Don’t fix what isn’t broken: Why Betsy DeVos’ radical agenda for U.S. public education makes no sense

As the Senate prepares to vote on the nomination of Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for secretary of education, it is critical to confront a key (but not always explicit) assumption. DeVos asserts that “U.S. schools are failing,” and many senators assume that to be the case. But is this true? And if so, in what ways? Answering these questions is very important, as strategies to fix failing schools should be very different from those designed to improve schools that are already doing well.

A new analysis of changes in U.S. student performance over the past decade strongly suggests that our nation’s schools are not failing. Rather, they have made real progress on two related issues we care deeply about: boosting student achievement and closing race-based achievement gaps. This analysis, by economists Martin Carnoy of Stanford University and EPI’s Emma Garcia, uses a reliable and valid gauge—reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as “the Nation’s Report Card.”

Students of all subgroups continued to gain ground in both reading and mathematics, with larger gains in the latter, sustaining a prior trend. And while black-white achievement gaps remain large—between about half and three-fourths of a standard deviation, depending on subject and grade—they declined steadily over the ten years studied.

The news is not all good, for sure. We have made little overall progress in closing income-based achievement gaps (although in the face of sharply increased student poverty and income inequality, that may amount in practical terms to progress, rather than just holding the line steady). And non-English-speaking students, both Hispanic and Asian, are falling a bit further behind their English-speaking peers.

Perhaps most pertinent to this month’s celebration of African American history, many black students, especially those growing up in low-income families and communities, remain isolated in our highest-poverty schools, which impedes their academic performance.

Even here, however, the report provides an important, and timely, glimmer of hope. Because they had such a large dataset to work with, Carnoy and Garcia were able to determine how much a school’s ethnic composition matters. Specifically, they were able to control for such major factors as income level, race or ethnicity, state conditions, and the school’s poverty level to ask, “How do black, Hispanic, and white students, respectively, fare in heavily minority schools?” (defined as schools in which at least three-fourths of students are black and/or Hispanic).

They found that, while being in such a school reduced test scores slightly for black and Hispanic students, white students in these schools either performed the same or better than white students in other schools. Together, these findings demonstrate the benefits of racial and ethnic integration at a time when our public schools are increasingly diverse and, thus, offer the potential for more such mingling. Whether you are a black, brown, or white child, learning alongside a sizeable group of peers whose skin color/ethnicity is different from your own is positive. That would explain why black and brown kids didn’t do as well when surrounded by other kids like them, while for white kids, being in such contexts didn’t hurt them and, in some cases, helped. Of course, the impacts are very small compared with other factors, such as a student’s personal, family, and community characteristics. Still, the findings are encouraging.

Unfortunately, very few students are reaping the potential benefits of diversity in schools. Carnoy and Garcia found that the share of nonwhite and low-income students has increased substantially and that nonwhite and low-income students’ odds of being in a school in which their peers were also nonwhite and poor have also increased. Even as many more schools served a heavily low-income student body, few white students attended these disadvantaged schools. Student eligibility for free or reduced-priced lunch served as the measure of individual poverty and the share of students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch as the measure of school poverty.

The study found that poor black students were three times as likely to attend a high-poverty school as poor white students, and that non-poor (or advantaged) blacks were more than six times as likely to attend a high-poverty school as non-poor whites. In 2013, just 3.2 percent of non-poor white students attended high-poverty schools, and even among poor white students, only one in six (16 percent) attended high-poverty schools. In contrast, even among advantaged black students, over 20 percent attended high-poverty schools, while more than half (52.5 percent) of poor black students attended a high-poverty school.

These trends hurt all students and, indeed, the nation as a whole. The authors assert that the significant increase between 2003 and 2013 in children attending high-poverty schools had a negative effect on the achievement gains of all students, regardless of racial or ethnic status, and that the “concentration of low social class (and black and Hispanic students) is likely to be significantly reducing math and reading gains in U.S. schools across all states.” But the concentration of poor and minority students hurts low-income students of color the most, since they are very disproportionately stuck in these isolated, under-resourced schools.

As we celebrate Black History Month and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and continue to work toward his vision of a truly great country, we have our work cut out for us. And as senators decide whether Betsy DeVos is the right person to lead our nation’s public schools for the next four years, they should do so grounded by the knowledge that our schools are doing pretty well, especially given the massive obstacles they face. Radical changes like seeking to privatize them make no sense. Our next secretary of education should focus instead on breaking down the barriers to further progress posed by high rates of student poverty and, especially, by the racial and economic segregation to which we continue to consign far too many of our children.