Karl Alexander, Doris Roberts Entwisle

Children, School, and Inequality

VTR Date: January 11, 1999

Guests: Alexander, Karl; Entwisle, Doris Roberts


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Doris R. Entwisle and Karl L. Alexander
Title: “Children, Schools and Inequality”
Recorded: 1/11/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And our program today deals with what has surfaced in our times as one of the most challenging areas of national concern: namely, our schools, particularly what happens and what does not appear in them.

It certainly is true that in this country we aren’t doing well enough by our children in the matter of their schooling. But the political attention (though some feel this is merely political lip service) that is beginning to be paid to schooling in America is reaching a crescendo. And one would hope that we know what we’re doing.

Yet my guests today have written that “politics and policy are part of the problem. When children appear not to be doing well in school, society blames the school and cries for change.

“Then, to placate constituents, school boards and departments of education order changes in schools, not because they know the changes will be effective, but because making a change offers them a way to deal with political pressure.

“Likewise, policy-makers in all sections of the government recommend changes, often well-intended, but again with no explicit scientific justification.

“In a country like the United States with grass roots control of education and with almost everyone having a stake in the outcome, the cacophony is monumental.”

Doris Roberts Entwisle is Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology at the Johns Hopkins University.

Karl L. Alexander is also Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins.

Now, for many years they have worked together on the highly regarded Baltimore School Study which has been described as “a national treasure proving much needed information on human development across the school years”.

Their recent book published by Westview Press is entitled “Children, Schools and Inequality”. In it they focus our attention upon such basic external social contexts as children’s economic and family status rather than just upon their internal biologic or medical endowments as a key, a guide, if you will, to explaining and then perhaps doing something abut the downside of their schooling years.

Well, I would ask my guests what it is that we can do, particularly since they tell us that ironically enough — though common wisdom might have it otherwise — socio-economic status does not affect how much children learn in school.

As my guest write, “when schools are in session, all children move ahead at the same pace. Only when schools are not in session do children whose families are better off move ahead of those whose families are poor”.

Now that seems strange to civilians like myself. I wonder if you would explain that and explain what it means that we can do.

ENTWISLE: I think we should start by making it entirely clear that in the book that we are speaking about today, we’re talking about children when their school careers begin.


ENTWISLE: So that in particular the statement you just made is true in first grade, and it seems to be true later. But we’re more confident about what’s happening early on. And we undertook this Baltimore Beginning School Study that you mentioned specifically because we felt that the transition into first grade, that is into formal schooling, is a key life transition. It really sets the stage for much of what follows. This is not to say that once children get in a particular track they don’t move or they don’t change. But certain things do become set at that time. And they can start off and do well and they can start off and not do so well. And there’s a … either initial advantage or a handicap, however it turns out. So we were interested in undertaking this study because as you said from the preface to the book we felt that a lot was going on in schools that really wasn’t based at all, in fact, on what we would see as scientific facts or knowledge about human development. In fact there’s a gap in our knowledge about that because people have tended to neglect the social context in which the schooling occurs. So as you said, there’s been attention paid to the internal development of children, their biological development. And sometimes their cognitive development as measured by standardized tests. But not a lot of attention paid to what happens in a social institution like the school when people start.

HEFFNER: That seems so strange. It seems so strange that we would not have focused on the cultural, social, economic context from which children make this basic transition into the first grade. How do you explain it?

ALEXANDER: Well, it’s not clear that there is a good explanation for it. I think Doris and I, as sociologists come into the problem area … approach these issues as sociologists are want to do. And it’s difficult to study the young children from a sociological perspective …


ALEXANDER: Because … well, they’re not in a position where they can respond very well to survey, formatted questions. Although we’ve managed to pose questions of young children in that way. So, it’s an area that hasn’t been well explored from a sociological vantage point, where the social context tends to be very prominent in terms of the perspective that’s adopted. One of the things that we think we’ve been able to do, with some reasonable success is to pose questions about the children’s adaptation to school in the early years from a sociological vantage point. And we found that to be quite revealing in the work that we’ve done with our Baltimore school children. You mentioned for example the pattern of school year learning that’s documented in this work that spans now six years in terms of the time of entry into school to the, the outermost limits of our tracking their achievements scores. And what we find when we separate achievement gains on a school year versus summer basis, as you mentioned from the preface to the book, that the achievement patterns progress in parallel across family income lines during the school year, but tend to diverge sharply during the summer months. Suggesting that the out of school context very much is, is very prominent in influencing children’s achievement patterns. Something that’s been neglected in this literature all along the way.

