COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Schools serving disadvantaged and minority children teach as much to their students as those serving more advantaged kids, according to a new nationwide study.
The results may seem surprising, given that student test scores are normally higher in suburban and wealthier school districts than they are in urban districts serving mostly disadvantaged and minority children.
But those test scores speak more to what happens outside the classroom than how schools themselves are performing, said Douglas Downey, lead author of the new study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.
"We found that if you look at how much students are learning during the school year, the difference between schools serving mostly advantaged students and those serving mostly disadvantaged students is essentially zero," Downey said.
"Test scores at one point in time are not a fair way to evaluate the impact of schools."
Downey conducted the study with David Quinn of the University of Southern California and Melissa Alcaraz, a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State. Their study was published online recently in the journal Sociology of Education and will appear in a future print edition.
Many school districts have moved away from evaluating schools by test scores, instead using a "growth" or "value-added" measure to see how much students learn over a calendar year.
While these growth models are considered by the researchers to be a big improvement over using test scores at one point in time, they still don't account for the summers, during which kids from advantaged areas don't backtrack in their learning the way children from disadvantaged areas often do.
This "summer loss" for disadvantaged students isn't surprising, given the difficulties they face with issues like family instability and food insecurity, Downey said.
"What is remarkable is not what happens in summer, but what happens when these disadvantaged students go back to school: The learning gap essentially disappears. They tend to learn at the same rate as those from the wealthier, suburban schools," he said.
"That is shocking to a lot of people who just assume that schools in disadvantaged areas are not as good."
Downey and his colleagues used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study - Kindergarten Cohort 2010-2011, which involved more than 17,000 students in 230 schools around the country. This study used a subsample of about 3,000 of the children who participated.
Children took reading tests at the beginning and end of kindergarten and near completion of their first and second grades.
That allowed the researchers to calculate how much children learned during three school periods and compare that to what happened during the summers.
This approach is similar to how new drugs are sometimes tested in medical research, Downey explained. In drug trials, researchers compare how patients fare while they are taking a drug to when they are not.
"In our case, we think of schools as the treatment and the summers as the control period when the students aren't receiving treatment," he said.
The results showed that children in schools serving disadvantaged students, on average, saw their reading scores rise about as much during the school year as did those in more advantaged schools.
That doesn't mean all schools were equally good, Downey said. But the findings showed that the "good" schools weren't all concentrated in the wealthier areas and the "bad" schools in the poor areas.
Downey said there are limitations to this study, most importantly that the data doesn't allow researchers to see what happens to students in later grades.
But this isn't the first time Downey and his colleagues have found that schools in advantaged and disadvantaged areas produce similar learning. A 2008 study, also published in the Sociology of Education, found similar results, but with less comprehensive data than this new research.
Downey said he has been somewhat surprised that the 2008 study and this new research hasn't engaged education researchers more.
"The field has not responded as energetically as I expected. I think our findings undermine a lot of social science assumptions about what role schools play in promoting disadvantage," he said.
Instead of being "engines of inequality" - as some have argued - this new research suggests schools are neutral or even slightly compensate for inequality elsewhere.
Disadvantaged kids start with poorer home environments and neighborhoods and begin school behind students who come from wealthier backgrounds, Downey said.
"But when they go to school they stop losing ground. That doesn't agree with the traditional story about how schools supposedly add to inequality," he said.
"We are probably better off putting more energy toward addressing the larger social inequalities that are producing these large gaps in learning before kids even enter school."
Downey emphasized that the results don't mean that school districts don't need to invest in disadvantaged schools.
"As it stands, schools mostly prevent inequality from increasing while children are in school," he said.
"With more investments, it may be possible to create schools that play a more active role in reducing inequality."