A Cultural Theory Of The Achievement Gap
Why does achievement gaps grow during time away from school?
A good working hypothesis is that the naive assumption that school attendance is mostly about memorizing specific subject matter facts taught in particular classes is mostly wrong.
More consistent with the data is the notion that the vast majority of learning through school attendance is ultimately about language acquisition, about developing habits of thinking, and about behavioral habit forming. Academic achievement is to a great extent an indirect reflection of the extent to which students have developed a firm command of a standard English language dialect, "criticial thinking," and pro-social and conscientious behavioral habits.
Middle class kids acquire a command of the standard English language dialect, are pressed to engage in critical thinking, and are encouraged to develop pro-social and conscientious behavior habits mostly simply through their effortless, day to day informal interactions with their family members and their same social class peers.
Low income and minority kids are much more likely to have parents and peers for whom the standard middle class English language dialect is not their primary means of communicating informally in their homes, who may be less pressed by parents, same social class peers, and other caretakers at home to engage in critical thinking in the course of everyday communications, and whose parents, caretakers at home and peers may not model the pro-social and conscientious behavioral habits that similar people in the lives of their middle class peers do.
Instead, these students acquire this dialect, these habits of thinking, and the behavioral habits primarily from their middle class school teachers and middle class classmates at school who are held up as good examples to follow. They can't acquire these informally from parents and peers outside of school, because these people don't speak that dialect of the English language, don't have those habits of thinking themselves, and are unable to model those behavioral habits.
Effective Educational Programs As Cultural Imperialism
The good news is that:
(1) a significant part of the academic achievement gap appears to have an environmental cause (otherwise it wouldn't disproportionately arise during summer vacations),
(2) we are beginning to develop a consistent, empirically validated and replicated understanding of what kinds of environmental factors give rise to the academic achievement gap, and
(3) we can begin to use that understanding to design educational programs that consistently improve academic achievement in underperforming kids.
Indeed, a number of distinguished schools (mostly in charter schools or similarly experimental curricular offerings) such as the Denver School of Science and Technology, D'Evelyn School in Jefferson County, Colorado, the KIPP program, and a number of Roman Catholic schools appear to have distilled the really critical components that an academic program needs to reduce the academic achievement gap and sustain these positive educational outcomes.
The bad news is that what seems to work best in these schools, at its core, amounts to brazen cultural imperalism. You improve academic achievement and reduce the academic achievement gap mostly by intense, sustained and intrusive destruction of the working class and/or ethnic cultural habits, speech patterns and norms that these kids have acquired from their parents and community and replacing those culture habits, speech patterns and norms with white middle class culturally habits, speech patterns and norms.
To use the crass slang expressions for this phenomena, the secret to improving academic achievement is to turn black kids into "Oreos" (black on the outside, white on the inside), to turn Asian kids into "Twinkies" (aka "Bananas")(yellow on the outside, white on the inside), to turn Hispanic kids into "coconuts" (aka into "a pocho") (brown on the outside, white on the inside), to turn Dixie kids and Hillbillies into Yankees, and so on.
Given this reality, it is perhaps less surprising that effective educational practices are often met with resistance from parents and local communities when they do not belong to the more or less white middle class culture that school impart to children.
The Case Of Talawanda School District
These issues aren't confined to the deep South, the American Southwest, or inner cities. Cultural imperalism issues in which a large part of the student body is part of a different social class and ethnic culture than the predominant group of teachers was when I was in school, and continues to be, a pervasive issue in the small town Talawanda School District (the geographically largest school district in the State of Ohio), particular at its only middle school and only high school (in a district with no private school options anywhere in or close to the district at the high school level, one secular K-8 private school affiliated with a local public university, and very few other private school options).
Teachers and administrators in the district overwhelmingly shared a middle class urban Yankee culture with the parents and children of the local university town within the district where the middle school, high school, and one of the district's elementary schools were located. Those students thrived in Talawanda's schools and strong supported the school district.
