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Why Compensatory Schooling Seems to Make No Difference

** NOTE: The plain-text version of this article, below, has been corrected by the author to remove typographical errors generated by an OCR (optical character reader). Page breaks have been indicated in [square brackets]. Footnotes originally indicated by half-sized superscripts have been entered in [square brackets].


Kenneth R. Conklin, "Why Compensatory Schooling Seems to Make 'No Difference'," JOURNAL OF EDUCATION (Boston University), CLVI, 2 (May, 1974), pp. 34-42.


Why Compensatory Schooling Seems to Make "No Difference"

Kenneth R. Conklin
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts

Several major studies seem to show that schooling cannot be a means for achieving social equality. Indeed, schooling seems to magnify initial inequalities. Compensatory schooling apparently fails to help disadvantaged or black children improve their standing on measures of academic achievement and post-school success in relation to the standing of middle class or white children. Some commentators conclude that there must be genetic factors involved: perhaps a gene for intelligence is linked with the gene for race in a manner similar to the linkage between color blindness and sex. But such conclusions are not necessary. The data on the "failure" of compensatory schooling can be accepted as true without concluding that intelligence is affected by race or that compensatory schooling should be abandoned. Linguistic and cultural characteristics deeply influence the manner in which young children perceive the world and learn to think, feel, and behave. These linguistic and cultural characteristics happen to be very different among various racial and social groups. Children who acquire nonstandard ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and behaving early in life will never operate as effectively in the "standard" ways as children who grow up with the "standard" folkways. To achieve complete social equality of opportunity for all biologically and socially identifiable groups, we would have to adopt Plato's suggestion for very-early-childhood education: to take all infants from their parents and rear them under equal conditions in state-operated nurseries. Otherwise, we must think of compensatory education as analogous to foreign language instruction: it is meant to help people of one group who choose to do so learn how to "succeed" as well as possible according to the standards of a different group. Compensatory education would be important for the dominant group as well as for minorities.


Several major studies published during recent years seem to show that schooling is not and cannot be a means of achieving social equality. It seems the effect of schools is to perpetuate and enlarge the socioeconomic differences of the children who go through them. Costly programs of compensatory schooling have been unable to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged black children who receive these programs and white children who receive no extra help. Some commentators conclude that, on the average, black intelligence levels are inherently or genetically inferior. Many commentators, while avoiding such extreme conclusions, believe

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the evidence is at least sufficient to justify reducing expenditures for compensatory education, busing to achieve desegregation, and other affirmative-action, equal-opportunity programs. Naturally, conclusions like these are heralded by overburdened taxpayers, disgruntled students and parents, white racists, black racists, and the Nixon administration. All, in one way or another, would be glad to see less money spent on schools, the elimination of cross-town busing, or a return to racial separation.

In the present essay we shall see, however, that we can accept even the most pessimistic factual data about the ineffectiveness of current equal-opportunity programs without being forced to conclude that the races have genetically-determined intelligence differences. It is not necessary to conclude that compensatory schooling and desegregation should be abandoned. Indeed, we shall see that there is an explanation for the pessimistic factual data which would make us conclude that we need affirmative-action programs that are even stronger than those we have had, although based on different principles.

The Facts and Their Alleged Implications

Suppose we define "school factors" as curriculum, per-pupil expenditures, physical facilities, the academic training and experience of teachers, and other objectively observable elements of the school situation. Let us acknowledge, if only for the sake of argument, that the following facts have been conclusively demonstrated:

When school factors have all been equalized, we find that children from "disadvantaged" backgrounds continue to perform more poorly than children from average backgrounds on tests of academic achievement and on commonly accepted measures of post-school success. The gap between disadvantaged and average children widens as the number of years in school increases. We also find that programs in compensatory education, which provide a disproportionately larger share of school factors to disadvantaged children, have relatively little effect in narrowing the gap between disadvantaged children and others. Projections show that no amount of compensatory schooling can succeed in producing equal academic achievement or equal post-school success. Black children who are disadvantaged fall farther behind than white children who are similarly disadvantaged, and compensatory schooling is substantially less effective for disadvantaged blacks than for similarly disadvantaged whites. These facts have all been demonstrated speciically for elementary and secondary education, with direct comparisons between black and white children.[1]

