Academic journal article The Future of Children

Improving the Education of Children Living in Poverty

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Improving the Education of Children Living in Poverty

Article excerpt


Richard Murnane observes that the American ideal of equality of educational opportunity has for years been more the rhetoric than the reality of the nation's political life. Children living in poverty, he notes, tend to be concentrated in low-performing schools staffed by ill-equipped teachers. They are likely to leave school without the skills needed to earn a decent living in a rapidly changing economy. Murnane describes three initiatives that the federal government could take to improve the education of these children and increase their chances of escaping poverty. All would strengthen the standards-based reforms at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) by bracing the three legs on which the reforms rest: accountability, incentives, and capacity.

Congress, says Murnane, should improve accountability by amending NCLB to make performance goals more attainable. The goals should emphasize growth in children's skills rather than whether children meet specific test score targets. Congress should also amend NCLB to develop meaningful goals for high school graduation rates.

Congress should strengthen states' incentives to improve the education of low-income students. It should also encourage states to develop effective voluntary school choice programs to enable students who attend failing public schools to move to more successful schools in other districts.

Finally, Congress should use competitive matching grants to build the capacity of schools to educate low-income children and the capacity of state departments of education to boost the performance of failing schools and districts. The grants would help develop effective programs to improve teaching and to serve students who do not fare well in conventional high school programs.

Murnane estimates the annual cost of these three initiatives to be approximately $2.5 billion.

Equality of educational opportunity has been part of the rhetoric of American political life for many years. Reality, however, does not match the rhetoric. Children living in poverty, disproportionately children of color, tend to be concentrated in schools with inadequate resources and poorly skilled teachers. Many of these children are likely to leave school before earning a high school diploma. Even if they graduate, many leave school without the skills needed to earn a decent living.

Equal access to a good education has become especially crucial over the past twenty-five years, as a rapidly changing economy has made skills and education ever more important determinants of labor market outcomes. Figure 1 shows trends in the average hourly wages of Americans with different educational attainments. In 1979 graduates of a four-year college earned 46 percent more than high school graduates earned on average. By 2005 that gap had widened to 74 percent. During that same period the average inflation-adjusted earnings of high school dropouts fell 16 percent. (1)

Not surprisingly, the cognitive skills of students, even young students, predict accurately how likely they are to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and get a four-year degree. (2) Inequality in mathematics and reading skills results in inequality in educational attainment and inequality in labor market earnings. The best evidence on the reading and math skills of American children comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called the nation's report card. Math skills are particularly important predictors of subsequent labor market outcomes. (3) On the 2005 assessment of the math skills of eighth graders, only 13 percent of children living in poverty achieved a score of proficient compared with 40 percent of children who were not poor. Almost half--49 percent--of children living in poverty had scores below the threshold for basic competency, compared with just 21 percent of nonpoor children. (4)

The differences in the mathematics and reading skills of eighth graders of different groups translate into striking differences in high school graduation rates. …

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