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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Improving the Education of Children Living in Poverty
Richard J. Murnane


Equality of educational opportunity has been part of the rhetoric of American political life for many years. Reality, however, does not match the rhetoric. Children living in poverty, disproportionately children of color, tend to be concentrated in schools with inadequate resources and poorly skilled teachers. Many of these children are likely to leave school before earning a high school diploma. Even if they graduate, many leave school without the skills needed to earn a decent living.

Equal access to a good education has become especially crucial over the past twenty-five years, as a rapidly changing economy has made skills and education ever more important determinants of labor market outcomes. Figure 1 shows trends in the average hourly wages of Americans with different educational attainments. In 1979 graduates of a four-year college earned 46 percent more than high school graduates earned on average. By 2005 that gap had widened to 74 percent. During that same period the average inflation- adjusted earnings of high school dropouts fell 16 percent.1

Not surprisingly, the cognitive skills of students, even young students, predict accurately how likely they are to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and get a fouryear degree.2 Inequality in mathematics and reading skills results in inequality in educational attainment and inequality in labor market earnings. The best evidence on the reading and math skills of American children comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called the nation’s report card. Math skills are particularly important predictors of subsequent labor market outcomes.3 On the 2005 assessment of the math skills of eighth graders, only 13 percent of children living in poverty achieved a score of proficient compared with 40 percent of children who were not poor. Almost half—49 percent—of children living in poverty had scores below the threshold for basic competency, compared with just 21 percent of nonpoor children.4

The differences in the mathematics and reading skills of eighth graders of different groups translate into striking differences in high school graduation rates. Although about three-quarters of white youth earn high school diplomas on schedule, the corresponding figure for black and Hispanic youth— who are especially likely to be living in poverty—is roughly half.5 These numbers provide striking evidence both that the United States is far from providing equality of educational opportunity and that improving the education of children living in poverty is critical to improving their life outcomes. In this article I propose and defend a set of actions that the federal government could take to improve the education of children living in poverty.