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Whither Opportunity?

Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances

Greg J. Duncan
Richard J. Murnane
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 572
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  • Book Info
    Whither Opportunity?
    Book Description:

    As the incomes of affluent and poor families have diverged over the past three decades, so too has the educational performance of their children. But how exactly do the forces of rising inequality affect the educational attainment and life chances of low-income children? In Whither Opportunity? a distinguished team of economists, sociologists, and experts in social and education policy examines the corrosive effects of unequal family resources, disadvantaged neighborhoods, insecure labor markets, and worsening school conditions on K-12 education. This groundbreaking book illuminates the ways rising inequality is undermining one of the most important goals of public education—the ability of schools to provide children with an equal chance at academic and economic success. The most ambitious study of educational inequality to date, Whither Opportunity? analyzes how social and economic conditions surrounding schools affect school performance and children’s educational achievement. The book shows that from earliest childhood, parental investments in children’s learning affect reading, math, and other attainments later in life. Contributor Meredith Phillip finds that between birth and age six, wealthier children will have spent as many as 1,300 more hours than poor children on child enrichment activities such as music lessons, travel, and summer camp. Greg Duncan, George Farkas, and Katherine Magnuson demonstrate that a child from a poor family is two to four times as likely as a child from an affluent family to have classmates with low skills and behavior problems – attributes which have a negative effect on the learning of their fellow students. As a result of such disparities, contributor Sean Reardon finds that the gap between rich and poor children’s math and reading achievement scores is now much larger than it was fifty years ago. And such income-based gaps persist across the school years, as Martha Bailey and Sue Dynarski document in their chapter on the growing income-based gap in college completion. Whither Opportunity? also reveals the profound impact of environmental factors on children’s educational progress and schools’ functioning. Elizabeth Ananat, Anna Gassman-Pines, and Christina Gibson-Davis show that local job losses such as those caused by plant closings can lower the test scores of students with low socioeconomic status, even students whose parents have not lost their jobs. They find that community-wide stress is most likely the culprit. Analyzing the math achievement of elementary school children, Stephen Raudenbush, Marshall Jean, and Emily Art find that students learn less if they attend schools with high student turnover during the school year – a common occurrence in poor schools. And David Kirk and Robert Sampson show that teacher commitment, parental involvement, and student achievement in schools in high-crime neighborhoods all tend to be low. For generations of Americans, public education provided the springboard to upward mobility. This pioneering volume casts a stark light on the ways rising inequality may now be compromising schools’ functioning, and with it the promise of equal opportunity in America.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-751-5
    Subjects: Education, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xx)
    Michael S. McPherson and Eric Wanner

    The large, multipronged research project reported in this volume represents the most comprehensive effort to date to examine the toll that rising economic inequality is taking on education in the United States. The Spencer Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation have joined forces, at the intersection of their common interests, to sponsor a definitive assessment of this growing national problem and to bring it squarely to the country’s attention. The two foundations come at the issue from different angles, but with a unified purpose.

    The Spencer Foundation, long a leader in research on American education, is committed to broadening our...

  6. Part I Overview

    • Chapter 1 Introduction: The American Dream, Then and Now
      (pp. 3-24)
      Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane

      America has always taken pride in being the land of opportunity, a country in which hard work and sacrifice result in a better life for one’s children. Economic growth made that dream a reality for generations of Americans, including many people who started out poor. Between 1947 and 1977, a period in which the gross national product (GDP) per capita doubled, the incomes of the poorest families nearly doubled as well (see figure 1.1).¹ In fact, for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, economic growth was a rising tide that lifted the boats of the rich and poor alike....

