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Posted at 04:11 PM ET, 02/10/2012

How to attack the growing educational gap between rich and poor

My guest is Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization, writes about education, equal opportunity and civil rights. This appeared on the foundation’s blog.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

Today’s New York Times features on its front page new research from the Russell Sage and Spencer foundations that concludes that the achievement gap between rich and poor is growing, and is now significantly larger than the gap between white and black students. This research is consistent with scholarship that The Century Foundation published in its 2010 volume, Rewarding Strivers , finding that the socioeconomic obstacles to doing well on the math and verbal SAT are seven times as large as those associated with race.

The Times article highlights the very troubling class divide in education, but then ends with a strange quotation from Douglas J. Besharov of the Atlantic Council. With unwarranted fatalism, Besharov suggests that in addressing the educational division, particularly between the children of well-educated dual-income families and those of less-educated single parents, “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.” In fact, research published by The Century Foundation and other organizations going back more than a decade shows that there are an array of strategies that can be highly effective in addressing the socioeconomic gaps in education:

* Pre-K programs. As Century’s Greg Anrig has noted, there is a wide body of research suggesting that well-designed pre-K programs in places like Oklahoma have yielded significant achievement gains for students. Likewise, forthcoming Century Foundation research by Jeanne Reid of Teachers College, Columbia University, suggests that allowing children to attend socioeconomically integrated (as opposed to high poverty) pre-K settings can have an important positive effect on learning.

* Socioeconomic Housing Integration. Inclusionary zoning laws that allow low-income and working-class parents and their children to live in low-poverty neighborhoods and attend low-poverty schools can have very positive effects on student achievement, as researcher David Rusk has long noted. A natural experiment in Montgomery County, Maryland, showed that low-income students randomly assigned to public housing units and allowed to attend schools in low-poverty neighborhoods scored at 0.4 of a standard deviation higher than those randomly assigned to higher-poverty neighborhoods and schools. According to the researcher, Heather Schwartz of the RAND Corporation, the initial sizable achievement gap between low-income and middle-class students in low-poverty neighborhoods and schools was cut in half in math and by one-third in reading over time.

* Socioeconomic School Integration. School districts that reduce concentrations of poverty in schools through public school choice have been able to significantly reduce the achievement and attainment gaps. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, where a longstanding socioeconomic integration plan has allowed students to choose to attend mixed-income magnet schools, the graduation rate for African American, Latino, and low-income students is close to 90 percent, far exceeding the state average for these groups.

* College Affirmative Action for Low-Income Students. Research finds attending a selective college confers substantial benefits, and that many more low-income and working-class students could attend and succeed in selective colleges than currently do. Research by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose of Georgetown University for the Century volume, America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education , found that selective universities could increase their representation from the bottom socioeconomic half of the population from 10 percent to 38 percent, and overall graduation rates for all students would remain the same.

In addition to these ideas, Century Foundation research by Gordon MacInnes has highlighted promising programs to promote the performance of low-income students in New Jersey. Forthcoming research will suggest ways to revitalize organized labor, a development that could raise wages of workers and thereby have a positive impact on the educational outcomes of their children. We will also be exploring ways to strengthen community colleges as a vital institutions for social mobility.

The cupboard of practical ideas to reduce the shameful educational gaps between rich and poor is not bare; it is overflowing. The problems of poverty and segregation are complex and stubborn, but to suggest they are insoluble is little more than a convenient excuse.

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