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Economic Inequality: Cause of Urban School Problem

America's urban public schools are in trouble: Student test scores are low and dropout rates are high.

Recent remedies proposed include everything from reducing the power of teachers unions and opening more charter schools to ending test-based accountability. But what if education critics are focused on the wrong problem? Implicit in these very different proposals is the assumption that urban schools are failing because they are run badly, and that the solution lies in improving their management.

Over the last five years, we have been involved in a wide-ranging research project that provides compelling evidence to the contrary. Our findings show that the root of the problems facing urban schools can be found in gradual but extremely powerful changes in the nation's economy — not the least of which is the increasingly unequal distribution of family incomes.

Policies that address the consequences of these changes, which recent poverty figures show have worsened, are more likely to improve the life chances of the children from low-income families. For the first three-quarters of the 20th century, economic growth, fueled in large part by the increasing educational attainments of successive generations of Americans, was a rising tide that lifted the boats of the rich and poor alike.

During the most recent three decades, by contrast, the fruits of economic growth have not been widely shared and the gap between the incomes of the nation's rich and poor families has grown enormously.

Read the full opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune.


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