Too Many Children Left Behind: The U.S. Achievement Gap in Comparative Perspective

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The belief that with hard work and determination, all children have the opportunity to succeed in life is a cherished part of the American Dream. Yet, increased inequality in America has made that dream more difficult for many to obtain. In Too Many Children Left Behind, an international team of social scientists assesses how social mobility varies in the United States compared with Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Bruce Bradbury, Miles Corak, Jane Waldfogel, and Elizabeth Washbrook show that the academic achievement gap between disadvantaged American children and their more advantaged peers is far greater than in other wealthy countries, with serious consequences for their future life outcomes. With education the key to expanding opportunities for those born into low socioeconomic status families, Too Many Children Left Behind helps us better understand educational disparities and how to reduce them.

Analyzing data on 8,000 school children in the United States, the authors demonstrate that disadvantages that begin early in life have long-lasting effects on academic performance. The social inequalities that children experience before they start school contribute to a large gap in test scores between low- and high-SES students later in life. Many children from low-SES backgrounds lack critical resources, including books, high-quality child care, and other goods and services that foster the stimulating environment necessary for cognitive development. The authors find that not only is a child’s academic success deeply tied to his or her family background, but that this class-based achievement gap does not narrow as the child proceeds through school.

The authors compare test score gaps from the United States with those from three other countries and find smaller achievement gaps and greater social mobility in all three, particularly in Canada. The wider availability of public resources for disadvantaged children in those countries facilitates the early child development that is fundamental for academic success. All three countries provide stronger social services than the United States, including universal health insurance, universal preschool, paid parental leave, and other supports. The authors conclude that the United States could narrow its achievement gap by adopting public policies that expand support for children in the form of tax credits, parenting programs, and pre-K.

With economic inequalities limiting the futures of millions of children, Too Many Children Left Behind is a timely study that uses global evidence to show how the United States can do more to level the playing field.

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About the author

BRUCE BRADBURY is associate professor at the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

MILES CORAK is professor of economics at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

JANE WALDFOGEL is professor of social work and public affairs at the Columbia University School of Social Work and visiting professor at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

ELIZABETH WASHBROOK is lecturer in Quantitative Methods for Education at the Graduate School of Education and a member of the Centre for Multilevel Modelling at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Russell Sage Foundation
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Published on
Jun 30, 2015
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Pages
223
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ISBN
9781610448482
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Language
English
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Genres
Education / Educational Policy & Reform / General
Political Science / Public Policy / Social Services & Welfare
Social Science / General
Social Science / Sociology / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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In 1999, one in four British children lived in poverty—the third highest child poverty rate among industrialized countries. Five years later, the child poverty rate in Britain had fallen by more than half in absolute terms. How did the British government accomplish this and what can the United States learn from the British experience? Jane Waldfogel offers a sharp analysis of the New Labour government’s anti-poverty agenda, its dramatic early success and eventual stalled progress. Comparing Britain’s anti-poverty initiative to U.S. welfare reform, the book shows how the policies of both countries have affected child poverty, living standards, and well-being in low-income families and suggests next steps for future reforms.

Britain’s War on Poverty evaluates the three-pronged anti-poverty strategy employed by the British government and what these efforts accomplished. British reforms sought to promote work and make work pay, to increase financial support for families with children, and to invest in the health, early-life development, and education of children. The latter two features set the British reforms apart from the work-oriented U.S. welfare reforms, which did not specifically target income or program supports for children. Plagued by premature initiatives and what some experts called an overly ambitious agenda, the British reforms fell short of their intended goal but nevertheless significantly increased single-parent employment, raised incomes for low-income families, and improved child outcomes. Poverty has fallen, and the pattern of low-income family expenditures on child enrichment and healthy food has begun to converge with higher-income families.

As Waldfogel sees it, further success in reducing child poverty in Britain will rely on understanding who is poor and who is at highest risk. More than half of poor children live in families where at least one parent is working, followed by unemployed single- and two-parent homes, respectively. Poverty rates are also notably higher for children with disabled parents, large families, and for Pakistani and Bangladeshi children. Based on these demographics, Waldfogel argues that future reforms must, among other goals, raise working-family incomes, provide more work for single parents, and better engage high-risk racial and ethnic minority groups.

What can the United States learn from the British example? Britain’s War on Poverty is a primer in the triumphs and pitfalls of protracted policy. Notable differences distinguish the British and U.S. models, but Waldfogel asserts that a future U.S. poverty agenda must specifically address child poverty and the income inequality that helps create it. By any measurement and despite obstacles, Britain has significantly reduced child poverty. The book’s key lesson is that it can be done.