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At the college level it has been shown that the excellence of the institution has no signiicant bearing upon student achievement. The personal backgrounds of students are more reliable predictors of academic achievement than the quantity and quality of the school factors at their colleges. The financial resources of the college, the level of academic competition, and the intellectual level of one's classmates seem to have no significant effect upon a student's achievement in the social sciences, humanities, or natural sciences.[2]

One explanation gaining widespread support postulates an innate difference of intelligence between disadvantaged and average children and between blacks and whites. The inferiority of black intelligence seems to be the only way of explaining why disadvantaged blacks fall farther behind than similarly disadvantaged whites on measures of academic achievement, even when strong compensatory education is provided. Presumably all other factors were actually equal or were statistically equalized in analyzing the data, so that an innate difference in intelligence is the only way of explaining these persistent differences in achievement. We do not want to believe these conclusions, yet the evidence seems to require belief in them. The conclusions are so painful that we already find large numbers of otherwise rational, well-educated people making irrational attacks on the usefulness of scientiic methods in studying social problems and irrational attacks on the personal characters of the scientists who dared to launch these inquiries and publish these findings.

The truth, no matter how painful it may be, should always be sought and disclosed. If these unhappy conclusions are true, then we really ought to face up to them. But they are probably not true. At least there are other plausible explanations for the facts, which deserve to be tested before we resort to such obnoxious conclusions. One such explanation is offered below. The explanation is really quite obvious in a supericial way, although the full strength of the explanation hinges upon some subtle and wide-ranging interdisciplinary insights.

The Superficial Explanation: I.Q. Tests are Biased

The simple way of stating the explanation to be developed here is: people with different socioeconomic backgrounds are different in the ways they think, feel, and behave. Therefore, all tests of innate intelligence and all criteria of post-school success which are standardized by reference to a dominant socioeconomic group are inappropriate measuring instruments for other groups.

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This explanation may sound familiar -- so familiar, indeed, that readers will be inclined to stop reading here and now. But this explanation has a much deeper interpretation than is commonly understood. By recalling the usual criticisms of intelligence tests we will be led to a new explanation of the apparent failure of compensatory schooling.

The usual criticisms of intelligence tests point out that there seems to be no direct way of measuring "the unlearned ability to learn." We always end up measuring achievement. If there has been equal opportunity to learn, then someone who has learned more at a given age than others of the same age must have had the advantage of superior intelligence. However, there is never equal opportunity. Therefore when a minority group achieves a lower average intelligence than a standard group, the minority group can escape the onus of lower intelligence by pointing to unequal opportunities in the learning environment. It is also clear that different groups learn different kinds of things, so that a minority group will naturally show lower achievement on many items that are common in a standard group. This point is illustrated by numerous examples of "intelligence tests" constructed to show the superiority of minority groups in certain categories. For example, we can imagine how well blacks would outscore whites on a test which asks, "How long should chitterlings be cooked?" or "Who is Elijah Muhammad?"

In order to show equal intelligence or academic achievement on standardized tests, the minority group would have to become thoroughly socialized to the point of being able to think and behave just like the standard group. Thus arises a moral question generally phrased, "Do middle class teachers have the right to impose middle class values on lower class children?" This question is meant rhetorically, of course, since it is commonly accepted that no group has the right to impose values upon another group. But by probing more deeply here we can see a much more profound explanation of the apparent failure of compensatory schooling.

The Deeper Explanation

Members of minority groups who have been reared according to different standards will naturally perform poorly according to the "established" standards of the dominant group. To perform well according to established standards, a minority person must master the standard group's ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. This can be done in one of two ways: (1) A minority person can change his private, spontaneous ways of

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thinking, feeling, and behaving so they actually conform to the standard group's folkways. (2) A minority person can learn to imitate the standard group's folkways when necessary, while retaining the folkways of his minority group as his real identity. In either case the minority person might perform well according to established standards. But the first option makes him a traitor in his own eyes and the eyes of his group (e.g., black people sometimes give the name "Oreo" to someone who is "black on the outside but white on the inside), while the second option leaves him confused and leads to occasional lapses into the wrong role for a given set of circumstances. Perhaps the second option would be less morally objectionable than the first one, since the second option does not put the school into the role of "imposing middle class white values on lower class black children." The difference between the two options is subtle, however, and needs to be made clear in the processes of teaching and evaluation.[3]

What is important in the present essay is that a minority person must master a set of folkways that are not natural for him in order to achieve equality on standardized criteria of academic achievement and post-school success. This is a difficult process. For example, it is far more difficult and subtle than learning to read, write, and speak fluently in a foreign language. Mastering the folkways of a different economic class would be hard enough, but mastering the folkways of a diferent race in addition would compound the difficulty enormously. Thus we have an explanation for the apparent inefectiveness of compensatory schooling. But the power and importance of this explanation become clear only upon further inquiry.

