Skip over navigation

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

Limitations and Strengths of the Recommendations

My recommendations for changes in accountability and incentives seem far removed from the classrooms where teaching and learning take place. The proposals to build instructional capacity focus more directly on teaching and learning, but even they do not include a single direct federal program, such as a $5,000 annual salary bonus to skilled teachers who agree to work in high-poverty schools. Why such an indirect federal role? The answer has three parts.

First, the precise design of incentives to attract teachers and principals to high-poverty schools must be negotiated locally. Local circumstances vary far too widely for the federal government to propose a program of finegrained incentives or resource packages that would consistently improve the quality of education in high-poverty schools. Perhaps when more is known about the effects of locally designed incentive programs, a larger, more focused federal program to improve instruction in high-poverty schools would be appropriate. At this point, however, federal policymakers simply do not have the knowledge base they need to justify a larger direct role.

Second, states and districts are much more likely to embrace initiatives if they are homegrown. More such initiatives are springing up, and the proposed matching grant program would further stimulate growth. The challenge now is to learn which initiatives make a difference to children in high-poverty schools.

Third, NCLB now hampers local efforts to attract and retain talented teachers and administrators in high-poverty schools, especially those serving a racially and ethnically diverse student body. Such schools cannot meet the adequate yearly progress provisions of current law even if they substantially improve students’ performances, and the fear of being tarred as working in a failing school discourages talented educators from teaching where they are most needed.

In summary, the federal actions proposed here would strengthen all three legs on which successful standards-based reforms rest: accountability, incentives, and capacity. The proposals would improve the incentives that educators face and provide better benchmarks against which to judge the performances of individual schools and the value of new initiatives. Encouraging states to align high school graduation requirements with the demands of postsecondary education and work should reduce the disjuncture between high schools and the colleges and workplaces where students go after they graduate. Helping states develop interdistrict choice programs could bring to life a critical provision of NCLB, namely, that low-income children attending poorly performing schools should be able to move to better schools.

Finally, providing funds for states and districts to develop initiatives to improve teaching in high-poverty schools and raise the high school graduation rates of low-income youth could, if accompanied by a requirement for rigorous evaluations, increase understanding about how to solve the nation’s most pressing educational problem. They would be a wise investment in the nation’s future.