Research | Fall 2015 Issue

Unequal Schools, Generations of Poverty

Poor children get less attention in school, are more frequently interrupted in class and get less of the help they need.

By Kathleen Kelleher

The little boy struggled with dyslexia. So, once, had John Rogers. Both were whip-smart. But that is where the similarities stopped.

Rogers attended Mar Vista Elementary School, tucked into a leafy West Los Angeles suburb of tidy homes a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. The youngster was at a summer camp in Inglewood. Rogers worked his way into Princeton University. The boy was being held back in elementary school because he could not read. Rogers never forgot him.

In the first grade, John Rogers, now a top researcher at UCLA, had tried to read by interpreting stories through illustrations and photos. When his mother and his teacher — in her first year and just learning her craft — discovered his dyslexia, it was his mother who worked diligently to help him overcome it. Later, as an instructor at the Inglewood camp during a summer break from college, Rogers could see that the youngster in his charge was extraordinarily bright, but it was also clear that he had very few of Rogers’ advantages. The kid was flunking.

“The juxtaposition of this young boy’s life to my own focused me in on how our educational system plays out in ways that are fundamentally different based on the neighborhood you grow up in,” Rogers told me. “I became more immersed in trying to understand these systems … and make a difference.”

For the past 17 years, Rogers, director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA), has devoted his academic research and writing to inequalities in education, community organizing for school reform and analyses of education policy and opportunity in learning gaps. His work is driven by a desire to understand what causes inequities and how parents can act together to change policies and build support for improvement.

A key factor, he decided, was time. Specifically: How many hours do teachers spend instructing students? How many school days each year are students engaged in valuable learning? In California public high schools, how much of the time set aside for academic instruction is actually spent teaching academics? Does it differ in varying socioeconomic communities?

Rogers quantified minutes spent on academic instruction and looked closely at whether economically poor students in underperforming high schools were getting less time than their more affluent peers. He wanted to know how economic and social inequalities shaped teaching in public schools. He also wanted to know how learning inequalities began to shape life beyond school.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court demanded equal opportunity in schools, Rogers said. “One of the things the court spoke about was the intangibles. In other words, inequality is hard to count. To some extent, this work on time aims to make tangible what is seemingly hard to explain.”

To learn how time for academic instruction varies among high schools, Rogers and Nicole Mirra, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar, surveyed a demographically representative sample of some 800 California teachers during the 2013-14 school year. Their report, “It‘s About Time: Learning Time and Educational Opportunity in California High Schools,” showed significant differences.

Their study compared: 1) low-poverty schools, where 25% or less of students receive free or reduced-price lunches; 2) low- and mixed-poverty schools, where 50% or less of students get such lunches; and 3) high-poverty schools, where 75% to 100% of students receive them.

The comparison showed that teachers at high-poverty schools spent nearly 10 fewer days every year instructing academic classes than teachers at low-poverty schools.

The study also showed:

  • Teachers in high-poverty schools were more likely to report that academic instructional time was eroded by problems with school facilities, lack of access to technology and librar¬ies, classroom lockdowns, standardized test preparation, teacher absences and uncertified or insufficiently qualified substitute teachers.
  • Three to four times more students at high-poverty schools than at low-poverty schools struggled with economic and social stressors, including unstable housing, hunger and lack of medical and dental care. On any given day, students at high-poverty schools faced a 39% chance that life problems would decrease their time for academic learning — in contrast to a 13% chance for students at low-poverty schools.
  • Teachers at high-poverty schools suffered more class-time interruptions caused by unplanned events, such as the arrival of transfer students and phone calls from the front office. For some, these disruptions consumed up to 30 minutes a day of class time. Teachers at high-poverty schools also spent more class time counseling students with emotional and social problems, advising them on colleges and careers and discussing community problems and societal inequities.

“I’m trying to push my students toward academic excellence in the time that we have,” one teacher said, “but with so many pressures to handle, and with the combination of traumas that my students are exposed to and are constantly experiencing, sometimes … (it becomes) overwhelming.”

These findings show something important: Inequality in learning time is hurting some of California’s most vulnerable students.
That, Rogers said, is indefensible.