But, these teachers and administrators had little in common with the rural, often working class, mostly evangelical Christian farming dominated community that surrounded the college town. This community in the "outlying areas" has long felt alienated from the offerings of the school district, and feel that their children are not given a fair shake in the system outside a handful of institutions such as the vocational education curriculum, the Future Farmers of America club, the Future Homemakers of America club, and the high school football team, that this community has taken ownership of within the district. This translated into an intense ill will towards the district and generalized lack of support for the school district. At one point the tensions even reached the point where formal discussions began to consider a split of the district into two separate districts, one for the township including the local university town and the other for the rest of the district (in the end, this effort fizzled).
The results were clear when it came to academics. The upper academic tracks in the school, academic awards, and most school clubs were dominated by townies, and scorned by students from the outlying areas. Serious fights in the school often crossed these ethnic lines.
Both communities of the Talawanda school district were overwhelmingly white and most of the non-white students in the distict were affiliated with the local university and had more in common culturally with their teachers and administrators than with the rural students from the "outlying areas", whose worldviews were closer to those of Appalachians than the New England and Mid-Atlantic populations that have provided the cultural legacy carried on by the local university (Miami University of Ohio).
Before the Civil War (i.e. from 1809 until 1861), Miami University was almost equally divided between young men who felt cultural ties to the South and those who felt cultural ties to the North, but this shifted decisively towards Northern cultural ties after the civil war, and the homogenizing cultural impact of a national post-secondary educational community has futhered these tendencies in the post-World War II era during which almost all U.S. colleges and universities experienced major expansions and cultural disruptions due to G.I. Bill facilitated enrollments.
A school that isn't accepted, because the culture it is indoctrinating its students in is not the native culture of the students, is not effective. This is just as true in cases where the subordinated culture in a school consists of people who are white and would likely identify their ethnicity on a census form as "American", as it is for a Hispanic kid in a Texas border town, or a black kid on the South side of Chicago.
School Choice, Cultural Imperialism and First Amendment Values
If you had to name one person behind the school choice movement that has been the single most transformative force in American public education in the last generation or so, it would be Milton Friedman, the free market economist and popularizer of basic economic ideas into political economy agendas.
Friedman's support for a voucher approach to public education was based on three basic observations. First, even poor people are much more rational in making consumption decisions, once you really sit in their shoes, than they are given credit for being. Second, while our society has considerable economic inequality, political power is distributed even more inequitably. Third, it is easier to transfer additional economic power to the poor (e.g., via a voucher) than it is to transfer additional political power to the poor.
Most advocates for vouchers or charter schools within public educational systems have echoed his argument that competition driven by individualized consumer choice is more effective at producing good educational outcomes than the approach of having popularly elected school board members manage schools on a more centralized basis.
What neither Friedman nor his supporters emphasized is a point that may equally important in making educational programs, which are a fundamentally a form of cultural indoctrination, work.
Without this symbolic embrace of the program by the child's parents and peers, the educational practices which are most reliably effective in narrowing academic achievement gaps, no matter how well meant and effective they may be, are intrusive forms of cultural imperalism that will face resistance from parents and peers and may be less effective as a result.
On the other hand, the symbolic voluntary act of buying into, electing and supporting the methods of such a program can make the cultural practices involved a part of the child's and community's culture, especially if many of the child's peers (and that child's parent's peers) in the same community make the same choice.
This is an effect separate and apart from a rational choice, competition based effect. The school curriculum and staff may be identical whether your child attends the school because he or she is directed by the government to go there, or because the child and the child's parents have made a voluntary decision to elect to attend the school. But, the curriculum may be more effective for the former child than the latter one, even assuming all other things are equal.
One of the widely shared meta-rules of America's many cultures that co-exist together is that intimate matters of one's personal identity (exemplified in the freedom to adhere to and practice a minority set of religious convictions absent only the most extreme exceptions) may not be modified by the government without your consent. School choice systems provide that consent and in doing so make available to educators educational tools that could not have been available consistent to American norms about cultural imperialism in any other way.
The evidence shows that the tools that this consent makes available are very important to closing the achievement gap between low income and minority students and their white middle class peers. So, school choice may be providing benefits to the American educational system's effectiveness that go beyond the advances merely attributable to the relative effectiveness, on average, of the discipline of market competition for students in a school choice system relative to the discipline arising from effective control of school districts by elected school board members.