Social Inequality and Educational Disadvantage

Other External Scholars:
Greg Duncan, University of California, Irvine
Richard J. Murnane, Harvard University
Project Date:
Apr 2008
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

Co-funded with the Spencer Foundation, this interdisciplinary project will examine the corrosive effects of economic inequality, disadvantaged neighborhoods, insecure labor markets, and worsening school conditions on K-12 education.

Project Completed: June 2014

Co-funded with the Spencer Foundation

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 explored the so-called middle ground between these claims and focused 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 focused both on the educational performance of disadvantaged students, as well as on the differences in outcomes between rich and poor students. They conducted 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. They measured educational outcomes broadly, including measures of non-cognitive skills and behaviors as well as measures of cognitive skills and educational attainments, and also commissioned 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 have been published in two books. The first edited by Duncan and Murnane, Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children (2011), examines the corrosive effects of unequal family resources, disadvantaged neighborhoods, insecure labor markets, and worsening school conditions on K-12 education. The second book, Restoring Opportunity, by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane (Harvard Education Press, 2014), focuses on raising public awareness of educational disadvantage in the United States, summarizes prominent research findings, and suggests policies aimed at reducing educational inequality.


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