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News from EPI To Narrow the Achievement Gap, Policymakers Need to Look Beyond the Classroom

Social and economic conditions shape children’s school and life outcomes and cannot be fixed primarily by school reform, according to a new report by University of New South Wales lecturer Leila Morsy and EPI research associate Richard Rothstein. In Five Social Disadvantages that Depress Student Performance: Why Schools Alone Can’t Close Achievement Gaps, Morsy and Rothstein examine five social class characteristics that hinder students’ academic achievement: parenting practices that impede children’s intellectual and behavioral development, single parenthood, parents’ irregular work schedules, inadequate access to healthcare, and lead exposure.

“While policymakers generally understand that family and community characteristics affect performance, they are perplexed about addressing their impact,” said Morsy. “Though not all lower-social-class families have each of these characteristics, all have many of them. Pushing policies that address these social class characteristics might be a more powerful way to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children than school improvement strategies.”

The paper features analysis of new research regarding lead poisoning, which reduces cognitive ability and causes adverse behavioral outcomes in affected children, who are disproportionately low income and African American. Higher lead exposure in early childhood is correlated not only with lower average verbal and reading abilities, but also with increases in teenage aggressive behavior, teenage criminal behavior, and teenage pregnancy.

The social and economic conditions of parents also have a large influence on the school and life outcomes of children. Low-wage workers, who are disproportionately African American and less educated, are more likely to have irregular work schedules that make it difficult to place children in high-quality child care centers and to establish regular home routines in which children can thrive. Lower-social class parents also engage in fewer educationally supportive activities with young children. Finally, children of single parents—most often single mothers who are likely to be low-income, African American, and less educated—typically have lower test scores, are more likely to drop out of school, and have greater emotional and behavioral difficulties.

“Closing the education achievement gap by improving the outcomes of lower-social-class children means we need to reform their social conditions,” said Rothstein. “Policymakers should focus on improving the living conditions of these children and their families. That is likely to have a palpable impact on closing the achievement gap.”

The authors provide policy recommendations to address each of the characteristics. Because the five social and economic characteristics examined in the paper interact, improving one could have a positive effect on the others—for example, decreasing lower-class children’s lead poisoning could reduce single parenthood; more predictable work schedules for parents could provide them with opportunities to read more frequently to children.

The five specific characteristics analyzed in the report were chosen because new research has become available that demonstrates their impact on children’s school and life outcomes. Other social and economic characteristics that are not addressed in this report also strongly affect youth outcomes. Morsy and Rothstein will address additional characteristics in subsequent reports.