Countering the efforts of educational reformers — including President Obama and his Race to the Top crew — to blame teachers for student failures, researchers are finding that the growing gap between the affluent and the poor is the real villain.

“As the children of the rich do better in school, and those who do better in school are more likely to become rich, we risk producing an even more unequal and economically polarized society,” wrote Sean Reardon, a Stanford University professor of education and sociology.

Louis Freedberg, executive director of the respected public education research organization EdSource, called Reardon’s research a “dramatic illustration of the impact of inequality on how children do in school.” The findings were included in a story in The New York Times on Feb. 9 on the academic achievement gap between rich and poor. The story brought to wide public attention an important part of the income inequality debate that has been generally overlooked.

Race to the Top was unveiled by Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2009. It is a $4 billion program of awards to states whose schools improve performance. At the heart of Race to the Top is the philosophy that teachers’ value can be measured statistically. If a kid gets bad grades or doesn’t improve, the teacher is to blame.

Duncan, joined by self-styled reformers such as Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., school superintendent, embraced an evaluation system known as value-added assessment. A student whose test scores are average one year would be predicted to have average scores the next. If the student rises above average, the teacher is given a good evaluation. If the student drops below average, the evaluation is bad. This strictly by-the-numbers approach is beloved not only by Duncan but by business people and politicians leading the school reform movement.

Statistical flaws in this system have been recognized for some time. They include such factors as students changing classes and those who have trouble at home. Now, a study has dug deeper into the value-added system. Professors Xiaoxia Newton of UC Berkeley and Linda Darling-Hammond, Edward Haertel and Ewart Thomas of Stanford have analyzed how ethnicity, English language ability, poverty and parental educational levels impact students’ classroom performance. The four researchers rejected the defense, saying, “… This assumption is not consistent with reality.”

Their analysis is relevant to the issue of income inequality impacting education.

Reardon, in his study, noted that most research and journalism on educational performance have focused on the achievement gap among black, Latino and white students. But he found the situation has changed, and the gap between affluent and poor is now greater.

“The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30-40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier,” Reardon wrote. At the same time, he said, “the gap between the rich and the poor has widened significantly, particularly among families with children.” He added, “Not only do the poor have less money than they did before, they have fewer social support systems as well.”

It’s more complicated than income. Parents with money tend to be better educated. This group includes more two-parent homes. They have time, energy and money to give their children lessons, read to them, take them to sports practice and games, movies, museums, the library, as well as hire tutors and coaches.

The New York Times story cited a study by professor Meredith Phillips of UCLA showing that by the time affluent children start school, they have spent about 400 hours more than poor children in literary activities. All told, affluent children before the age of 6 have spent 1,300 more hours than poor children in places away from home, day care center or school. These places include shopping malls and museums.

The so-called reformers don’t want to talk about these complexities. It’s easier to rank teachers by a flawed statistical method and then invite the public to view the results. If the teacher is to blame, then class size, inadequate funding, unsafe buildings, filthy bathrooms, turmoil in overcrowded homes, unemployed parents, disruptive classmates and school or class transfers can all be ignored.

In the presidential campaign, the discussion over affluent and poor has been expressed in economic terms. The unfairness of our economic system is a central point of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Obama undoubtedly will capitalize on resentment of the gulf between rich and poor in his campaign.

But as researchers are learning, the harm done by an economic system increasingly tilted toward the rich is much more than a pocketbook issue.

It reaches into every public school classroom, shaping the future lives of every student. Obama and his allies tell the teachers to fix it while they simplistically promote their flawed “Race to the Top.”

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