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Journal Issue: Opportunity in America Volume 16 Number 2 Fall 2006

U.S. Elementary and Secondary Schools: Equalizing Opportunity or Replicating the Status Quo?
Cecilia Elena Rouse Lisa Barrow


While efforts such as Title I and state school finance equalizations have succeeded in smoothing school spending across school districts serving more and less advantaged students, they have not eliminated the link between socioeconomic status and educational outcomes. Family background continues to play an important role in determining a child's educational attainment. The costs and benefits of getting further schooling differ according to the socioeconomic status of a child's family, and these differences may be driven by differences in access to quality schools. Because school attendance boundaries are largely determined by neighborhood of residence and because families of different socioeconomic backgrounds live in different neighborhoods, children from more and less advantaged backgrounds attend different schools. Descriptive statistics and more sophisticated analyses find that school quality is positively correlated with family background. Children from well-to-do families attend better schools than children from poor families. As a result, rather than encouraging upward mobility, U.S. public schools tend to reinforce the transmission of low socioeconomic status from parents to children.

Policy interventions aimed at improving school quality for children from disadvantaged families thus have the potential to increase social mobility by reducing the transmission of low socioeconomic status from parents to children through education. Based on the best research evidence, smaller class sizes seem to be one promising avenue for improving school quality for disadvantaged students. Maintaining teacher quality at the same time is also likely to be important. These are but two of the many avenues that growing evidence shows are effective in raising school quality. Smaller schools, grade retention, and summer school are examples of others.61 Despite the considerable political attention paid to charter schools and vouchers that would help the children of poor families attend private school, to date the best evidence suggests that increasing competitive pressure in this way will not significantly improve student achievement. In contrast, growing evidence suggests that institutional accountability systems may generate small improvements in student achievement, although they are also vulnerable to unintended negative consequences.

Because a child's educational achievement depends on so many aspects of his or her life, many of which are outside school, education policy can go only so far. One particular challenge is that more advantaged families can afford to—and will—spend more on their children's education. Thus, these families can partly undo policy attempts to equalize school quality for poor and nonpoor children by spending more money outside school. As an example, based on data from the 2002 Consumer Expenditure Survey, parents who drop out of high school spend an average of $33 a year for recreational lessons or other instruction for children (not including tuition), whereas parents who have graduate degrees spend nearly $600. Under these circumstances, it will be extremely difficult for America's public schools to live up to Martin Luther King Jr.'s ideal of teaching students so well as to make their family background irrelevant. That said, such lofty goals are a standard by which to measure our efforts. We are reminded that we have a long way to go.