Keys for Improving the Education of Low-income Children

Technological advances and globalization have transformed the American economy over the past four decades, posing enormous challenges for America’s public schools. The advanced skills needed to earn a good living in today’s labor market have placed greater demands on our nation’s schools. Strong skills and post-secondary educational credentials determine labor market earnings much more than they did 40 years ago. At the same time, the increasing gap between high- and low- income families has led to income-based gaps in children’s academic achievements and attainments. These disparities threaten the dream of socioeconomic mobility for low-income families.

It will be extraordinarily difficult to reverse the growth in inequality in educational outcomes in the United States. Yet, there are educational initiatives, conducted at considerable scale, that have improved educational outcomes for low-income children. Our recent work Restoring Opportunity highlights three such initiatives: the Boston pre-K program, the campuses of the University of Chicago charter school, and New York City’s small schools of choice. Rigorous evaluations show that these innovative and quite durable programs, all of which change children’s daily school experiences, improve the life chances of low-income children. All of these initiatives operate in environments characterized by consistently strong school supports and sensible accountability.

Strong school supports

Most schools serving low-income students lack the human resources and knowledge to prepare large numbers of low-income children to meet demanding academic standards. Among the supports they need are technical expertise and resources for developing curricula, attracting skilled teachers, planning and implementing effective professional development, dealing with emotionally troubled children, and learning to use student assessment results to guide instructional improvement. The teachers working in the effective interventions we highlight had consistent access to strong school supports that ranged from proven curricula and coaches in the case of the pre-K and charter schools, to community partners and carefully planned professional development sessions focused on improving instruction in the high school. Resources and coordination for the supports came from Boston’s Department of Early Childhood Education, from a charter management organization in Chicago and, for the NYC schools, from not-for-profit organizations that NYC schools contracted with to obtain needed services.

The United States has yet to develop a set of institutions that provide all schools with sustained school supports. There are many reasons that the central offices of urban schools districts have failed to do this. Yet, looking ahead, there are reasons for cautious optimism. The Common Core State Standards movement has the potential to provide crucial curricular supports. Also promising are a growing number of innovative organizations like the New York Leadership Academy and New Leaders, which prepare principals to create schools that are effective learning communities for both teachers and students. Others, like New Visions for Public Schools, the Urban Assembly, and many charter management organizations, recruit leadership teams to start new schools and provide them with ongoing support. And then there are the comprehensive school reform design organizations such as Success for Alland America’s Choice that offer detailed guidance and tools to large numbers of high-poverty schools. The challenge is to create organizational structures that give high-poverty schools the resources, knowledge, and freedom to choose the collection of supports they need.

Sensible accountability

Over the last twenty years, it has come to be almost universally accepted that schools should be judged by their effectiveness in educating all students—an important step forward for disadvantaged children. A well-designed accountability system promotes a willingness to use resources in new ways and offers incentives for school faculties to work together to develop the skills of every student. All of the schools described in our book face accountability pressures. Some are external–for examples, schools participating in the Boston pre-K program were asked to obtain accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The elementary and high schools that we highlight were required to demonstrate progress in preparing students to demonstrate proficiency on state-wide English and mathematics examinations.

Even more important, teachers and administrators in successful schools serving high-poverty students hold each other accountable through a shared sense of responsibility for the success of their students. This is dramatically different from accountability that leaves teachers operating in isolation and in fear of repercussions from test scores.

As the mounting evidence on the weak effects of No Child Left Behind illustrates, it is extraordinarily difficult to design accountability systems that take into account the intense challenges of educating high concentrations of low-income children and at the same time provide incentives for educators to work together to serve all students well. And we caution against letting high-stakes accountability get ahead of the difficult work of providing educators in high-poverty schools with the knowledge and extensive school supports they will need to help their students master the Common Core Standards. Only if consistent, strong supports are in place can accountability improve the education of low-income children.

Can the nation’s public schools improve the life chances of low-income children in the 21st century? The answer depends on the nation’s commitment to supporting a broad and comprehensive definition of schooling, its recognition of the immense challenges high-poverty schools face, and its willingness to find ways to provide the consistently strong school supports and sensible accountability necessary for lasting success.