By Beatty, Alexandra S.
Issues in Science and Technology , Vol. 29, No. 3
Gaps in student achievement are well documented. Members of some ethnic minority groups and low-income students consistently perform less well on achievement tests than their peers do. For example, a more than 20-point gap between white and Hispanic students on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in reading and mathematics has not changed significantly since 1990, and the gaps between black and white students have followed a similar pattern. Recent work has highlighted increases in the gaps among children of different income levels. Achievement gaps show up before children enter kindergarten: Children in the highest socioeconomic group entering kindergarten have cognitive scores 60% higher than those of children in the lowest socioeconomic group. The gaps in test scores and other measures persist throughout K-12 education, and corresponding gaps in high-school graduation rates, college matriculation and completion, and lifetime earnings demonstrate the impact that poor academic achievement has on young people's lives. But, as Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips noted more than a decade ago in a study of test scores, such gaps are not "an inevitable fact of nature."
A large volume of research has documented the associations between educational outcomes and factors associated with income and family and cultural background--most recently the collection Whither Opportunity?, edited by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane and For Each and Every Child, a report from the Equity and Excellence Commission of the U.S. Department of Education. A picture is beginning to emerge of the specific ways in which economic resources influence education, but it has not yet resulted in policies that significantly narrow the gaps.
Schools clearly make a big difference. Research has established that the students most likely to lag behind academically are those who attend schools with less-qualified teachers and poorer resources. The rigor of the curriculum as it is implemented, the quality of teachers, class size, and teacher absence and turnover all have been shown to influence outcomes for students. In other words, what happens once children enter school may support those with disadvantages, or may perpetuate or exacerbate the gaps. (These issues are discussed in detail in a companion article by Natalie Nielsen.)
But there are other factors struggling students frequently share. For example, students whose families are not stable and supportive (those who change schools frequently, whose parents do not participate actively in their education, or whose families are disrupted by substance use or crime) are more likely to struggle in school. So too are students who live in poverty; whose neighborhoods are stressed by unemployment; and who feel unsafe at, and on the way to and from, their schools. The lack of adequate health care and adequate nutrition and untreated medical and mental health problems also are associated with school problems. Each of these sources of disadvantage may significantly impede a child's academic progress, and these risk factors tend to cluster together, exacerbating their effects.
These important influences on children's development have been the subject of considerable research, but less progress has been made in directly linking disadvantage that originates outside of school to educational outcomes. The National Research Council (NRC) has produced reports that synthesize research in areas that have important implications for the educational progress of children and adolescents. This article summarizes some of the messages from a body of work produced by the NRC since 2000 that offer insights about the out-of-school factors that may influence educational outcomes.
Produced primarily under the aegis of the Board on Children, Youth, and Families and the Committee on Law and Justice, these reports were not focused on addressing education issues and for the most part do not identify causal connections between out-of-school factors and academic achievement. …