Why Some Races Outperform Others

A psychologist explains the latest research into education disparity.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Can you explain your research into why students are becoming less engaged in academic pursuits?

Laurence Steinberg: And a couple things emerged from that study that I think are really important for understanding American education policy. The first is that a very significant proportion of kids tell us that they're just going through the motions when they're in school; I mean that they're not engaged, that they're not trying their hardest, that they're bored. And clearly we are not challenging kids in American schools as much as we should. And you see this if you do international comparisons. We didn't in this study, but if you look at how much time kids spend on homework, for example, the average in our study -- and this is a figure that you see in lots of different studies -- is about four to five hours a week for a typical high school student. In Japan it's four to five hours a day. And so you see the difference in magnitude of how hard we push kids here in America compared to other places.

The other thing that we found was that parents and peers have a huge impact on kids' engagement in school, independent of what's going on in the classroom. And so kids who are raised in households where their parents practice better parenting -- the kind of parenting that has been called authoritative parenting, where they're firm, but they're warm, and where their parents are involved in their schooling, where they go school conferences and so forth -- those kids do better in school. At the same time, it's not just the home, because we also found that there's significant peer pressure on kids that makes a difference, and unfortunately, more often than not it's peer pressure to do not as well as you might. So a very high proportion of kids told us that they refrained from raising their hand in class to answer a question because they're afraid that their peers will make fun of them. And so we need to do something to transform the culture that says it's okay to be smart. You can also be cool in other ways, but it's also okay to be smart.

Now, perhaps the most controversial finding that we came up with had to do with ethnic differences in achievement. Across all of the schools that we studied, Asian-American kids were doing significantly better than white kids, and white kids were doing significantly better than black and Latino kids. And that's controlling for family income, it's controlling for parental education, it's controlling for other factors that might be correlated with ethnicity and that might have played a role in this too. And when we look at why that is, we see several important things. The first is -- this is a great question that one of my collaborators said; we have to put this on a questionnaire -- and the question was, what's the lowest grade you could get without your parents getting angry, right? So the Asian kids, it's an A-minus, all right? For the white kids, you know, it's more like a B. And for the black and Latino kids, it's somewhere, you know, around a B-minus or C-plus. So clearly there are different expectations in these households.

The second thing is that when we ask kids about the importance of schooling, we see really different patterns in how kids from different ethnic groups answer the question. Asian kids tell us that they are sure that if they do poorly in school, something bad will happen to them. They won't get a good job in life, all right? Black and, to a certain extent, Latino kids don't have that belief. So every -- all ethnic groups share the belief that doing well in school has a payoff. It's how they think about doing poorly in school that makes a difference. And the Asian kids do well in part because they're really afraid of what the consequences of not doing well are. And I think that comes back to the standards that their parents have set for them at home.

Question: Is the idea that being smart can lead to success taking hold at all among the youth?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, I don't know about how it's changed attitudes. It certainly hasn't done anything to kids' achievement, which has stayed pretty flat. So if you look at these tests that are given by the federal government year after year after year, I mean there's a little bit of fluctuation from year to year; there's been a little improvement in, I think, eighth grade math, something like that. But across the board, I think anybody looking at the data objectively would say that none of the things that we've tried to do in the last 30 years has made a difference. Achievement is lower now than it was in the 1970s, and -- that's partly what prompted us to do the study. We spend all of this money on school reform, and we're constantly having debates about it: how we train teachers, what we pay teachers, how much money we give schools, whether we should have big schools or small schools. People try to do all these experiments where they change these things. And it doesn't make a difference. It really doesn't make a difference.

I'm not saying that teachers shouldn't be well paid; of course they should be well paid. But that alone is not going to raise achievement among American students. Do schools need resources? Of course they need resources. But lots of research shows that there is a very small relationship between the resources that a school gets and the output that it produces in kids. And I think -- and I think if you look at projects like the Harlem Children's Zone, where they have attacked this problem as a community problem and not as a problem that's just located in the classroom, and they're seeing terrific results there. So our point in this book is that you really need to think about the whole context in which kids grow up and not just what takes place inside the classroom.

Question: What particular efforts should be made to enhance the potential educational success of underprivileged kids?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, you know, the fact that underprivileged kids do so poorly in school is a huge, huge problem for society, with tremendous implications for our economic future. And the gap between the rich and poor has grown considerably, and that trickles down to achievement; it's not just in terms of family income. The way that we finance schools I think is misguided, and disadvantages kids from poor neighborhoods. So certainly unhinging school financing from property taxes, which would allow us to redistribute tax income in a way that would be more equitable, would certainly be something that's important. A second thing is this issue of standards. We just don't hold kids in poor neighborhoods to the same academic standards that we hold kids in wealthy neighborhoods to. And so when kids in poor neighborhoods get promoted from grade to grade, or graduate from school, it's often a sham. I mean, often their diplomas are meaningless. I mean, there are kids with high school diplomas in this country who can read no better than at a fifth-grade level. And so we have dismissed that population of young people as being not important enough to really care about. We also need to do a better job at engaging their families in their schooling. A lot of their parents, of course, had their own problems in school, and so they're more reluctant, they're more uncomfortable showing up in school because it was an uncomfortable place for them when they were kids. So we need to think of better ways of getting parents involved in their kids' educations.

Question: What steps should we take in education to equip our kids to better compete in the global economy?

Laurence Steinberg: Well, I think that we can make schools more challenging, for starters, so that kids are pushed harder and come out with better skills and more knowledge than they are right now. I'm somebody who favors national exams and having national standards. I believe -- I may be off by one country or so -- but I believe every industrialized country in the world except the United States has national standards for kids' achievement. So I think allowing education to be kind of a local issue is part of the problem because it allows districts to set their own standards. We've moved away from that a little bit, but there's been huge rebellion against that, and people have spoken out against performance-based evaluations of kids. I think it's a good thing to do. You know, the major objection to it is that it forces teachers to teach to the test, and that they're not doing things in the classroom that are creative or that promote critical thinking. Well, if that's the case, we need to design better tests. I mean, there's no problem with teaching to the test if the test is measuring something that you want kids to achieve. So I think there are a number of things that we could do to improve academic achievement among American kids.