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How much can schools improve the life prospects of children growing up in poor neighborhoods? This question has divided the education community since at least the 1960s, when a group of researchers led by James Coleman attempted to quantify the extent to which segregation hurt black children. Coleman concluded that differences in family background had a greater impact on student achievement than did differences in school quality. Almost 40 years later, former New York Times education columnist Richard Rothstein revisited the question. In a series of lectures at Columbia University’s Teachers College that became the book Class and Schools (2004), Rothstein chronicled the ways in which out-of-school factors undermine low-income children. Poor kids arrive at school knowing fewer words; live in substandard (often lead-poisoned) housing; lack healthcare; spend afternoons, weekends, and summers in neighborhoods without decent parks or libraries; face discrimination in the workplace after they leave school; and so on. This part of Rothstein’s argument was not new to anyone familiar with the lives of poor children. But he made one additional claim that upset many educators. According to Rothstein, the challenges facing low-income students meant that they would always do worse, on average, than their higher-income peers. I devoured Class and Schools when it came out; it seemed an urgent call for our nation to address out-of-school factors holding poor children back. Others saw (and see) Rothstein as defeatist, apologizing for school failure and telling inner-city teachers and kids that they will never beat the odds. The argument erupted again last year when two groups of education reformers set out what were widely seen as competing agendas. The Education Equality Project—led by New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Washington, D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and minister-activist Al Sharpton—emphasized school accountability, tough standards, and changes in how teachers are hired, fired, and paid. The other group, formed by the Economic Policy Institute (Rothstein’s home), called for a “Broader, Bolder Approach,” insisting that schools alone cannot be expected to successfully educate poor students. Schools need help, they said, in the form of expanded health care, afterschool and summer programs, quality early childhood initiatives, and the like. Although the rhetoric from the two camps does not always reflect it, the gap between them is narrowing. Two important new books on schools suggest it should narrow further still.

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Boston Rev., May/June 2009

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Education Law Commons