Sunday, April 15, 2012

Demographics and the Limits of School Reform

School reform is a hot topic these days. The various reform efforts (charter schools, vouchers, increased accountability for teachers and school boards, and the availability of transfers for students out of schools with poor performance records) generally aim at improving overall achievement and eliminating “achievement gaps” among categories of students (mainly racial and ethnic categories)  I do think there is room for improvement and some of the strategies can help.  As I’ve remarked previously, I’m skeptical about the possibility of eliminating the “gaps” because these have been so consistent over time and be
cause their sources are so complicated and poorly understood. Here are the SAT scores by race and ethnicity over the past few decades:
SAT Math (Left) and Reading (Right) Scores by Race and Ethnicty

Source: National Center for Education Statistics
As you can see, Hispanics and blacks remain consistently at the bottom, while Asians and whites remain consistently at the top, with Asians gaining on whites in reading and far ahead in math. But this brings up a second problem. Because of massive immigration over the past few years, trying to improve student performance in public schools entails shooting at a moving target. This figure represents the change in the public school population since 1980:
Racial and Hispanic Composition of the Total U.S. Public School Population, 1980-2010
Source: Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010.

Since Hispanics have made up the greatest part of the immigrants to the United States over the past few decades, the Hispanic school population has been growing the most rapidly.  Immigration has also caused the proportion of Asian students to go up, but this proportion still remains small. Black students, who, as a category, have shown even weaker performance than Hispanics, have not increased much as a part of the public school population, but they continue to be the second largest group. Meanwhile, non-Hispanic whites have been steadily decreasing as percentages of pupils.
Until someone comes up with a magic wand to make these differences go away, demographics will place severe limits on our capacity to improve public education, regardless of the strategies. The two low-performing groups will, if trends continue, make up ever larger parts of the school population.  Even if reform efforts somehow manage to bring their long-standing low average performance levels up somewhat, it is extremely unlikely that these averages will reach those of the two higher performing groups in the foreseeable future. As non-Hispanic white representation declines in the schools and as Asian representation grows but remains relatively small, the most realistic prediction is that public school achievement in many parts of the United States than it is today.

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