An interview with Professors Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane

Editor’s note: If you are interested in how poverty affects young people and their educational opportunities, I’d like recommend  Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Outcomes, edited by Greg Duncan (U.C.-Irvine) and Richard Murnane (Harvard University). This volume explores how rising inequality is compromising the capacity of public schools to provide our nation’s youth with opportunities for academic and economic success. Even if you don’t read the book, I’d recommend you read this executive summary  here.

In the following post, Rohan Mascarenhas discusses the book with the authors.

Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances Greg J. Duncan Richard J. Murnane Editors

Q: Your volume analyzes how social and economic conditions surrounding schools affect school performance and children’s educational achievement. What do we know about the academic achievement gap between children from rich and poor families? Has the gap grown larger over the past few decades?

A: We’ve long known that children reared in low-income families start school well behind their more affluent counterparts and that, if anything, the gaps grow across the school years. Using an SAT test-type metric, children in the most affluent fifth of families outscored children in the bottom fifth by nearly 130 points. This is a huge difference—twice the size of the kindergarten gap between white and both black and Hispanic children. Sean Reardon’s chapter in our book shows how much this gap has widened recently—by about one-third between 1978 and 2008. This growing skill gap matters because reading and math skills are strong predictors of both success in school and success in the labor market.

Q: What advantages do children of richer families have over their poorer classmates? For example, do we know if the gap in how much parents spend on their children’s education has grown? Are there other family-related advantages?

A: Children in more affluent families enjoy many advantages relative to poor or working class families, only some of which are affected by income. Before they enter school, they are exposed to many more words and complex sentences, which help boost early reading achievement. Meredith Phillips shows that they spend much more time in “novel” places—other than at home or school, or in the care of another parent or a day care facility. This matters, because when children are asked to read science and social studies texts in the upper elementary school grades, background knowledge is critical to comprehension and academic success.

More to the point of the income differences, the gap between what parents in the top and bottom 20% of the income distribution spent on enrichment activities such as music lessons, travel, and summer camps has grown sharply. In the early 1970s, the gap between what parents in the top and bottom quintiles spent on enrichment activities such as music lessons, travel, and summer camps was approximately $2,700 per year (in 2008 dollars). By 2005-06, the difference had increased to $7,500. Economic insecurity can also take a toll on a parent’s mental health, which may lead to harsher parenting styles.

Q: Currently, social scientists and policymakers are debating the value and efficiency of Head Start. What is the state of research on the effects of high-quality center-based child care and universal pre-K programs? Are there particular models that can be replicated, or is this a policy area still in need of more data and research? And how strong is the argument that early childhood interventions may be the most promising avenue to achievement gains?

A: Most certain is that intensive early education programs like Perry Preschool can generate a constellation of benefits that persist well into the adult years. Evidence on national programs like Head Start is mixed, with some long-term studies showing impressive impacts but shorter-term experiments showing more modest and transitory impacts. Pre-kindergarten programs have begun more recently and tend to set higher standards for the qualifications of their teachers and curricula than Head Start centers do. A number of recent pre-K studies have shown quite promising results. By and large, the evaluation evidence for early education programs is much more positive than for job training programs directed at youth.

Q: As you know, a politically charged debate has also emerged over how we should reform failing schools. But what exactly we do we know about the particular disadvantages poorer children face in their schools? Are their schools less able, for example, to attract high-quality teachers? Are they more likely to suffer from public safety issues?

A: As a result of an increase in residential segregation by income, poor children are concentrated in particular schools to a much great extent today than 40 years ago. One consequence is that children from low-income families are far more likely than more economically advantaged children to have classmates with low achievement and behavior problems. This matters because students learn less under such circumstances. Moreover, low-income schools are especially likely to attend schools in which student turnover is high. Here too the evidence shows that high turnover results in lower achievement, even for children who themselves stay in the same school.

Finally, there is abundant evidence that schools serving high concentrations of low-income children find it especially difficult to attract and retain effective teachers. As a result, the children most in need of our nation’s best teachers are the least likely to be taught by them.

Q: A growing number of policymakers believe increasing the number of charter schools will improve educational quality. What does your book’s research say about the effectiveness of charter schools? What additional research is needed to fully evaluate them?

A: Our book documents that schools that serve low-income children well have common characteristics. They include high expectations for every child, a rigorous curriculum, effective teachers, and personal support for every student. The book describes both charter schools and conventional public schools that have these characteristics. Authors of two chapters in the book have differing views about whether increasing the number of charter schools would result in better education for children from low-income families. Roland Fryer and his colleagues suggest that this would be the case. Harry Brighouse and Gina Schouten are less sanguine, raising questions about the extent to which charter schools serve a proportionate share of the nation’s most disadvantaged, troubled children.

Q: Many believe increasing access to higher education needs to be a national priority, especially in light of increasing global competition. First, how has educational mobility fared over the past few decades? Is there a growing gap in college graduation rates between low- and high-income children?

A: In their chapter, Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski show that, over the last 20 years, the percentage of children from affluent families who completed college increased by 21 percentage points while the graduation rate of children from low-income families increased by only 4 percentage pionts. Since education has been the dominant pathway to upward socio-economic mobility in the United States, the growing gap in educational attainment between children from rich and poor families is likely to result in increased income inequality in future generations and hinder the intergenerational socio-economic mobility that has been a source of pride for Americans.