Equity & Diversity Opinion

How We Can Strengthen Schools Serving Low-Income Children

By Greg J. Duncan & Richard J. Murnane — August 05, 2014 7 min read

Changes in the American economy pose enormous challenges for America’s public schools and the dream of socioeconomic mobility for low-income families.

By upgrading the skills required by hundreds of middle-class occupations, technology has increased what the nation asks of its schools. At the same time, growing income inequality has affected where families live and how much money they can spend to nurture their children’s abilities. These changes have placed great strains on America’s decentralized approach to public education, particularly in schools serving large numbers of children from low-income families.

An obvious advantage of a higher family income is that it enables parents to spend more money on books, computers, high-quality child care, summer camps, music lessons, private schooling, and other enrichment opportunities for their children.

Researchers have reported that, in the early 1970s, the richest 20 percent of families spent about $3,000 more per child per year (in 2012 dollars) on child enrichment than did the poorest 20 percent. By 2006, this gap had nearly tripled, to $8,000 per child per year. This adds up to a $100,000 spending gap over the course of a child’s primary and secondary school career—a huge amount.

Enrichment experiences matter because they help children acquire the vocabulary and background knowledge critical to achieving the high levels of literacy needed for many kinds of well-paying work.


Less obvious is that, as income inequality has increased, so has the residential isolation of low- and high-income families. Relative to 40 years ago, poor families are now more likely to be surrounded by other poor families, while high-income families are similarly isolated. Because most children still attend schools close to their homes, rising residential segregation has led to increasing concentrations of low- and high-income children attending separate schools. The resulting changes in the composition of student enrollments have shaped how schools function and contributed to the increasing gap between the achievement and completed schooling of children growing up in families at opposite ends of the income scale.

It will be extraordinarily difficult to reverse the growth in inequality in educational outcomes in the United States. Yet, there are educational initiatives, conducted at considerable scale, that have improved results for low-income children. Our recent book Restoring Opportunity features three such initiatives: the Boston pre-K program, the campuses of the University of Chicago charter school, and New York City’s small schools of choice. Rigorous evaluations show that these innovative and quite-durable programs, all of which change children’s daily school experiences, improve the life chances of children from poor families.

All of these initiatives operate in environments characterized by consistently strong school supports and sensible accountability. For example, all provide rich opportunities for teachers and school leaders to improve their skills. All require that teachers take advantage of these opportunities and demonstrate to their colleagues that they share the collective mission of educating every student well.

Consistent supports and sensible accountability are essential complements because, without supports for improved instruction, accountability can be counterproductive. And, supports alone typically are not enough to improve schooling because even hard-working, well-intentioned educators (like most adults) are slow to embrace change.

The initiatives we highlight are exceptions; relatively few low-income children experience such good education. Yet, recent changes in American education provide building blocks for increasing the number of effective schools serving high concentrations of low-income students. They include the widespread, if fragile, embrace of the Common Core State Standards, growing acceptance of accountability, and advances in research-based knowledge.

The common-core standards outline the skills in English/language arts and mathematics that American students are expected to master at each grade level from kindergarten through 12th grade. As of this writing, 43 states and the District of Columbia have adopted these standards, which set goals that are considerably higher than the accomplishments of most American students, especially those from low-income families.

There are educational initiatives, conducted at considerable scale, that have improved results for low-income children."

Carefully designed to reflect the latest research, the standards can offer teachers and school leaders a fundamental school support: clarity about the conceptual and procedural skills children should master in each grade. And the assessments that two consortia of states are developing to measure students’ mastery of the common-core standards can provide another critical school aid: detailed information for teachers about children’s mastery of essential skills and knowledge.

Over the last 20 years, it has come to be almost universally accepted that schools should be judged by their effectiveness in educating all students—an important step forward for disadvantaged children.

A well-designed accountability system promotes a willingness to use resources in new ways and offers incentives for school faculties to work together to develop the skills of every student. All of the schools described in our book face external accountability pressures—for example, schools participating in the Boston pre-K program were pressed to obtain certification from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The elementary and high schools that we highlight were required to demonstrate progress in preparing students to demonstrate proficiency on statewide English and math examinations.

About This Occasional Series

To recognize the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Commentary will run an occasional series of Perspectives on the federal initiative and its impact on schools and children today. See all Commentaries in this series.

As the mounting evidence of the weak effects of the No Child Left Behind Act illustrates, it is extraordinarily difficult to design accountability systems that take into account the intense challenges of educating high concentrations of poor children and at the same time provide incentives for educators to work together to serve all students well. There will be much to learn from states as they incorporate student results on new common-core-based assessments into accountability systems. One litmus test of whether an accountability system is sensible is whether it enables high-poverty schools to attract and retain skilled, experienced teachers.

We caution against letting high-stakes accountability get ahead of the difficult work of providing educators in high-poverty schools with the knowledge and extensive school supports they will need to help their students master the common core. Only if consistent strong supports are in place can accountability improve the education of low-income children.

Accountability efforts in high-poverty schools must encourage and not undercut the shared work that allowed the Boston pre-K program and the Chicago and New York City schools we studied to serve low-income students much more effectively than most high-poverty schools do.

In recent decades, research has increased understanding in many areas relevant to improving schooling, including children’s and adolescents’ developmental needs, the design of effective professional development, and strategies for using formative-assessment results to improve instruction. Insights from research informed the design of the school supports present in the schools we highlight, and they have the potential to benefit other high-poverty schools as well.

While strong school supports are no guarantee that high-poverty schools will develop the social conditions required to attract and retain strong teachers, they are a necessary condition. Organizationwide efforts can enable schools to become places where talented, committed educators want to work, where learning from one another is a daily part of the job, where the adults have the tools to serve children well, and where there are a variety of opportunities to share leadership tasks. Three six-minute videos available on our book’s website illustrate that teaching in a school that is part of the interventions we highlight is very different from the lonely profession described in books by Dan Lortie, Tracy Kidder, and many other authors.

Can the nation’s public schools improve the life chances of low-income children in the 21st century? The answer depends on the nation’s commitment to supporting a broad and comprehensive definition of schooling, its recognition of the immense challenges high-poverty schools face, and its willingness to find ways to provide the consistently strong school supports and sensible accountability necessary for lasting success.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as Levers of Change for Low-Income Students and Schools


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