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Health, Science & Environment

Ohio State Professor: Schools In Disadvantaged Areas Help Reduce Inequality

Kids walk to class in the hallway of Worthington Kilbourne High School. All students will be back in the district's schools for in-person learning starting March 22.
Dan Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
Kids walk to class in the hallway of Worthington Kilbourne High School.

Some students from the most disadvantaged families may remain behind academically from those who are well-off, but a new book finds that schools in lower-income areas are doing their part to improve results.

“We would expect that children from high income families, they’re going to better schools, they would learn faster than children from low-income families, and yet they do not,” says Douglas Downey, an Ohio State University professor of sociology and author of How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption About Schools And Inequality Is Mostly Wrong.

Downey's research studied a national representative sample of U.S. children. The first group included 20,000 children starting in kindergarten in 1998, who were followed until eighth grade. The second sample started with 16,500 children who entered kindergarten in 2010.

Downey explains that advantaged students start kindergarten at a higher level of readiness for school, but achievement test scores by eighth grade do not show the same learning gap.

“The children they went to school for nine years, they went to what we all assumed are highly differentiated schools in terms of quality, and yet not only did the gap not increase, it actually decreased somewhat,” says Downey.

Downey says schools should not receive most of the blame when disadvantaged students perform poorly on test scores. He points to research that compares how children learn when they are in school versus when they are out of school in the summer.

“If we look at what happens during the nine-month period when they’re in school, it’s very surprising,” Downey says. “Both groups high-income and low-income children learn at roughly the same rates. That kind of pattern is inconsistent with the notion that schools really generate inequality.”

Downey says while many people blame schools for inequality, research shows that after 12 years of schooling, an average student has spent only 13% of their waking hours in school.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Downey says, has also highlighted the need to focus on students who are less privileged.

“COVID-19 reveals the real way that schools matter, and that is they benefit the disadvantaged the most, and the disadvantaged are hurt the most when schools are not available,” Downey says.

Downey thinks more investment is needed in the first few years of a child’s life, especially for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.