HEFFNER: But I need to understand. Is this true only, or essentially or particularly in that first year? Or is it a pattern that goes on through the six grade perhaps?

ENTWISLE: Well, what they do … this point is that the general shapes of children’s development is like this … it starts off quickly and then begins to decelerate. So that we see the largest gains in first grade, next largest in second grade and so on. And some people have estimated that the rate of cognitive growth in high school is only one-tenth as fast as it is in first grade. Now that’s a very undefendable number in a sense, because it’s somebody’s best guess. In fact I think it was Sandy Jenks’ best guess. But it shows you that if you want to understand how schools influence children and what a strategic point to study would be, you might want to look at schooling when growth is most rapid. So having said that, let us say that in the first grade, as it turns out in this particular measuring instrument we use, people gain on the average about sixty points in reading comprehension. And what we found to our great surprise, although we had reasons to think it might happen, was that if we took all the schools in Baltimore, in what was a random sample of schools, by the way, and we divided them into two camps … one from poorer places and one from better off places that despite what many people would think, the people who were in the poorer neighborhoods, when we looked at what they did over the winter years … or the winter months that is, when school was in session. They gained exactly the same amount, sixty points, roughly, as did people who were in the ten schools that were at the top of the heap in our sample. So this says that during the school year everybody was coming along at pretty much the same pace. However, when schools closed for the summer, summer isn’t very long … probably at most three months … some of these children either stayed flat or else they fell back. They didn’t know as much in the fall when they were tested as they did in the Spring. Those are the people from the poorer schools. But those who came from the better off schools continued to gain … at a lower rate than they did in the winter, but at a very substantial rate.

HEFFNER: Now, when you referred to “poorer schools”, and “better off” schools, you’re talking about neighborhoods, aren’t’ you?

ENTWISLE: Definitely. We … the school and the neighborhood as you so carefully imply are very closely interwoven. And, in fact, it’s very hard to separate the influence of those two things. In fact, I would say it’s only in about the past decade that sociologists or others have been trying to do that. We’ve been realizing that it was important to do that.

HEFFNER: But you ..

ALEXANDER: Well, we’re also talking about the family … in terms of the individual context of development. And all these things tend to go hand-in-hand. Children who are born into low-income households tend to live in poorer neighborhoods and tend to go to schools where there are concentrations of poor children and poor families. So it’s very difficult as an analytic issue to try to separate the influences of home, school and community.

HEFFNER: But you are saying, if I understand you correctly that the school influence seems to be a given and a stet one because children from all classes seem to learn as much during the school year. So that it is the status of their parents that really counts here.

ALEXANDER: That … go ahead, Doris …

ENTWISLE: We’re talking about a … we have a thing you probably noticed … we call it a “facet theory”. When the resources are turn on, when that facet is open, when school is in session in the winter, these children, on average, are learning the same amount, if they come from the ten less advantaged economically as from the ten lower advantaged. When that facet is turned off for the summer, those who live in more advantaged circumstances still, apparently have access to the resources that continue to stimulate their growth. So the question is … well, if that’s true and we, after looking at this from every conceivable point of view, we think that those figures are defensible. I mean they seem correct. What … what does this have to say about schools? This is, for the one thing … the schools are doing a better job …


ENTWISLE: … than most people have credited them with. It says for another thing, if you want to try to figure out how to help children do better then you better look at the home circumstances or the out-of-school time that is affecting these children’s growth.

HEFFNER: Could it mean, at the same time, that you ought to keep the kids in school most of the year, rather than have such American vacations?

ALEXANDER: Well, there is this notion … it’s of the summer slide that we think is what we’re seeing in the pattern of achievement gains for the children in our Baltimore research. And imaginative ways, programs and interventions to stem the summer slide for low-income children would be very much desirable. We ought to be thinking about ways to shore up children’s cognitive development and achievement levels over the summer months. Extended year schooling is one possible avenue. I think, I think the key … and there are some imaginative experiments that are in place, or at least under discussion around the country along those lines. The key is that the time be used productively, though. Just adding more hours to the school year, in and of itself is not likely to …

HEFFNER: Why, why do you say that? If there is every indication, as there in children’s schools and inequality that while they’re in school the learning pace is the same for children who come from deprived families and those who come from privileged families. Why wouldn’t the answer be … “the answer”, I’m sorry to put it that way … why wouldn’t one say, “well for God’s sake, let’s keep our children in those schools that are doing such a much better job than any one has been given to know.

