RSF Authors Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane Discuss Education Gaps in the U.S.

by
Rohan Mascarenhas, Harvard Kennedy School
February 20, 2014

As a follow up to their landmark volume, Whither Opportunity?, Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane have written a new book that shows how—in a time of spiraling inequality—strategically targeted interventions and supports can help schools significantly improve the life chances of low-income children. Co-published by the Russell Sage Foundation and the Harvard Education Press, Restoring Opportunity presents a deeply researched and hopeful education agenda that can counteract the corrosive effects of unequal family resources, disadvantaged neighborhoods, and worsening school conditions on American schools.

During a forum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education earlier this month, Murnane and Duncan summarized the worrying gaps in education that have emerged as inequality has increased. One problem is the different amounts that families spend on their children’s education: high-income families now spend around $9,000 a year on “enrichment activities,” such as books, computers, and summer camps, while poorer families in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution manage only $1,300. "That’s a huge gap,” Duncan said, "and it leads to a huge difference at the point of school entry.” Another issue is the rise in income residential segregation, which has concentrated the number of low-income children in particular neighborhoods. “Think about the kind of burdens that places on schools,” Duncan said. “It concentrates behavior problems. It makes it more difficult to attract high quality teachers.”

These issues are exacerbated by the growing demands that schools must satisfy in the Information Age. In order to thrive in the knowledge economy, Duncan and Murnane argue, students need a wider range of critical skills than has been traditionally provided. What can be done to address this challenge? Restoring Opportunity suggests new models that combine rigorous research, accountability, and teacher support. On their book’s website, the authors present three videos that profile promising results in Boston Public Schools’ Pre-K program, University of Chicago Charter School Campuses, and New York City Public Small High Schools of Choice. All three schools, aimed primarily at low-income students, have shown relatively large improvements in test scores and other important learning outcomes. You can watch these videos below:

As the debate over teacher accountability has dominated the recent debate over education reform, Murnane clarified the book’s argument. He called for a more nuanced approach that combines both accountability and support. “If you push teachers to do things—if their jobs depend on doing things they don’t know how to do, that does not serve children well,” he said. Instead, all the schools featured in the videos strive to create an environment in which teachers can both seek help, either through regular coaching or feedback sessions, and measure their performance.

While there are promising interventions emerging around the country, the reality is that very few low-income children have access to high-quality education. Restoring Opportunity outlines a path forward, and it comes at a crucial moment, when more Americans are discussing inequality and declining economic mobility. You can read more about the book here. For more information on Whither Opportunity, click here.

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