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The University of Chicago Urban Education Lab

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Key Findings

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One of the best ways to avoid being poor as an adult is to obtain a good education. Yet in modern America poor children face an elevated risk for a variety of adverse educational outcomes. Understanding why children’s outcomes vary so dramatically along social class lines is central to formulating effective education policy interventions that can address this seemingly endless cycle of poverty. Unfortunately there has been much disagreement over how to improve schooling outcomes for poor children, stemming in part from different beliefs about the problems that underlie the unsatisfactory outcomes in many of our nation’s public schools.

Broadly speaking, critics tend to invoke, at least implicitly, one of the following reasons when explaining why so many children in high-poverty schools are not performing as well as their more advantaged counterparts:

1. Schools serving poor and minority students have fewer resources than they need. In this case, a potential solution would be to provide more money to disadvantaged schools.

2. High-poverty schools lack the capacity to substantially improve student learning, independent of financial resources. Potential solutions involve helping schools implement specific new instructional or organizational practices, or improving the instructional capacity of staff through professional development or more selective hiring. The success of this approach, however, depends on whether there are ways to improve instructional capacity that are known to be effective and can be scaled and implemented across a variety of contexts.

3. High-poverty schools do not have sufficient incentives and/or flexibility to improve instruction. Without clarifying the main objectives of schools and holding key actors accountable, proponents of this perspective believe additional spending will simply be squandered. Accordingly, the solution is to enhance incentives and provide local actors with more flexibility through policies such as school choice and/or accountability.

4. Schools matter only so much, and the real problem rests with the social context in which schools operate. Adopting accountability or market-oriented reforms without changing social policy more broadly will simply punish educators for factors beyond their control, and potentially drive the most able teachers toward schools serving less disadvantaged students.*

For some reason, current education policy debates often seem to be argued as if the problems listed above are mutually exclusive. But the available research provides some empirical evidence consistent with the idea that each of these hypothesized problems are, in fact, problems. What remains poorly understood is what the most cost-effective strategy for improving schooling outcomes for disadvantaged children would look like. Making progress and addressing this knowledge gap will require a portfolio of empirical studies that test competing intervention strategies using consistently rigorous methods – such as randomized experiments – and economic tools such as benefit-cost analysis that enable policymakers to allocate resources to their most socially-productive uses. This is the goal of the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab.

If you are interested in learning more about what current research tells us, you can consult the excellent reviews carried out by UEL affiliates Brian Jacob and Jens Ludwig here, Richard Murnane here, and Stephen Raudenbush here.

*This material is taken from: Jacob, Brian A. and Jens Ludwig (2009). “Improving Educational Outcomes for Poor Children.” In Changing Poverty. Maria Cancian and Sheldon Danziger, Eds. New York, NY: Russell Sage Publications