, undermines the nation’s economic future? The blame for this confusion, according to Rothstein, rests in the first place with the misdiagnosis of the problem by the authors of A Nation at Risk, the hugely influential 1983 report issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Rothstein challenges the commission’s assertion, based in part on changes in SAT scores, that student achievement was declining and that American education was sinking under a “rising tide of mediocrity.” He argues that the sharp drop in SAT performance in the 1960s and 1970s cited by the commission should have been attributed to “the changing composition of SAT test takers.” Once the pool of test takers was stabilized, according to Rothstein, average SAT scores for whites and blacks began rising again. Moreover, Rothstein cites a number of other indicators of student academic improvement that the authors of A Nation at Risk either overlooked or failed to anticipate, and that support his contention that the schools were actually accomplishing their academic mission at the time of the report’s publication. He produces trend scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showing dramatic improvement in black students’ fourth grade math scores over the past three decades, and adds that blacks made modest gains in reading scores as well. Looking back across this entire period, Rothstein proclaims that our unjustly maligned public schools and their teachers should actually be applauded for the fact that “minority and disadvantaged children … have gained a full standard deviation in test score improvement in a single generation.”

Despite this generally rosy picture, Rothstein is no Dr. Pangloss. He does grant that an unacceptably high rate of academic failure persists among inner city disadvantaged children. In his 2004 book, Class And Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap, Rothstein has offered many proposals about how to narrow the still substantial black-white achievement gap. The trouble is that these proposals have little to do with education per se, and are unlikely to ever be implemented. It is here that the other Rothstein emerges. The very public schools that Rothstein lavishes praise on for their crucial role in lifting SAT scores over the past three decades, for raising black test scores, and for somewhat narrowing the achievement gap, suddenly become powerless (and thus blameless) to close the deal.

This other Rothstein concludes that further improvements in academic outcomes for the disadvantaged can not, by and large, be achieved through any current education reform strategy for the schools — not charters and vouchers, not by improving school curriculums or classroom instructional practices, not even by pouring more money into the schools. For Rothstein, school reform essentially has become radical social and political reform. He is convinced that we won’t see further significant gains in academic achievement for the urban poor until we achieve an expansive welfare state. Since this isn’t going to happen, the effect is to let schools and teachers off the hook for failing to raise academic achievement. After all it’s not the schools’ fault that children with poor housing, poor health care, children who come from homes with no intellectual stimulation, “enter school already so far behind they rarely can catch up.” Furthermore, argues Rothstein, “Parents under severe economic stress cannot provide the support children need to excel … .”

This represents, in just one short essay, a remarkable 180 degree turn by Rothstein on the question of how much schools ought to be held responsible for improving outcomes for disadvantaged children. Early on in the essay Rothstein castigates the Nation at Risk commission for ignoring substantial evidence showing how much progress disadvantaged and minority children actually made in the 1960s and 1970s, and he then attributes these gains to the quality of the public schools. At the end of the essay, however, Rothstein criticizes the same commission members for not taking into account the evidence already available in 1983 on “nonschool influences on academic achievement.” The commission is specifically faulted for not considering the widely reported findings of the 1966 Coleman Report that “family background factors were more important influences on student achievement variation than school quality.”

I can understand Rothstein arguing for one of these two positions — either schools are able to significantly overcome family and neighborhood deficits that children bring to the classroom (and therefore ought to be judged by that standard) or they cannot be expected to overcome the social and economic deficits. But he perversely insists on having it both ways. He wants to credit the public school system and its teachers for any gains made by minorities and the disadvantaged, but also tries to shift blame away from the schools and onto the shortcomings of the larger society, whenever those same disadvantaged children fall behind.

In fact, Rothstein is mostly wrong on both counts. First, there’s a good deal of evidence that actually supports the diagnosis of academic decline in the 1960s and 1970s made by the authors of A Nation at Risk. Diane Ravitch, one of the nation’s leading experts on national testing and standards, assembled some of this evidence in her 1995 book, National Standards in American Education. Ravitch shows that average SAT verbal scores plummeted from a high of 478 in 1963 down to the 420s by the late 1970s. It remained there until 1994, when scores were recentered. (Rothstein doesn’t mention the recentering.) Average math scores were 502 in 1963 and fell to 466 in 1980. Ravitch also debunks the notion that the decline in SAT scores could have been wholly explained by changes in the composition of the test takers. She points out that the ethnic composition of SAT test takers was not fully reported until 1976, so there is insufficient data on the beginning and crucial years of the reported decline. Moreover, the College Board’s own study on composition said that only half of the decline could be attributed to the demographic changes in the pool. And, according to Ravitch, a report by the Congressional Budget Office “concluded ‘that the overall drop in achievement’ entailing ‘sizable declines in higher level skills, such as inference and problem-solving is beyond question.’”