  7. Part II The Developing Child and Adolescent

    • Chapter 2 Lessons from Neuroscience Research for Understanding Causal Links Between Family and Neighborhood Characteristics and Educational Outcomes
      (pp. 27-46)
      Charles A. Nelson III and Margaret A. Sheridan

      What can neuroscience tell us about educational inequality and about the links between families and neighborhoods and between educational and labor-market outcomes? In this chapter we review literature relevant to this question. We posit that families, schools, and neighborhoods play a critical role in influencing the course of child development and, collectively, influence long-term educational success. In addition, we posit that we cannot fully understand child development without also understanding brain development, since all changes in behavior are predicated on changes in the brain.

      In this chapter we do the following:

      Briefly review developmental neurobiology, highlighting aspects of development that...

    • Chapter 3 The Nature and Impact of Early Achievement Skills, Attention Skills, and Behavior Problems
      (pp. 47-70)
      Greg J. Duncan and Katherine Magnuson

      Our chapter investigates links between young children’s skills and behaviors and their later attainments. We begin with a conceptual framework for understanding early skills. We argue that the skill categories “cognitive” and “noncognitive” used by many economists are too simplistic and are also inaccurate. “Cognitive” skills mix mental acuity (IQ) with concrete achievements, such as knowing letters, beginning word sounds, and numbers. “Noncognitive” skills encompass diverse capacities such as paying attention (an inherently cognitive task), getting along with classmates and teachers, and maintaining good mental health. We propose and defend the early-skill classification of achievement, attention, behavior problems, and mental...

    • Chapter 4 Middle and High School Skills, Behaviors, Attitudes, and Curriculum Enrollment, and Their Consequences
      (pp. 71-90)
      George Farkas

      This chapter complements chapter 3, by Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson, by focusing on links between student skills and behaviors in grades eight to twelve and later outcomes (high school and postsecondary degree attainment, arrest, and earnings) for these students. I also examine variables that are particularly appropriate to students in the middle and high school years and thus are not considered by Duncan and Magnuson. These include social psychological and attitudinal variables—self-esteem, sense of personal control, and educational expectations. In addition, I measure the association between enrollment in an academic or nonacademic curriculum track and later outcomes. Prior...

    • Chapter 5 The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations
      (pp. 91-116)
      Sean F. Reardon

      In this chapter I examine whether and how the relationship between family socioeconomic characteristics and academic achievement has changed during the last fifty years. In particular, I investigate the extent to which the rising income inequality of the last four decades has been paralleled by a similar increase in the income-achievement gradient. As the income gap between high- and low-income families has widened, has the achievement gap between children in high- and low-income families also widened?

      The answer, in brief, is yes. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among...

    • Chapter 6 Inequality in Postsecondary Education
      (pp. 117-132)
      Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski

      We describe changes over time in inequality in postsecondary education using nearly seventy years of data from the U.S. census and the 1979 and 1997 National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth. We find growing gaps between children from high- and low-income families in college entry, persistence, and graduation. Rates of college completion increased by only 4 percentage points for low-income cohorts born around 1980 relative to cohorts born in the early 1960s, but by 18 percentage points for corresponding cohorts who grew up in high-income families. Another striking finding is the role that gender plays in recent increases in educational inequality....

    • Chapter 7 Educational Expectations and Attainment
      (pp. 133-162)
      Brian A. Jacob and Tamara Wilder Linkow

      Researchers, educators, and policymakers have frequently looked to the educational expectations of young people—that is, their beliefs about their likely educational attainment—to gauge their future success. Although there is no convincing evidence that expectations influence attainment in a causal sense, many still believe that inspiring students to attend college will result in a more highly educated population. There is very little evidence on how expectations have evolved over the past fifteen years, a period during which educational attainment has become even more important for disadvantaged youth.

      In this chapter we examine the role of educational expectations in the...

  8. Part III The Family

    • Chapter 8 Educational Mobility in the United States Since the 1930s
      (pp. 165-186)
      Michael Hout and Alexander Janus

      Educational mobility has declined in the United States in recent decades. Only 40 percent of young men who turned twenty-five in the past decade achieved more education than their fathers did, compared with 67 percent of men who matured in the 1960s and 1970s. Women’s upward educational mobility declined less; 52 percent are upwardly mobile now compared with 65 percent in the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, downward mobility increased. In the past decade, 18 percent of men and 13 percent of women finished their schooling with less education than their same-sex parent.

