I use standardized test scores from roughly forty-five million students to describe the temporal structure of educational opportunity in more than eleven thousand school districts in the United States. Variation among school districts is considerable in both average third-grade scores and test score growth rates. The two measures are uncorrelated, indicating that the characteristics of communities that provide high levels of early childhood educational opportunity are not the same as those that provide high opportunities for growth from third to eighth grade. This suggests that the role of schools in shaping educational opportunity varies across school districts. Variation among districts in the two temporal opportunity dimensions implies that strategies to improve educational opportunity may need to target different age groups in different places.
Are public schools in the United States engines of mobility or agents of inequality? Can schools in low-income communities provide a pathway out of poverty, or are the constraints of poverty too great for schools to overcome? Such questions are at the heart of debates about the role of education in social mobility in the United States. Despite decades of research, however, we still lack clear answers.
In this article, I provide new evidence to inform these debates. It suggests that the lack of a clear answer to the question is explained in part by the substantial variation in the role of schooling in shaping educational opportunity across places. Early childhood conditions are more important in some places, educational opportunities during the elementary and middle school years more important in others.