Saved by the Bell: Socioeconomics and the American School System

Professor Terry Beck links a jamboard into our class’s zoom chat. He offers his students prompts and asks us to drop a virtual sticky note on a plane, each corner labeled “strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree”. Each prompt discusses the involvement of socioeconomics on student performance. Slowly, colorful stickies populate the page, scattered across the axes. We spend the class discussing our interpretations on the American school system, standardized testing, and socioeconomics.

In preparation for class, we read Richard Rothstein’s article “Why Children from Lower Socioeconomic Classes, on Average, have Lower Academic Achievement than Middle-Class Children”. Frequently, academic achievement in the U.S. is determined by standardized means. For example, GPA, SAT, and ACT scores contribute heavily to college acceptance.

Socioeconomics influence standardized testing results, in particular. Not only does the actual test cost a fee, but prep books, prep courses, and tutoring can sum to hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of dollars. Due to the impact that specialized prep courses have on standardized testing success, accessibility to these resources acts as a large determinant of scores.

In a more general sense, Rothstein says that health and household situation often correlate with income and academic performance. Students who are sick or can’t see the board are disadvantaged at school. Lack of affordable housing, as well as lack of access to computers, printers, or internet also present challenges to lower-income students. How can they submit an assignment if they can’t access it? I worked for a political campaign over the summer, and when talking to constituents, a school superintendent mentioned that he worried many of his students wouldn’t have access to broadband. Rothstein also states that children that come from low-income families frequently have parents who work full-time or work multiple jobs, and often do not have time to teach their kids outside of work.

Beck then challenges us to compare the Rothstein article with a book we have been reading over the past month, Mission High by Kristina Rizga. Mission High, an actual school in California, offers a fascinating case of education. Mission taught a diverse demographic of students and was usually considered as a “bad school” by students who attended other high schools. Mission High students often state otherwise. They love the school. The teachers care about their learning and their well-being. They feel as though they can actually learn. The state however, cites the school’s below-average standardized testing performance as a reason why it is considered subpar.

This poses the question: what makes a school good? Some would argue that high standardized test scores prove the quality of a school. If so, this would insinuate that socioeconomics makes a school “good”. What about learning? What about culture? Student engagement? Mission High provides readers (and students) with an interesting discussion of learning, succeeding, and graduating from the American school system, a discussion that challenges the idea that standardized scores determine quality.



Rothstein, R. (2013). Why children from lower socioeconomic classes, on average, have lower academic achievement than middle-class children. In P.L. Carter and K. G. Welner (Eds.), Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do to give every child an even chance. Oxford Scholarship Online. DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199982981.003.0005​

Rizga, K. (2015). Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph. Nation Books.



About Rachel Kadoshima

Rachel is a senior economics and French language student

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