How Public Schools Can Fight Back Against Inequality

Three programs that are doing a good job of educating low-income students

A student raises his hand at the School for Human Rights, one of New York City's "small" public schools. (Mary Altaffer/AP Photo)

Rising income inequality over the past 40 years has imposed a double burden on schools serving low-income children. First, the technological changes and globalization that have fueled inequality have also increased the skills required for good jobs—which means that schools need to teach higher-level skills if their graduates are to secure jobs that pay middle-class wages. And second, increasing income inequality has led to residential changes that have concentrated poor children in one set of schools and higher-income children in another.

Past efforts to improve public schools have often been based on the assumption that there are “silver bullets”—more money, more accountability, more choice, more charter schools. None of these approaches has resulted in consistently better schooling for low-income children.  This is because none focuses directly on improving what matters most in education: the quality and consistency of the instruction and other learning experiences provided to students.

It is easy to dwell on the characteristics of American education that make constructive change difficult. However, there are also strengths to build on. Of particular importance are educational interventions, conducted at considerable scale, that have been shown in rigorous evaluations to improve instruction and develop the skills of low-income children. Our new book, Restoring Opportunity, features three such initiatives: Boston’s pre-K program, the campuses of the University of Chicago charter school, and New York City’s small schools of choice. These durable programs demonstrate that it is indeed possible to improve the education of low-income children by focusing resources consistently on improving the teaching of critical skills.

Although these programs are exceptional, they highlight what it will take to improve the education of low-income children on a wider scale. All take advantage of advances in research-based knowledge about the critical components of good pre-K, elementary-school, and high-school education. All provide essential supports for teachers and school leaders. All incorporate high academic standards, such as the Common Core State Standards. And finally, all include sensible systems of accountability.

Supports to help teachers improve their instruction are particularly important. One of the first steps Jason Sachs took after becoming Director of the Department of Early Childhood for the Boston Public Schools in 2006 was to commission an external evaluation of the district’s pre-K program that was operating in 16 elementary schools and was available by lottery to 1,200 of Boston’s four-year-olds. As reported in the Boston Globe, the evaluation found that the program was “hobbled by mediocre instruction  . . . . In many classrooms, children spent a lot of their day sitting at desks while teachers lectured.”

Faced with the disturbing evaluation results, Sachs and his colleagues set out to improve program quality. They developed an integrated, play-based curriculum that combined proven mathematics, literacy, and behavioral development programs. The department organized the training and one-on-one coaching by highly skilled professionals that Boston’s 60 pre-K teachers needed to teach the curriculum effectively. It made sure that every teacher had all of the materials needed for the hands-on activities so critical to children’s learning.  Biennial evaluations of the program over the next six years showed continual improvement in program quality, concurrent with expansion to more than 120 pre-K classes serving 2,400 children in 68 elementary schools.

A look into one of the pre-K classrooms shows how the rich curriculum and coaching plays out in children’s and teachers’ everyday activities. Karla Settles, a young African-American teacher, finishes reading The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza to the twenty-two African-American and Hispanic children sitting on a rug in her classroom in the Mather Elementary School in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.  As she calls out letters of the alphabet, the children whose first names begin with each letter move excitedly to the activity area of their choice.  As the children work together at their tasks—rolling out Play Doh into the shape of pizzas, painting the vegetables that go on the pizza, washing the pans—Ms. Settles and the teacher’s aide move from group to group, asking questions to help the children understand the new words in the story.

The second effective intervention we describe developed in Chicago.  In 1998, the University of Chicago Charter School opened its first campus, the North Kenwood/Oakland Elementary School.  NKO is one of four campuses currently located on the city’s south side that serve nearly 1,700 children, overwhelmingly low-income students from grades K through 12.  Throughout its 15-year history, the leadership of the charter school campuses has focused on providing one-on-one coaching in implementing a rigorous literacy curriculum, student assessments to help guide instruction, and time during the school day to collaborate with and learn from other teachers. After Shannon Keys saw the supports provided at NKO to improve her teaching, she left another charter school in the city and took a pay cut to come to NKO.

Beginning in 2001, the New York City Public Schools closed a great many large, low-performing high schools located in low-income neighborhoods. The district then held a series of design competitions, inviting small groups of educators with community partners to develop proposals for new small high schools.  This initiative has produced more than 200 new small high schools serving more than 10,000 students in low-income areas of the city, with enrollment in the vast majority of the schools available, by lottery, to all students.  In one of the small high schools featured in our book and videos, the entire ninth-grade curriculum focuses on developing the literacy skills students will need to do demanding work in all of the core subject areas. Developing students’ literacy skills is understood to be the responsibility of all teachers, not just English teachers. The ninth-grade teaching team meets weekly to make sure that instruction in specific literacy strategies is coherent and consistent across subject areas, while also developing individualized plans aimed at building the skills of lagging students.

Many of the teachers in these schools welcomed the Common Core State Standards, which specify the skills in English language arts and mathematics that American students are expected to master at each grade level from kindergarten through 12th grade. The Core offers teachers and school leaders an essential support: clarity about the conceptual and procedural skills children should learn in each grade.

All of the schools we highlight faced accountability pressures. For the schools participating in the Boston pre-K program, accountability meant that each school was expected to achieve and retain accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. For the Chicago charter schools and the small high schools of choice in New York City, accountability included a requirement that their students score well on state-mandated examinations.

Moreover, teachers and school leaders in all of the schools we described in Restoring Opportunity experienced a more immediate and important type of accountability: a responsibility to their colleagues for educating every student.  For Boston pre-K teachers, this included taking advantage of the coaching that the program provided.  For the Chicago teachers, it meant working together to implement the balanced literacy curriculum more consistently.  For the ninth-grade teachers at the New York City small high school we describe, it meant embracing their shared responsibility to develop the skills of all incoming students, including those reading far below grade level.

What is the impact of these kinds of initiatives? A careful study of the Boston pre-K program shows that it had quite large effects on standardized tests of children's mathematics and language skills, and also improved their ability to pay attention.  Students at the Chicago charter schools scored 30 points higher on an SAT-type scale in reading, and 40 points higher in math, than those who applied for the charters but were not chosen in admission lotteries. These achievement gains are substantially larger than those achieved by implementing the very expensive policy of reducing class sizes in the primary grades. The evaluation study of the small high schools in New York City found that graduation rates were seven percentage points higher for students attending small schools of choice than for students who lost out in enrollment lotteries.

What will it take to provide all low-income children with the high-quality educational experiences we describe in Restoring Opportunity? The answer depends on the nation’s commitment to a broad and comprehensive definition of education, its recognition of the immense challenges high-poverty schools face, and its willingness to invest the money it will take to provide the consistently strong school supports and well-designed accountability systems necessary for lasting success.