WHEN MITT ROMNEY recently announced his education platform—more school choice, greater emphasis on charter schools, a tough line on teacher performance, and skepticism about teachers unions—it was widely noted that this array of policies was not much different from those advanced by the incumbent president. With the exception of school vouchers (which Romney favors and Obama opposes), both men have a basically center-right view of education policy, which prescribes tough business principles to elementary and secondary learning in order to reduce the achievement gap between black and Latino students, and white and Asian students.
But what if this bipartisan policy consensus is wrong? What if the achievement gap, today, is much more about rich and poor than black and white? And what if the mainstream policy ideas—more competition in schools, better use of data, more accountability for teachers—miss the much bigger impediments to academic achievement, such as the effects of poverty and segregation?
Greg Duncan of U.C. Irvine and Richard Murnane of Harvard have assembled a large group of top-notch researchers to produce a massive volume—551 pages with small type and narrow margins. If long and dense, the book’s research is stunning, and may help change the national conversation in education. The authors explode two myths that have dominated American education discourse for a generation: that inequalities are rooted in race, and that a tough “no excuses” model can vanquish the effects of poverty and economic school segregation.
When policymakers talk about the “achievement gap,” and when newspapers print tables outlining group differences on tests like the SAT, the data are almost always presented in terms of race and ethnicity. On one level, that’s understandable. There are shameful and substantial racial and ethnic test score gaps that deserve consideration, and there are political constituency groups that appropriately call attention to the need for action.
But Whither Opportunity? demonstrates that the nearly exclusive focus on race is outdated. Just as our labor market has seen racial income gaps slowly decline, while overall inequality between economic groups has skyrocketed, a parallel trend is taking place in education. The test score and college graduation gaps between black and white are slowly shrinking while the gaps between rich and poor are roughly twice as large as fifty years ago. In a comprehensive analysis of the test score gap, Stanford professor Sean Reardon examines nineteen nationally representative studies going back more than fifty years and finds that whereas the black/white test score gap used to be about twice as large as the rich/poor gap, today, the income gap is about twice as large as the race gap.
Educational attainment—the number of years students attend school—has seen a similar increase in inequality by income, as the gap between students from the top and bottom economic quintiles has grown by a full year. According to a chapter by Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan, “inequality in college outcomes by family income increased dramatically in recent decades.” Children of wealthy families have increased their college graduation rates by 18 percentage points, while those from poor families have increased just 4 percentage points, so that the students of wealthy families are now six times as likely to graduate (54 percent versus 9 percent.)
Meanwhile, residential and school segregation—though still deeply rooted in race—have increasingly taken on a class dimension. While residential segregation by race has slowly declined over time, families are increasingly sorting themselves by income. And, as a chapter by Joseph G. Altonji and Richard Mansfield of Yale University demonstrates, from 1972 to 1988 “schools became more economically segregated, and teenagers from affluent families were less and less likely to have classmates from low-income families.” Other research suggests this trend has continued in recent years.
But if Whither Opportunity? upends the “liberal” idea that educational inequality is primarily a matter of race and ethnicity, the volume also eviscerates the “conservative” idea that poverty and segregation are just “excuses” raised by school teachers and their unions to explain away poor job performance. As Harry Brighouse and Gina Schouten of the University of Wisconsin point out in their chapter, the idea that schools, through tough discipline and a longer school day, could by themselves overcome the effects of poverty and segregation was prominently championed by conservative scholars Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in their book, No Excuses (2002). But somewhere along the line, the model, best exemplified by the KIPP charter schools, became influential with major foundations (Gates, Broad, and Walton), center-left advocacy organizations (Education Trust and Education Sector), and with high-level members of the Obama administration. As part of an ambitious effort to turn around failing schools, for example, the administration suggested that firing teachers and bringing in new ones—while doing nothing about poverty and segregation—would do the trick.
But the overwhelming evidence in Whither Opportunity? suggests that poverty must be addressed head-on if we wish to help close the economic and racial achievement gaps. One chapter concludes that “families are much more influential than schools and communities in producing successful students.” And public policy can make an important difference. Careful research, for example, finds that increasing the generosity of the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income and working-class families is associated with test score gains among young children. Research in the volume also finds that “providing low-income families with more resources could increase the amount of money spent on enrichment items and activities for children.”
The book also includes extensive evidence that economic segregation of schools—an issue largely ignored by federal policymakers—impedes academic achievement for students. A given student attending a high-poverty school faces numerous disadvantages. Because of growing economic segregation, the authors find, “a child from a poor family is two to four times as likely as a child from an affluent family to have classmates in both elementary and high school with low skills and with behavioral problems.” A given child in a high-poverty school is much more likely to have classmates who leave during the year and new ones who come in, a phenomenon that is disruptive and reduces learning in math. Researchers at the University of Chicago, for example, find that “attending a high-mobility school for three consecutive years would leave a student three months behind where that student would be if he or she attended a low-mobility school.” Finally, students in high-poverty school miss out on making “professional contacts” with individuals who can help in the labor market. Being cut off from valuable contacts may explain why students in poverty have lower earnings as adults even after controlling for academic performance.
Addressing segregation could have an enormous impact on student outcomes, several authors in the volume conclude. One study of Chicago students finds that living in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods reduces a child’s verbal score by an amount “roughly equivalent to missing one or two years of schooling.” Low-income students given a chance to live in low-poverty neighborhoods and attend low-poverty schools outside of Chicago were four times less likely to drop out of high school and seven times as likely to attend a four-year college compared with those who remained in Chicago.
From a political standpoint, improving test scores and the life chances of low-income students is a non-starter if it comes at the expense of middle-class students in economically integrated schools. But evidence from Whither Opportunity? suggests that the effects of concentrated poverty are nonlinear—that moving out of the worst neighborhoods has a disproportionately positive effect. Research also finds that low-income students are more influenced by schooling, for better or worse, than are middle-class children, who receive substantial support at home. Both findings are consistent with research showing that racial desegregation decreased black dropout rates but did not increase white dropout rates.
Of course, there are examples of high-poverty schools that perform well—the book points to schools in Charlotte, North Carolina—but most high-flying high-poverty schools are flukes. According to research cited in the volume, when the Education Trust identified 1,320 high-poverty high-minority schools that performed well, Douglas Harris of the University of Wisconsin found that 93 percent dropped out if a more rigorous screen were applied: having to do well in both reading and math, in more than one grade, for two years running.
KIPP schools do well even by this tougher standard, but the volume notes that with its strict discipline codes and parental contracts, KIPP schools serve a very different clientele than traditional high poverty public schools. KIPP, for example, requires parents to sign contracts pledging to follow KIPP rules. The one time KIPP tried to take over a regular public school in Denver, Colorado, with a traditional student population, it failed and vowed only to start new schools which parents must select.
Whither Opportunity? is a powerful statement from some of the best scholars in the country that popular bipartisan slogans like “no excuses” are backed by little to no research. The nature of educational inequality is shifting, from race to class, and if we want to make a difference in schools, we cannot ignore what goes on outside them.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the editor of Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College (2010) and The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy (2012).