Sociologists have been telling us for a century now that people in different cultures think, feel, and behave very differently from each other, and the differences extend to sub-cultures and to socioeconomic classes within the same nation or society. Some sociologists have pointed out that cultural differences extend not only to obviously subjective domains such as art, music, literature, philosophy and law, but also to scientific and mathematical reasoning. Different cultures interpret the same phenomena in different ways and draw different conclusions. Fundamental assumptions and ways of perceiving and interpreting events, are so different that complete cross-cultural understanding and accurate translation of concepts may be impossible.

Recently a number of psycholinguists and sociolinguists have argued that the language a person acquires during the first few years of life helps to determine the categories in which he can think.[4] Numerous studies have also shown that black people in America speak English in ways unique to their subculture. Thus it might be reasonable to conclude that black children during their first few years of life learn patterns of thinking that are different from the "standard" patterns. These differences

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established in the early years might be so deeply ingrained that schooling from ages five to sixteen could not signiicantly afect them.

Even purely cognitive or "academic" subject matter in mathematics and science is not culture-free. Every academic discipline has commonly accepted concepts and ways of reasoning which are established by consensus among the practitioners and consumers of the discipline,[5] and most of these people are members of the dominant socioeconomic and racial group. To be successful, a student must internalize or at least learn to imitate the special language forms in the community of discourse dominated by the subject matter experts, while these experts serve as role models.[6] The prevailing folkways, even in a scientiic discipline, are so strong they may prevent the acceptance of a valid new discovery which violates accepted thinking,[7] although history records occasional insights which have succeeded in establishing radical new folkways.[8] The further one goes in mastering an academic discipline, the more difficult it becomes to grasp the increasingly complex and subtle cognitive folkways. But even at the level of the elementary school the gross cognitive folkways represent a culture that is more alien to a minority child than to a child of the dominant group.

The heavily cognitive areas of mathematics, science, and logical reasoning have been stressed here because they are the primary objects of instruction in compensatory schooling directed at improving standardized test scores. Also, these areas are usually regarded as the least culturally biased elements of the curriculum (hence, most "fair" to minorities). But we have seen that cognitive learnings are not culturally neutral and are integrated into a child's consciousness in a manner dependent on his subculture. The less abstract, more efective domains of learning (e.g., art, music, literature) are obviously more likely to be culturally biased; yet, these subjects, too, are important in compensatory schooling. Affective folkways influence cognition and are important in their own right as basic elements in a culture. All the basic folkways of the dominant group must be mastered by any minority person who wants to achieve "success."

"Culture shock" is the label given to the temporary (and occasionally permanent) disorientation and debilitation which occur when someone takes up residence in a very different culture. It is even conceivable that some cultures have legitimate ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving which are so radically diferent from our own that we would regard them as impossible or insane. The current popularity of the writings of Carlos Castaneda suggests that a surprisingly large number of sophisticated people are coming to acknowledge the possibility of "separate realities" perceived through radically divergent cultural lenses.[9]

The fact that diferent cultures form diferent concepts of reality does

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not mean that there is no stable reality. There may very well be something real or true or absolute "out there" (e.g., Plato's "Forms" or Kant's "Noumena"). But diferent cultures perceive reality in diferent ways, and the general perceptions of all cultures fall short of complete accuracy (except perhaps that a few rare individuals may transcend cultural limitations and achieve enlightenment). The mere fact that one culture has numerical or political dominance over another does not imply that the dominant culture's perceptions are more factually accurate or morally righteous. By the same token a minority group has no right to claim superiority for its perceptions merely on account of minority status or oppression.