      Yet paradoxically, today’s college-educated parents are no better...

    • Chapter 9 How Is Family Income Related to Investments in Children’s Learning?
      (pp. 187-206)
      Neeraj Kaushal, Katherine Magnuson and Jane Waldfogel

      In this chapter we explore the extent to which families’ investments in items and activities related to children’s learning differ by income. The analysis relies on the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CEX) and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K). The data span from 1997 to 2006, and include family expenditures on education-related items and activities such as music and art lessons, children’s books and toys, sports equipment and classes, and tutoring. Although descriptive, our analyses shed light on the links between income and family investments and also suggest some directions for further research and policy.

      Our analyses from the...

    • Chapter 10 Parenting, Time Use, and Disparities in Academic Outcomes
      (pp. 207-228)
      Meredith Phillips

      African American, Latino, and low-income children enter school less well prepared, on average, than their white, Asian American, and middle-class counterparts. Because these large ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in academic skills originate before children enter school, these gaps undoubtedly arise, at least in part, from disparities in children’s experiences during their infant, toddler, and preschool years. Once children enter school, disparities in children’s experiences outside the classroom continue to play a role in their academic performance.

      This chapter begins with a review of the extensive social science literature on the importance of time use for child development. Probably the most...

    • Chapter 11 Family-Structure Instability and Adolescent Educational Outcomes: A Focus on Families with Stepfathers
      (pp. 229-252)
      Megan M. Sweeney

      The declining proportion of children sharing a household with their two biological parents has been called the most profound change in American families within the past four decades (Amato 2005). This demographic shift is of concern to scholars, educators, and policymakers because families contribute in important ways to shaping youth outcomes. Indeed, evidence suggests that family-based factors may more strongly influence adolescent achievement and behavior than do neighborhoods or schools (Duncan, Boisjoly, and Harris 2001). Family structure change has not occurred uniformly across the population, but rather growth in single-parent families is concentrated among the most disadvantaged mothers. Because children...

  9. Part IV Neighborhoods

    • Chapter 12 Converging Evidence for Neighborhood Effects on Children’s Test Scores: An Experimental, Quasi-Experimental, and Observational Comparison
      (pp. 255-276)
      Julia Burdick-Will, Jens Ludwig, Stephen W. Raudenbush, Robert J. Sampson, Lisa Sanbonmatsu and Patrick Sharkey

      Rising income inequality has been found to be associated with rising segregation at the neighborhood level, generating concern about whether neighborhood environments themselves may influence children’s life chances, independent of other individual child and family characteristics. Because poor and minority Americans are overrepresented in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods, any “neighborhood effects” on children may contribute to persistent disparities in overall schooling outcomes along race and class lines in the United States.

      A large body of nonexperimental research dating back to the Coleman Report in 1966 has produced evidence consistent with the idea of large neighborhood effects on children’s schooling outcomes....

    • Chapter 13 Unpacking Neighborhood Influences on Education Outcomes: Setting the Stage for Future Research
      (pp. 277-296)
      David Harding, Lisa Gennetian, Christopher Winship, Lisa Sanbonmatsu and Jeffrey Kling

      The link between rising income inequality and rising residential segregation by income suggests that, if neighborhood environments affect educational outcomes, diverging educational outcomes may be due in part to the increasing numbers of youths growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty or concentrated affluence. Most existing social science research on neighborhoods conceptualizes neighborhood effects at the macro-level, hypothesizing how general neighborhood characteristics such as the poverty rate affect a variety of individual and family outcomes. Contemporary research on this topic has largely failed to recognize the diverse types of families living in poor neighborhoods or the potentially wide variety of...

