Translating Evidence into Improvement
Translating Evidence into Improvement

A New Take on 'No Excuses' - Tackling Poverty to Provide Meaningful Opportunity

April 25, 2012

We all know that factors related to poverty can limit learning in a number of ways. Lack of quality early-childhood care and education impedes healthy development and kindergarten readiness. Inadequate access to preventive and basic remedial health care substitute sick days and emergency room visits for classroom time and reduce student awareness and focus in class. Hunger makes it hard for kids to concentrate. And a dearth of enriching, stimulating activities after school and over the summer drains away much of what is gained between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. from September to June.

So-called "no excuses" education reformers distort this fundamental reality by claiming that Broader Bolder advocates and their allies don't believe that poor children can learn. They misrepresent the extensive evidence to suggest that those who understand the struggles wrought by living in poverty believe that parents' bank accounts are the bottom line. They have to engage in such trickery because the link is so logical, no one with common sense would suggest otherwise.

Last week's Capitol Hill briefing by three national experts -- Sean Reardon from Stanford University, Peter Edelman of the Georgetown Law Center, and David Sciarra from the Education Law Center in Newark -- brought the realities of poverty's impact on education into stark relief. Mr. Reardon cited findings from his chapter in the recent Russell Sage compendium Whither Opportunity to demonstrate that our record and growing income gaps, combined with a tattered social safety net, fundamentally threaten the American Dream. Current U.S. education policies compound, rather than alleviate, these massive income disparities, putting equality of opportunity even further out of reach for large numbers of low-income American students.

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CEPA Publications

In this chapter I examine whether and how the relationship between family socioeconomic characteristics and academic achievement has changed during the last fifty years. In particular, I investigate the extent to which the rising income inequality of the last four decades has been paralleled by a similar increase in the income achievement gradient. As the income gap between high- and low-income families has widened, has the achievement gap between children in high- and low-income families also widened?

The answer, in brief, is yes. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier. In fact, it appears that the income achievement gap has been growing for at least fifty years, though the data are less certain for cohorts of children born before 1970. In this chapter, I describe and discuss these trends in some detail. In addition to the key finding that the income achievement gap appears to have widened substantially, there are a number of other important findings.

First, the income achievement gap (defined here as the average achievement difference between a child from a family at the 90th percentile of the family income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile) is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. Fifty years ago, in contrast, the black-white gap was one and a half to two times as large as the income gap. Second, as Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson note in chapter 3 of this volume, the income achievement gap is large when children enter kindergarten and does not appear to grow (or narrow) appreciably as children progress through school. Third, although rising income inequality may play a role in the growing income achievement gap, it does not appear to be the dominant factor. The gap appears to have grown at least partly because of an increase in the association between family income and children’s academic achievement for families above the median income level: a given difference in family incomes now corresponds to a 30 to 60 percent larger difference in achievement than it did for children born in the 1970s. Moreover, evidence from other studies suggests that this may be in part a result of increasing parental investment in children’s cognitive development. Finally, the growing income achievement gap does not appear to be a result of a growing achievement gap between children with highly and less-educated parents. Indeed, the relationship between parental education and children’s achievement has remained relatively stable during the last fifty years, whereas the relationship between income and achievement has grown sharply. Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement.

This chapter is now published in the book Whither Opportunity: