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Social Inequality and Educational Disadvantage

Too many of America’s most disadvantaged children grow up without the skills needed to thrive in the twenty-first century. Whether in educational attainment between income groups or racial/ethnic groups or across geographic locations—inequality persists. Low levels of performance among the most disadvantaged create long-term problems, particularly in an economy in which higher skill levels are more and more valued and the wages available to less-skilled workers are deteriorating. Some researchers claim, on one hand, that educational inequality is due to social class and family background. Others argue that inadequately managed schools bear most of the responsibility for low student achievement.

Under the direction of Greg Duncan (University of California, Irvine) and Richard J. Murnane (Harvard University), Social Inequality and Educational Disadvantage will explore the so-called middle ground between these claims and focus on the impact of neighborhoods, families, and labor markets—the environment around the school—on schooling outcomes. These social domains have direct effects on what and how much children learn. Children growing up in low-income neighborhoods, for example, are much more likely to experience repeated stress from violence and crime that may inhibit cognitive development. Rising income inequality in the United States over the past three decades has increased the importance of understanding how these external environmental factors impact students and schools. The disparities between rich and poor families and neighborhoods have increased, exacerbating the differences between schools and widening the gap in opportunities.

An interdisciplinary team of more than twenty researchers will focus both on the educational performance of disadvantaged students, as well as on the differences in outcomes between rich and poor students. Specifically, they will conduct analyses of existing data to document educational disadvantage in the United States and the correlations between poor educational outcomes and measures of neighborhood, family, and labor market disadvantage. The objective will be to measure educational outcomes broadly, including measures of non-cognitive skills and behaviors as well as measures of cognitive skills and educational attainments. The investigators will also commission new research to look at how children, schools, and school outcomes are affected by disparities in housing and community location, in family demographics and functioning, and in employment and jobs.

Findings from the project will be published in two books. The first edited by Duncan and Murnane, Neighborhood and Family Impacts on Schools (Spring 2011), will examine how such factors as family functioning, neighborhood conditions, school quality, and local labor markets impact schools’ ability to improve the academic achievement and educational attainment of disadvantaged students. The second book, intended for a general audience, will focus on raising public awareness of educational disadvantage in the United States, summarize prominent research findings, and suggest policies aimed at reducing educational inequality.