REL 2004 Policy Forum
Academic Differences and Social Class: A National Perspective

Mr. Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and senior correspondent for The American Prospect. From 1999-2002, he was the national education columnist of The New York Times. Rothstein's recent publications include: Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap; The Way We Were? Myths and Realities of America's Student Achievement; All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different? and Where's the Money Going? Changes in the Level and Composition of Education Spending.
Richard Rothstein
B.A. Harvard

Rothstein began by declaring that the 2014 national goal to close the achievement gap is unrealistic. His message that school reform is important, but poverty and minority status will never let us completely close the gap was clear. He mentioned research findings that, on average, socioeconomic factors affect student achievement, even in the best of schools. He noted his book, Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (2004), has additional examples and research to support his points.

Rothstein discussed three common misunderstandings about the achievement gap.

  • Schools make a big difference but have very little influence on achievement distribution across students. Rather, schools make a difference in the level of achievement. He referred to the seminal Coleman Report (1966) finding that a child’s family background impacts achievement more than education resources. To find where to get a copy of the Coleman Report, go to
  • The achievement gap portrayed and discussed currently is not the same gap of 5–10 years ago because of a shift from achievement averages based on national norms to “proficiency” cut off points determined by state criterion. This has created mischief in how achievement levels are established and comparisons made between student groups.
  • The gap is a representation of group averages, not the achievement of any individual. There are many examples of children from disadvantaged backgrounds that succeed, but this does not mean that all children from disadvantaged backgrounds will. Students’ social and economic family characteristics are a powerful influence on average achievement.

Rothstein raised the question, “Can a child’s environment/rearing be overcome by good teachers and high expectations?” He talked about research on how much children are read to, books in the home, parental use of problem-solving and collaborative communication vs. task response demands, and the impact of parental occupation on child literacy. He recommended ensuring all children get equivalent pre-school opportunities. Further, he emphasized the higher rate of absenteeism and health (vision, hearing, dental, lead poisoning, asthma, and nutrition), housing, and mobility problems that can directly affect the achievement of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Rothstein pointed out the common measure of poverty, free/reduced price lunch, is inadequate because it ranges from families with no income to those with income above the federal poverty level. Also, it is not the only measure of socioeconomic status, i.e., assets should be considered. In regard to the Black-White gap, he noted Black poverty as more permanent and White poverty more episodic. he also noted the labor market discrimination that exists for Black high school graduates, but not Black college graduates.

Several publications Rothstein mentioned in his presentation:

  • Hanushek, E. A., Kain, J. F., & Rivkin, S. G. (2004). Disruption versus Tiebout Improvement: The Costs and Benefits of Switching Schools, Journal of Public Economics 88(9), 1721-1746.
  • Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1992). American parenting of language-learning children: Persisting differences in family-child interactions observed in natural home environments. Developmental Psychology 28(6), 1096-1105. (Rothstein referred to this as the Kansas study)
  • Neuman, S. B. (2003). From rhetoric to reality: The case for high-quality compensatory prekindergarten programs. Phi Delta Kappan 85(4), 286-291.