  10. Part V Labor Markets

    • Chapter 14 The Effects of Local Employment Losses on Children’s Educational Achievement
      (pp. 299-314)
      Elizabeth O. Ananat, Anna Gassman-Pines and Christina M. Gibson-Davis

      As the United States closes out the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Rising unemployment and associated increases in poverty have highlighted the importance of understanding the linkages between economic downturns and child well-being, as even temporary income losses are strongly correlated with negative outcomes for children (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997). Moreover, the destruction of blue-collar U.S. jobs through globalization and technological growth has meant that job loss is much more likely to hit families and communities in which adults have low education (Autor 2010); impacts of downturns thus...

    • Chapter 15 How Does Parental Unemployment Affect Children’s Educational Performance?
      (pp. 315-336)
      Phillip B. Levine

      Does children’s growing up in households with unemployed parents alter their educational outcomes? The answer to this question is not obvious; parental unemployment could help children or it could hurt them. If parents are unemployed, they have the opportunity to spend more time with their children. Alternatively, parents’ unemployment may add a dimension of stress to the household that may hinder children’s development. The actual impact of parental unemployment is an empirical question and is the focus of this chapter.

      To answer this question, this study relies on microdata from the 2003 through 2007 American Time Use Survey (ATUS) and...

  11. Part VI Schools

    • Chapter 16 The Role of Family, School, and Community Characteristics in Inequality in Education and Labor-Market Outcomes
      (pp. 339-358)
      Joseph G. Altonji and Richard K. Mansfield

      This chapter assesses the relative importance of families, neighborhoods, and high schools in explaining variation in high school completion, college attendance, and labor-market success for U.S. students over the past four decades. It finds that families are much more influential than schools and communities in producing successful students, but that school- and community-based factors also make a big difference. The study draws on data from three large national surveys: the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, the National Educational Longitudinal Study: 1988, and the Education Longitudinal Study: 2002.

      For all three cohorts, differences between high schools...

    • Chapter 17 Year-by-Year and Cumulative Impacts of Attending a High-Mobility Elementary School on Children’s Mathematics Achievement in Chicago, 1995 to 2005
      (pp. 359-376)
      Stephen W. Raudenbush, Marshall Jean and Emily Art

      High rates of residential and school mobility are a pervasive aspect of life among the inner-city poor in contemporary America. Urban families living in poverty frequently move, usually over short distances. Moving across school-catchment boundaries often triggers a change of school. In this chapter we ask whether attending a school characterized by high levels of student mobility depresses learning in the general student population. In particular, we ask whether and to what extent influxes of new students during the school year reduce students’ mathematics achievement during the elementary years. We ask whether these effects cumulate with time, whether they vary...

    • Chapter 18 The Effect of School Neighborhoods on Teachers’ Career Decisions
      (pp. 377-396)
      Don Boyd, Hamp Lankford, Susanna Loeb, Matthew Ronfeldt and Jim Wyckoff

      Recent research has confirmed a widely held belief that teachers matter for students’ educational outcomes. Students consistently learn more during the course of a school year with some teachers than they do with other teachers. Yet not all students have access to teachers of the same quality. Schools with low salaries and poor working conditions, particularly poor support from school leadership, face a weaker supply of teachers, on average. A substantial body of research also shows that schools with large populations of poor, nonwhite, and low-achieving students, on average, have more difficulty attracting and retaining teachers. This difficulty in recruiting...

    • Chapter 19 Crime and the Production of Safe Schools
      (pp. 397-418)
      David S. Kirk and Robert J. Sampson

      Violence in and around U.S. schools is a major barrier to the physical and emotional well-being of students and ultimately to their prospects of educational attainment. A fundamental challenge to schools is therefore to produce a safe environment that fosters learning instead of fear and anxiety about crime. A common policy response is “zero tolerance” of delinquent students; one infraction may lead to suspension, expulsion, and even incarceration. The assumption behind such measures is that allowing problem students to remain in school produces an environment in which little academic learningv takes place. But the practice of excluding or arresting students...