No one, he said, would tolerate an education system that, as a matter of policy, forces economically deprived students to stop learning two weeks before an academic year ends — or that sends poor students home 30 minutes before classes let out.

Indeed, unequal learning time is at the heart of an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union against the California Department of Education. The lawsuit asserts that the state’s high-poverty schools fail to address factors that reduce actual learning time.

This, the ACLU says, denies students the equal education they need to succeed.

The need for change

In his book “Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice,” published in 2006 by Teachers College Press, Rogers argues that understanding inequality is not enough. Researchers, he wrote, must not only document inequality in education but also must work to bring change.

They must offer examples of policies and institutional practices, he said, and inspire the “agency of everyday people” to act by joining efforts to end inequality in public schools, so lower-income students get the same opportunities to learn and achieve as their more affluent peers. “Change demands an energized politics,”Rogers said, “led by communities that too often experience the ill effects of inequality.”

Two weeks of lost learning every year can put high school students at a serious disadvantage when it comes time to apply to college. It costs them the academic power to compete. “Unequal schooling,” Rogers said, “is both cause and effect of unequal power relationships.”

About 80% of students who enter California high schools in the ninth grade graduate four years later, according to the California Department of Education. This is a marked improvement from a decade ago, Rogers says, but for low-income students, English-language learners and students attending schools in high-poverty communities, the graduation rates are lower.

Fewer than half of the 70% of students who graduate from high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District complete the courses required for admission to University of California and California State University schools. “I do believe that the state’s goal should be to graduate all students ready for college,” Rogers said. “This is what California’s parents expect.”

Reaching that goal will not be easy. In March, the LAUSD learned that three-quarters of its 10th graders taking the college preparatory courses were not on track to graduate because they were not getting C grades. A later analysis found 53% were not likely to meet the requirements. At a Board of Education meeting in June, members decided to allow the students to pass the college prep courses and graduate with D grades. But students who get the Ds will nonetheless be ineligible for admission to UC or Cal State universities.

Rogers argued at the board meeting that students should have access to the college prep curriculum nonetheless. He told the board that it should provide students the tutoring and uninterrupted learning time it would take to perform well in the classes. Monica Garcia, who represents LAUSD District Two, which has both high- and low-performing schools, credits Rogers with keeping the board focused on maintaining access to the college prep curriculum for everyone. “Today we are not debating whether or not kids need access and successful completion of these courses,” said Garcia. “There is agreement on that.” While no one is satisfied with current reality, she said, “All trends are pointing in the right direction.”

To reduce the inequality in academic time that harms economically disadvantaged students, Rogers said, a logical step would be to lengthen their school days and school years. Teachers, he said, should ensure that the learning time is rich, engaging and protected from disruptions. Support for such remedies, he said, needs to come from the communities where affected students live.

Students in high-poverty communities also lose more organized after- school learning time than their more affluent peers, including time during summers. “A lot of what we talk about,” Rogers said, “speaks indirectly to community schooling. It is shorthand for after-school programs, whole or extended learning time, creating health and other services on site.”

Teaching students to challenge inequality

Thinking of schools as community sites has inspired Rogers and Joel Westheimer, a professor at the University of Ottawa, to begin additional research. It will examine how economic inequality and economic literacy are taught in high school. “There is almost no existent empirical work on what high school students learn about economic inequality,” Rogers said. “We want to fill that gap.”

Rogers and Westheimer have collected teacher surveys at a large number of U.S. and Canadian public and private high schools. They hope to determine how much attention economic inequality gets in class, what is being taught about it and what impact it has upon students. They also want to find out what kinds of schools are more likely to address the subject.

The hope, Rogers said, is to encourage students to use critical thinking when they encounter economic inequality and when they make decisions about allocating taxes and public resources.

“We hope to be able to provide educators with tools and frameworks that support meaningful and engaging lessons about economic inequality,” Rogers said. “Ultimately, we believe that it is essential for our democracy to have young people prepared to engage difficult issues like economic inequality in an informed way.”

Kathleen Kelleher

Kathleen Kelleher

Kathleen Kelleher is a Santa Monica-based writer who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, Arroyo and other publications.

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