What Really Causes Poor Performance in School

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To the Editor:

Re “We’re Not Battling the School Issues That Matter,” by Nicholas Kristof (column, March 7):

I completely agree with Mr. Kristof’s column. The situation is serious, not only for education but also for our embattled democracy.

I would like to add some nuance. I have been working on a state-by-state analysis of the possible influence of racism, specifically anti-Black racism, on educational achievement.

What I have found so far indicates that some children are taught quite well: those in private schools, of course; Asian American children (particularly those whose families are from India); white children of families prosperous enough to be ineligible for the National School Lunch Program; children of college-educated parents; and Hispanic children who are not English-language learners.

Some students are in groups that are not likely to be taught to read effectively: Native Americans, children who are poor enough to be eligible for the National School Lunch Program and Black children.

None of this will be news to Mr. Kristof. What is surprising to me is the sheer extent and arbitrary nature of the failure by school authorities. Almost everywhere that urban schools, in particular, are failing, socioeconomically similar children are being taught much more effectively in the nearest suburban districts.

Part of the reason is money: Per-student expenditure is associated with educational achievement.

But part of the problem — most of it — is a matter of administrative decisions: placing the best teachers in schools with the “best” students; equipping schools, in effect, in accordance with parental income; offering more gifted and talented classes to white students — all the perhaps unconscious manifestations of everyday racism.

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