Let’s now turn to the question of how much responsibility schools should bear for such score declines, or for more generally failing to raise the academic performance of disadvantaged children. On this issue, Rothstein is guilty of the same charge of ignoring the findings of sociologist James Coleman that he has leveled against the authors of A Nation at Risk. In Rothstein’s case, however, it’s the second “Coleman Report,” issued in 1982, that is ignored. By that year, Coleman had substantially modified his views about the ability of schools to overcome the social deficits of their students. He now concluded that what schools did matter a great deal and could make a big difference in raising the academic achievement of disadvantaged children. In a study co-authored with Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore, Coleman concluded that Catholic high schools produced greater achievement gains for lower income students than the public schools. These gains were largely due to the higher academic standards, the more orderly classrooms and the greater sense of social solidarity found in the Catholic schools.

Obviously we can’t really expect that the 1982 Coleman report — and the many other scholarly studies that have arrived at similar conclusions about the efficacy of urban Catholic schools — would lead Rothstein to seriously consider vouchers, tuition tax credits or other forms of aid to Catholic schools as a means of offering poor inner city children a better chance of success. Still it’s sad that Rothstein doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of the second Coleman report, which profoundly challenges his own theories about the relationship between specific school effects and the possibility of raising the achievement of disadvantaged students. It’s even sadder that, because of Rothstein’s ideological fixation on the primacy of class, race, and poverty differences as determinants of learning outcomes, he seems blind to specific curricular and instructional reforms within the public schools that have had an impact in raising the achievement of disadvantaged students.

There’s the “Massachusetts Miracle,” for example, which I wrote about in the Winter 2008 issue of City Journal. In the past several years, Massachusetts has improved more than almost every other state on the NAEP tests. In 2007, it scored first in the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. The state owes this amazing improvement in student performance to its decision to mandate a rigorous curriculum for all grades, creating demanding tests linked to the curriculum standards, and insisting that all high school graduates pass a comprehensive exit exam.

But I doubt that Rothstein is much interested in these real on-the-ground gains for both white and black students. He certainly hasn’t spoken out to protect the gains against the attempts of Massachusetts’ new Democratic Governor Deval Patrick to turn back the reform agenda. Instead, he’s still waiting for the European-style welfare state that will never come.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • A Nation at Risk” Twenty-Five Years Later by Richard Rothstein

    Twenty-five years ago this month, a Reagan-appointed blue-ribbon committee published a blockbuster study, A Nation at Risk, about the sorry state of American education. In this month’s lead essay, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein gives his critical assessment. “In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and, consequently, set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good,” Rothstein writes. “The diagnosis … was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.”

Response Essays

  • The Freedom to Innovate and the Future of Education by Michael Strong

    In his reply, education entrepreneur Michael Strong challenges Rothstein’s key claims about the success of public schools and their relative unimportance for the further economic advance of the poor. He argues that the attachment to the status quo system of public education is “irrational.” Drawing on his experience as the principal of a successful charter school, Strong emphasizes the importance of the freedom to innovate. “The first nation that creates an educational system that allows educational entrepreneurs significant freedom to innovate will, over time, develop a significant advantage in the global marketplace. I’d prefer that the United States lead this movement rather than follow it.”

  • Where Do We Go Now? by Frederick Hess

    Frederick Hess, the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, concedes the premises of Richard Rothstein’s argument but contests their implications for the future of education. According to Hess, the key failing of A Nation at Risk was its too-easy acceptance of “the familiar institutions and practices of K-12 schooling.” As a consequence, the nature of teaching and teacher education has barely changed, despite deep changes in the broader labor market. And even the school choice movement has fallen victim to “the dangers of trying to paste preferred policies atop existing arrangements.” Hess concludes that “we must reject both excuse-mongering and overwrought hyperbole in favor of a steely willingness to revisit the shopworn assumptions and tired verities that have so long characterized school reform on the left and the right.”

The Conversation