Some Implications for Schooling

A member of any group must master the folkways of a second group in order to succeed according to the second group's standards. There is never anything immoral about teaching or learning the folkways of another group, and there is no need to renounce one's heritage in the process. Such intercultural education improves the likelihood that people from different backgrounds will understand and tolerate each other. Success according to another group's standards can often be obtained without violating one's own mores; only when conflicts arise are there moral problems. The point is that schools can render a valuable service by teaching everyone the folkways of other groups and the skills needed for success. Each person can then make a more intelligent decision as to whether or not success according to another group's standards is morally acceptable. The fact that one group is so powerful that people of other groups must follow its success routes in order to survive is one factor that must be weighed in the moral balance.

The apparent failure of compensatory schooling does not have to be explained by postulating genetic differences between blacks and whites, or between economically disadvantaged people and members of the middle class. People reared in a minority-group culture have unique ways of thinking, feeling, behaving, and interpreting phenomena; they will have difficulty understanding the folkways of the dominant culture and even more difficulty behaving in accord with those folkways. Compensatory schooling between ages five and sixteen probably cannot alter the cognitive and affective folkways already deeply internalized from a child's subculture, even if such alteration were deemed morally permissible. Thus we account for the so-called "failure" of compensatory schooling. Perhaps

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the only way to avoid inequalities of academic achievement and postschool success between social groups is to follow Plato's advice: let all children be taken a few days after birth and reared together in state nurseries apart from their parents. The later we begin with "early childhood" compensatory schooling, the less effective it will be in promoting equality.

Compensatory schooling begun later than infancy could be more effective if regarded as a kind of foreign language or "finishing school" program. The idea would be to teach children, in the idioms of their own subculture, how to cope with the expectations of the dominant culture. It is not sufficient merely to present the concepts and reasoning patterns needed to meet academic standards -- we have seen that such presentations will be interpreted in ways that will not meet the standards. It must be made clear that children are not being asked to change how they actually think, feel, and behave in private or with close friends.

Subject matter should be presented in terms that are natural to a child's subculture, and in a manner that helps the child see when and why the subject matter is important for success in the dominant culture. It takes more than the cognitive study of grammar and vocabulary to master the spirit of a foreign language. Mastery is aided by the collateral study of the music, literature, architecture and life styles of the native speakers. Surely such collateral studies would provide an important context when children of one culture are trying to understand the intellectual and social folkways of another. While it is true that a teacher must thoroughly understand the folkways of his pupils in order to teach the pupils in their own idioms, he need not be from the same racial or socioeconomic background. If possible, children should be taught by teams of people with divergent backgrounds and should attend school with peers from other subcultures.

Rather than cutting back on compensatory education, we need more. Compensatory education cannot make everyone over into the mold of the dominant culture. It cannot even guarantee that minority children will learn how to perform equally well with children of the dominant group in meeting the established standards of academic achievement and post-school success. But that does not mean that compensatory education makes no diference. Without it we would soon see a widening of the misunderstandings between people of diferent backgrounds.

Compensatory education is not only meant to help minority children cope with the dominant culture; it should also help children of the dominant group understand and cope with minority subcultures. Every person is limited by the folkways of the culture in which he was reared, and the task of compensatory education is to liberate us all from these limitations

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as far as possible. Ideally each person should be able to understand, and even express himself in, the idioms of groups other than his own. The great historic mission of the schools is to help actualize the distinctively human potential for rational inquiry, self-understanding, and awareness of alternatives. Compensatory education is an essential part of this mission.[10]


1. For an excellent summary of the factual findings, conclusions, and historical significance of the work of Jencks, Moynihan, Coleman, Pettigrew, Jenses, Herrnstein, and Armor, see Godfrey Hodgson, Do schools make a difference? The Atlantic, Vol. 231, No. 3, March, 1973, 35-46.

2. Numerous studies throughout the last decade by Alexander Astin have substantiated these and similar claims. For example, see Alexander Astin, "Undergraduate achievement and institutional excellence." Science, Vol. 161, No. 3842, August 16, 1968, 661-668.

3. Kenneth R. Conklin. Due process in grading: bias and authority. School Review, Vol. 81, No. 1, November, 1972, 85-95.

4. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966.

5. Conklin, op. cit.

6. Michael W. Apple. Community, knowledge, and the structure of disciplines. Educational Forum, XXXVII, 1 (November, 1972), 75-82.

7. Michael Polanyi. Personal Knowledge. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

8. Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

9. Carlos Castaneda. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968; and also A Separate Reality. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.

10. Robert M. Hutchins. The schools must stay. The Center Magazine. Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, VI, 1, Jan./Feb., 1973, 12-23.

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