Urban Schools Need Better Teachers, Not Excuses, to Close the Education Gap

The truth is that America will never fix poverty until it fixes its urban schools.


At KIPP D.C. Key Academy, fifth graders in the first class scored at the 21st percentile in reading and the 34th percentile in math on national standardized tests when they arrived. By the time they graduated from middle school in eighth grade, the students were at the 71st percentile in reading and the 92nd percentile in math, outperforming the average white student. Three of the four top-performing middle schools for low-income students in Washington on the city's math achievement test are now KIPP schools. 

Yet the response to no-excuses schools has been to make excuses about why these gap-closing schools don't really matter. These high-performing schools succeed, skeptics contend, only because the schools "cream" off the best and brightest students or have exceptionally motivated two-parent families that push kids to succeed. The first in-depth examination of these inner-city secondary schools, David Whitman's recent book, Sweating the Small Stuff, debunks these claims. He finds that students at no-excuses schools are typically one to two grade levels behind when they arrive and that they are not from two-parent superstriver families.

Still, in the absence of controlled experiments with random assignment of students, skeptics of high-performing schools could continue to maintain that an unknown demographic X factor explains their success—until now. A new study by Harvard Prof. Thomas Kane and a team of researchers for the Boston Foundation shows that popular charter schools in Boston do in fact rapidly narrow the achievement gap, even after taking account of the characteristics of the students attending the charters.

The Boston Foundation study compares the growth in academic achievement of students who won charter school lotteries and enrolled in charter schools with that of lottery losers who had to remain in traditional public schools in Boston. The results suggest that the freedom conferred on charters to hire teachers and principals and to shape school culture made a huge difference in subsequent student performance. The students stuck in traditional public schools did only marginally better than their peers, but students enrolled in charter schools saw their achievement shoot up, especially in math. In a single year in a charter middle school, minority students closed half of the black-white achievement gap in math. According to Kane, charter school eighth graders' math scores were "very close" to the scores of eighth graders in Brookline, a wealthy Boston suburb.

While a demanding school culture can powerfully advance minority learning, boosting the number of top-notch teachers in inner-city schools is also critical to closing the achievement gap. As President Obama has stated, "The single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from. It's not who their parents are or how much money they have—it's who their teacher is." The impact of a bad teacher is hard to overcome by good parenting alone. One study of 9,400 math classrooms in Los Angeles in grades three through five projects that if low-income minority students could be assured of having teachers who fell in the top 25 percent of effective teachers four years in a row (in lieu of a subpar instructor), those students could close the achievement gap altogether.

School improvement may not be the only route to narrowing the achievement gap, but it is the royal road to success. Putting more resources into antipoverty initiatives with a demonstrable link to student achievement, like providing after-school tutoring and extended learning time or offering eye exams and free eyeglasses to needy students with vision problems, is a good idea. So, too, is expanding high-quality early childhood education programs, particularly as policymakers identify ways to duplicate the enduring learning gains achieved in a number of model preschool initiatives.

Still, once children reach school age, no antipoverty initiative has an impact on the achievement gap that even compares to the power of better schools. That does not mean that programs like housing vouchers or expanding the earned-income tax credit are not important or vital to reducing poverty among needy families. But the evidence shows that it is the good teacher who holds the most promise for significantly reducing the achievement gap.