ENTWISLE: Because every time it’s been tried so far …


ENTWISLE: … it hasn’t worked.


ENTWISLE: In the biggest study that we know of, which involved, if memory serves, about four hundred thousand children, you know, sustaining effects study that was done in the seventies. The programs were carefully designed, they were carefully supervised. Everything one could think of in terms of making sure that they worked. And it turned out that those summer programs did not help the disadvantaged children make up the difference in their growth patterns of the summer. And in most of the other studies that have been done this very attractive and appealing solution, that is up and go to school during summer, hasn’t closed the gap. And this is a perplexing situation that we don’t understand, or pretend to understand at all. Now we’ve been looking a little bit past what’s in this book at what we think might be happening in the summer, and we think that number one we see a very strong association with the socio-economic status of the home. So we have already mentioned that … that it’s children who come from more privileged backgrounds continue to learn at a really quite surprising rate over the summer. But that isn’t the whole story. We think also that in those … for those children the parents have a certain psychological investment in their children … their children’s schooling … and the resources that they have. So that we begin to parse out where are the people that are gaining, instead of looking at the average. It looks as though those children who come from more privileged economically speaking homes, just where the parents are involved with their children’s growth. I don’t sitting home every night reading to them, or tutoring them or anything like that. But I mean their informal activities are the kinds of things that children enjoy and profit from … those are the children that make the big gains over the summer. This is all something that needs to be studied in detail. We’re just beginning to look at this a little bit more carefully and one of the technical problems is that the summer is a short period of time. So if we think in the winter things are happening at a pretty fast and it’s hard to measure change over a short period, we can imagine how difficult it’s going to be over the summer when the period is even shorter. Because statistically speaking with young children you’ve got this, what you call it’s random error in the scores … which is just a part of life, there’s random error in everything we measure, whether we’re physicists or social scientists. To fix on how much there is in the summer is a problem, and then to look for differences in that is an even harder problem. So that’s some of the technical problems that keep us from moving as fast as we like.


ALEXANDER: But I think the point I was trying to make is that that time in an of itself isn’t the panacea. Time … it’s the proverbial black box … it’s how you fill it that really counts. And there is research literature that evaluated the effectiveness of summer school programs and Harris Cooper is a research synthesist that’s …

ENTWISLE: Oh, that one, I know …

ALEXANDER: … supposed to be reasonably comprehensive in its coverage. And there’s reason for encouragement out of that literature that high quality, well-conceived summer programs that effective engage children’s energies can, can and have produced significant gains. And there are some, there are several studies that are out now that I am familiar with that have looked at the more recent efforts to extend the school year … extended year schooling, which also seem to be promising. But again what’s critical there, I think is the character of the program development and it’s just not adding additional days or additional hours to the day, but having a well developed program in place that will actually accomplish the learning objectives that move children along in the direction that they’re trying to move them. As well as addressing the differences in out of school home based resources that involve parents …

HEFFNER: Of course it’s so interesting that as I read the book, as I read your conclusions it seems to me that the point that you made Dr. Entwisle is so telling. You both make it in the book, that the school seem to be doing a hell of a lot better job than the political climate would indicate.

ALEXANDER: That’s the other side of the coin. If you look at children’s learning from the perspective of their seasonal gains comparing school year progress as distinct from summer progress and you focus in on the school year advances, it really is quite striking that children at different income levels are … achieve or advance at essentially the same rate. Something that I think is a long-standing pattern, but just hasn’t been fully appreciated as such. Our Baltimore based research adds to actually a quite considerable literature that points in very much the same direction. So the pattern itself isn’t peculiar to what we were seeing in Baltimore through the decade of the eighties. It’s a pattern that’s been recurrent in, in other local studies as well as research at the national level. So this is something that’s been well documented. And our work adds to that accumulating literature. And the issue though is that if you look across, if you just look across the 12 month period and how achievement trends are patterned it appears as though the upper income children are advancing far ahead of the children from lower income households. So it’s the seasonal perspective that brings that to light, and I think it’s a very revealing and important pattern to see. And, indeed, it does suggest that schools … urban schools like those in Baltimore are making a very valuable contribution to children’s academic development that often is unrecognized or under-recognized.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, it also raises the question as to whether we have to assume that the culturally, educationally rich will get richer in this country and the poor, those who are culturally and educationally disadvantaged will get poorer. As we look into the next century the implications here would seem to be that if we keep the present pattern of schooling, that the first summer will be added to the second summer to the third summer and that the period out of school … it’s a little like Marshall McLuhan saying every school kid knows that he or her education is interrupted by going to school. That things can only get worse. Is that too grim a picture.

