Access to strong math content depends on wealth

A new report uses data from an international test in math to suggest that a large part of the achievement gap between rich and poor kids may be due to the strength of the math curriculum to which students are exposed while they’re in school, the Washington Post reports.


Quick example to demonstrate factoring a polynomial by grouping (Dan Bach / Flickr Creative Commons)

Here we go again! The Washington Post promotes a study that has nothing to do with reality and hopes a few ill-informed politicians or members of the public want to do something about it. There’s a shocker!

First of all, nobody cares about an achievement gap. Rich parents care about making education better for rich kids, because those are their kids. Poor parents care about making education better for poor kids, because those are their kids. Nobody who cares about educating an actual kid cares about the gap between subgroups, especially along wealth lines.

Let me say that a different way: Anybody who cares about whether certain kids are better in math than certain other kids doesn’t understand how to make kids better in math.

It’s all an interesting philosophical debate, but teachers, schools, and state governments need to spend more time figuring out how to educate the kids they have than dreaming about the kids they wish they had. And that necessarily means they need to focus on collaboration, not competition. Any “achievement gap” data is about competition, by which I don’t mean “friendly” competition.

“One thing people say is ‘Oh, you can’t make access more equal, social class is always related to what you’re getting in school,'” [William H Schmidt, one of the authors of the study,] said. “But look at Sweden, where the social class inequity is greater than in the US. But all the kids get the same basic opportunities, the same content coverage. They’ve taken (the inequity) out of the schools.”

Second, we’re not going to fix poor schools by designing a new math curriculum. Kids in schools in predominantly low-income neighborhoods come into kindergarten, before the school district even gets a shot at them, far behind their peers in wealthier schools. Parents in low-income neighborhoods tend to be less educated themselves, and they have jobs that don’t allow them much time to read to their kids. And let’s not forget how much time poor people waste waiting on poorly run public transportation systems (I’m look at you, Baltimore).

The problem in math is similar and has similar roots: Although income level can be eliminated statistically from any of these equations, poverty itself allows fewer opportunities for parents to provide nurturing, learning-friendly environments for kids.

You can challenge kids with something like factoring by grouping, shown above with a little example, all you want. But if those kids weren’t counting to, say, 20 before they entered kindergarten, they’re not going to be factoring polynomials in high school, and their scores on the PISA, which is the international test these researchers used, are going to be lower than their peers who did have those nurturing environments since they were toddlers.

And furthermore, this is not bad parenting. Parents of all income levels do their best, but the demands the world places on a low-wage earner—a person most likely to send his or her kid to a school in a low-income neighborhood—make it very difficult to provide the same nurturing environment since infancy provided by their wealthier peers.

I say again, what we need to do is stop focusing on our differences and figure out how we can learn from similarly situated schools that are showing success. Sure, a few kids who didn’t know how to count to 20 when they got to kindergarten will learn how to factor polynomials by grouping in algebra. But when the majority of kids in a kindergarten class can’t count to 20 with understanding, the scores of that cohort of kids in algebra are going to be lower 10 years down the road than those of kids who sat in a kindergarten classroom in which the majority of kids could count to 20. This happens for many reasons, among which is the fact that teachers in low-income schools have to spend a lot more time catching kids up than those in schools in more affluent neighborhoods. They don’t have time to get to the advanced stuff.

The question we should be asking is not, How can we narrow the achievement gap that persists? Rather, we should ask, What can we do to make educational opportunities better for poor kids who have family and community lives that don’t lend themselves, on average, to the same nurturing environment available to their wealthier peers? As soon as we figure that one out, we will see it has nothing to do with our differences but with our similarities. It does not depend on selling a political agenda but on buying into our communities and schools. It isn’t about wealth or skin color but about opportunity and character.

It won’t help to change the school or curriculum, and changing the community is not possible. Instead, any help must come from investing in our neighborhood schools, in the efficient delivery of strong curricula, and in business and economic growth for healthy communities.

The Common Core is suggested by these authors as a solution. It is not, and it was never intended to fix the achievement gap. Providing strong standards is but a start, and the Common Core, I think, isn’t too bad as far as a set of standards on which to base a curriculum goes. Like everything in a school, it needs work, but anyone who calls it a solution, as these authors do, doesn’t understand how schools work or how kids learn.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.