Douglas Downey

Professor of Sociology, Ohio State University

Improving Opportunity for the Disadvantaged: The Role of Schools
Thursday, May 3, 2018 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm



What is the most effective way to improve the life chances of children raised in disadvantaged home environments? One possibility is to focus attention on improving the schools they attend, especially given the evidence showing marked improvements in disadvantaged children's cognitive skills as a result of particular school reforms. But several other empirical patterns question whether school reform is the optimal strategy. First, gaps in skills between disadvantaged and advantaged children are mostly formed prior to kindergarten, before schools have a chance to matter. Second, once school begins, gaps in skills between advantaged and disadvantaged children tend to grow faster when school is out (during the summer) than when it is in, suggesting that schools, as currently constituted, are compensatory. And third, if we carefully isolate school from non-school characteristics, there is little evidence that schools serving advantaged children produce more school-based learning than schools serving disadvantaged children. These patterns suggest that, although school-based approaches to improving disadvantaged children's lives can be successful under some circumstances, they likely do not address the more fundamental sources of the problem. A better understanding of the features of the broader social environment most critical to shaping disadvantaged children's development, especially during early childhood, is important for guiding policy.