Askwith Forum Addresses Rising Inequality in SchoolsBy Rachael Apfel
The pressing nature of educational inequality has risen dramatically in recent decades throughout the United States. Differences in test scores, college attendance, and graduation rates between wealthy and poor students are reaching an unprecedented disparity, with tremendous implications for the American public schooling system. Last week’s Askwith Forum, “Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances” — moderated by Professor Hiro Yoshikawa, academic dean at HGSE — addressed this increasingly salient issue and invited key thinkers in the field to share their thoughts.
Professor Richard Murnane and University of California – Irvine Professor Greg Duncan were the featured speakers at the forum and discussion focused specifically on the pair’s recently released book, Whither Opportunity: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances. The volume — which includes contributions from a distinguished team of economists, sociologists, and experts in social and education policy — analyzes the ways in which a variety of social and economic conditions affect school performance and educational achievement. In particular, the research highlights the causal affects of family income on a child’s educational achievement.
Discourse on the book was followed by commentary from Harvard Kennedy School Professor Christopher Sandy Jencks, Ed.M.’59, who argued that parental and family income may not matter as much as readers of Whither Opportunity? are led to believe. He suggested that instead, it is necessary to look to other causal factors that could be driving the findings in the book.
“The political agenda of this country has become paralyzed by the idea that it is impossible to raise taxes,” Jencks said. “Therefore, as college tuition continues to rise, the rate of students going to college has slowed down.”
Duncan acknowledged that there would be skepticism and debate surrounding the root causes of educational inequality, citing it as one of the main motivations for compiling a volume dedicated to the subject.
“The fundamental challenge of this book was to support a causal linkage between family income and educational achievement,” Duncan said. “Just because there is a correlation does not mean there is causation, so the book addresses all the different pieces of the process that might come into play.”
What was found is that family income affects educational achievement in a number of ways. First of all, income inequality has tremendous implications for how much parents will invest in resources for their child’s educational achievement. Disparities in “enrichment expenditures” for high and low income children were found to be quite significant, with a corresponding impact on schooling outcomes.
Furthermore, research reveals that income-based residential segregation, increasing since the 1980s, is another critical reason that schools have not been able to level the playing field for low and high income children.
“Why does this matter? Why should we be concerned that there is an increase in school segregation on the basis of income?” Murnane asked. “Because, as a result, children from low-income families are less likely to attend schools with children from affluent families, and this ultimately isolates the poor kids.”
This isolation, in turn, is shown to increase the likelihood that low-income children will be in classroom settings with behavioral problems and high student turnover — both of which take away from instructional time and lead to lower educational achievement. Furthermore, schools with large populations of low-income students are shown to have trouble attracting and attaining skilled teachers, with obvious implications for a child’s educational experience.
The last issue to be highlighted was that of intergenerational mobility, which Duncan and Murnane argue is declining in terms of education. They point to a series of studies, which are included in the volume, that reveal a negative trend in the percentage of young adults with more education than their parents, suggesting that education is no longer utilized as a “springboard for upward mobility”.
“We see this as deeply problematic because one of the core values in America is that, even though a child may grow up poor, he has strong reason to believe his own children will not grow up poor,” Murnane said. “Educational attainment has always been a key mechanism for supporting economic growth and rising standards in America, however, income inequality is posing a serious threat to that.”
Although income inequality may be the root cause of educational inequality, Duncan and Murnane argued that reducing it may not be the most cost-effective policy for boosting school success. Instead, the pair suggested that reducing educational inequality may best be achieved through three strategies: Effective pre–K programs, effective school reform, and economic support programs.
In closing, all parties involved in the discussion agreed that educational inequality is a rising and very real problem that needs to be addressed, regardless of whether one focuses on the social, economic, or political constraints.
“The fact that we cannot come to a consensus about the root causes of education inequality is no reason to throw in the towel,” Jencks said. “This is a very real problem that cannot be ignored and, right now, I think we are all just whistling in the dark.”