ENTWISLE: Well, we hoped and one of the reason we undertook this work is to try to make the playing field a little more level than it has been in the past. But it seems to me that a big part of that wish is to give credit where credit is due. And if parents, and we know this, at least in our Baltimore sample, if parents don’t think children are going to do well, and if children in the poorer … and I mean poor in a very bad sense, not just in poverty, but in the poorer schools are marked lower than they’re actually deserving, then that’s adding fuel to the fire. And one of the things we do in the book are a little complicated to try and explain without any diagrams … but we show that the children who are from less advantaged homes start with scores a little bit lower, then gain the same amount as the people from the other places, but the other people started a little bit higher and so at the end of the year, they’re a little bit higher. But how people read that is that the school has produced this difference. And the fact is that that difference was there to start with and the fact that they’ve maintained the differential at par is a big achievement because in a sense to have the less able, or less well off children gain the same amount as those who are better off says “we’re closing the gap” when school is open. But of course when summer comes along, then they fall back. But we’re particularly concerned that if we want to talk about inequality, if we think first grade children who come from poorer backgrounds are going get lower grades and if we think they’re going to get lower test scores, we begin to treat them as though the scores are not as effective for them as they are for the other children. And this is a real problem because the schools need all the help they can get. They’re being criticized from every side because they have … weapons and these kinds of problems at schools. So it seems to me if we can show and people could only become more aware that given where they are, they’re doing a superb job, in my opinion that … at least in these earlier year that we’ve looked at … in improving children’s … or helping children grow.

HEFFNER: Setting aside for a moment this matter of the self-fulfilling prophecy that you describe … what we expect, anticipate from children from poor homes … why is it … you’re both sociologists … why is it that we have, as a nation, so largely demeaned our schools, when you produce or you illumine research material that indicates something that should point in the other direction.

ALEXANDER: Well I think partly it’s a matter of bad press. Money magazine a couple of years ago pointed out that the free public education that available in suburban schools is probably the best buy in town. Because there are many public schools that are working quite well, thank you. And recognized as such by the parents that send their children there. I think we tend to look at the problems that surround urban school systems and, and write as those were universal. And there are very serious problems in education in places like Baltimore. But those problems are not all the school’s making which is the point that we were trying to establish. There’s an out-of-school context that, that gets carried forward into the schools. And many of the difficult problems that beset places like Baltimore in terms of the down turn of the economy and high poverty rates and so forth, become problems that the school system is expected to fix. That is, they come into the school system by virtue of the city’s … poor children coming into the school system … in …throughout the Baltimore public school system at the elementary level two-thirds of the pupils enrolled qualify for the reduced price meal program at school which is intended for low income families. Two thirds of the enrollment in the school. I think, I did a tally a while back … in a fifth of the Baltimore City schools over 80% of the children are participating in …

ENTWISLE: Below the poverty line.

ALEXANDER: School system. So there are very serious problems in the city and those come into the school system. And one wonders whether the school systems are provided with the resources to deal effectively with those problems. That said, what we’re hoping to point out and we think there’s good evidence in our book to document this is that the schools are making a meaningful contribution. They’re accomplishing a great deal under very adverse circumstances, more so than might be apparent if you just step back and look at the high drop-out rate, you look at the levels of violence in the school and so forth.

HEFFNER: Well, Lord knows that as I read your book, Dr. Alexander, Dr. Entwisle I’ve been impressed so by that basic statistic that you offer and I hope that more and more people become aware of it and I thank you both so much for joining me on The Open Mind today.

ALEXANDER: It’s our pleasure. Thank you for having us.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.