    • Chapter 20 Immigrants and Inequality in Public Schools
      (pp. 419-442)
      Amy Ellen Schwartz and Leanna Stiefel

      In the study described in this chapter, we conduct a descriptive analysis exploring the context of immigration in the United States and, importantly, the relationship between academic performance and immigrant share in schools. Given the significant socioeconomic inequality in the United States and the emphasis on improving educational outcomes for all students, understanding the impact that immigrants have on schools is critical, particularly for urban school districts, which disproportionately educate diverse immigrant and native-born student populations. We begin by analyzing national data detailing the large variation in the immigrant population over time and across the United States. We then focus...

    • Chapter 21 School Desegregation and the Black-White Test Score Gap
      (pp. 443-464)
      Jacob L. Vigdor

      Racial segregation in American public schools has persisted over the past twenty-five years in spite of a contemporaneous trend toward residential integration. This discrepancy reflects a tendency for school districts to reduce their efforts to integrate schools, a trend that seems likely to continue in the wake of recent judicial decisions. This chapter considers the prospective impact of this trend on racial inequality in educational outcomes.

      Many theories propose mechanisms linking school segregation to racial disparities in academic performance and behavior. Many of these mechanisms suggest that segregation disadvantages black students relative to whites, but some mechanisms suggest the opposite....

    • Chapter 22 The Challenges of Finding Causal Links Between Family Educational Practices and Schooling Outcomes
      (pp. 465-482)
      Frank F. Furstenberg

      Several key mechanisms in the family are thought to affect children’s educational success: parental expectations, involvement, social connections and knowledge of the school system, and investment of resources. Over the past several decades, there have been numerous attempts to design and evaluate programs aimed at enhancing the success of children in school by altering one or another of these mechanisms. The problem with such an approach is that it assumes that key features of family socialization are readily amenable to modification one by one. I contend that, on the contrary, children are affected by a multitude of overlapping and simultaneous...

    • Chapter 23 It May Not Take a Village: Increasing Achievement Among the Poor
      (pp. 483-506)
      Vilsa E. Curto, Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Meghan L. Howard

      One of the triumphs of recent research on the causes of racial inequality has been the discovery that many of the disparities that exist in wages, incarceration rates, and health outcomes can be explained by racial disparities in educational achievement. Minority children are woefully unprepared to compete in the labor market: the average black seventeen-year-old reads at the proficiency level of the average white thirteen-year-old, and minority children consistently score lower than their white counterparts on national assessments in every subject and at every grade level. However, the correlation between educational achievement and life outcomes offers hope. Important progress toward...

    • Chapter 24 Understanding the Context for Existing Reform and Research Proposals
      (pp. 507-522)
      Harry Brighouse and Gina Schouten

      It is commonplace to categorize reforms intended to ameliorate educational disadvantage as either “external” or “internal” to the school. The usefulness of this distinction is limited in the case of policy interventions. Many interventions do fit neatly into one category, but some fit into both and others into neither category. Furthermore, advocates of reform do not fit the strict dichotomy: some advocate an exclusive internal-to-school agenda, others a mixed strategy of internal and external to school. None, however, advocates an exclusively external-to-school agenda. More important, policymakers—whose contexts, funds, and feasible sets vary—must seek the combination of interventions that...

    • Chapter 25 Intervening to Improve the Educational Outcomes of Students in Poverty: Lessons from Recent Work in High-Poverty Schools
      (pp. 523-538)
      Brian Rowan

      In this chapter I describe what America’s high-poverty schools are doing to improve the educational outcomes of students in poverty. A major question asked here is whether these efforts have been targeted mainly at improving students’ academic learning or whether they also have been aimed at improving students’ socioemotional learning. The question is important because research has shown that students’ academic and socioemotional learning are correlated and jointly affect students’ success in school.

      This correlation is especially relevant for poor children. It is well known that children in poverty enter kindergarten with lower academic-achievement scores than more advantaged children. As...

  12. INDEX
    (pp. 539-552)