Addressing the disparity in test scores between black and white children remains one of the greatest social challenges of our time. Between the 1960s and 1980s, tremendous strides were made in closing the achievement gap, but that remarkable progress halted abruptly in the mid 1980s, and stagnated throughout the 1990s. How can we understand these shifting trends and their relation to escalating economic inequality? In Steady Gains and Stalled Progress, interdisciplinary experts present a groundbreaking analysis of the multifaceted reasons behind the test score gap—and the policies that hold the greatest promise for renewed progress in the future.

Steady Gains and Stalled Progress shows that while income inequality does not directly lead to racial differences in test scores, it creates and exacerbates disparities in schools, families, and communities—which do affect test scores. Jens Ludwig and Jacob Vigdor demonstrate that the period of greatest progress in closing the gap coincided with the historic push for school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s. Stagnation came after efforts to integrate schools slowed down. Today, the test score gap is nearly 50 percent larger in states with the highest levels of school segregation. Katherine Magnuson, Dan Rosenbaum, and Jane Waldfogel show how parents’ level of education affects children’s academic performance: as educational attainment for black parents increased in the 1970s and 1980s, the gap in children’s test scores narrowed. Sean Corcoran and William Evans present evidence that teachers of black students have less experience and are less satisfied in their careers than teachers of white students. David Grissmer and Elizabeth Eiseman find that the effects of economic deprivation on cognitive and emotional development in early childhood lead to a racial divide in school readiness on the very first day of kindergarten. Looking ahead, Helen Ladd stresses that the task of narrowing the divide is not one that can or should be left to schools alone. Progress will resume only when policymakers address the larger social and economic forces behind the problem. Ronald Ferguson masterfully interweaves the volume’s chief findings to highlight the fact that the achievement gap is the cumulative effect of many different processes operating in different contexts.

The gap in black and white test scores is one of the most salient features of racial inequality today. Steady Gains and Stalled Progress provides the detailed information and powerful insight we need to understand a complicated past and design a better future.

In 1999, one in four British children lived in poverty—the third highest child poverty rate among industrialized countries. Five years later, the child poverty rate in Britain had fallen by more than half in absolute terms. How did the British government accomplish this and what can the United States learn from the British experience? Jane Waldfogel offers a sharp analysis of the New Labour government’s anti-poverty agenda, its dramatic early success and eventual stalled progress. Comparing Britain’s anti-poverty initiative to U.S. welfare reform, the book shows how the policies of both countries have affected child poverty, living standards, and well-being in low-income families and suggests next steps for future reforms.

Britain’s War on Poverty evaluates the three-pronged anti-poverty strategy employed by the British government and what these efforts accomplished. British reforms sought to promote work and make work pay, to increase financial support for families with children, and to invest in the health, early-life development, and education of children. The latter two features set the British reforms apart from the work-oriented U.S. welfare reforms, which did not specifically target income or program supports for children. Plagued by premature initiatives and what some experts called an overly ambitious agenda, the British reforms fell short of their intended goal but nevertheless significantly increased single-parent employment, raised incomes for low-income families, and improved child outcomes. Poverty has fallen, and the pattern of low-income family expenditures on child enrichment and healthy food has begun to converge with higher-income families.

As Waldfogel sees it, further success in reducing child poverty in Britain will rely on understanding who is poor and who is at highest risk. More than half of poor children live in families where at least one parent is working, followed by unemployed single- and two-parent homes, respectively. Poverty rates are also notably higher for children with disabled parents, large families, and for Pakistani and Bangladeshi children. Based on these demographics, Waldfogel argues that future reforms must, among other goals, raise working-family incomes, provide more work for single parents, and better engage high-risk racial and ethnic minority groups.

What can the United States learn from the British example? Britain’s War on Poverty is a primer in the triumphs and pitfalls of protracted policy. Notable differences distinguish the British and U.S. models, but Waldfogel asserts that a future U.S. poverty agenda must specifically address child poverty and the income inequality that helps create it. By any measurement and despite obstacles, Britain has significantly reduced child poverty. The book’s key lesson is that it can be done.

Addressing the disparity in test scores between black and white children remains one of the greatest social challenges of our time. Between the 1960s and 1980s, tremendous strides were made in closing the achievement gap, but that remarkable progress halted abruptly in the mid 1980s, and stagnated throughout the 1990s. How can we understand these shifting trends and their relation to escalating economic inequality? In Steady Gains and Stalled Progress, interdisciplinary experts present a groundbreaking analysis of the multifaceted reasons behind the test score gap—and the policies that hold the greatest promise for renewed progress in the future.

Steady Gains and Stalled Progress shows that while income inequality does not directly lead to racial differences in test scores, it creates and exacerbates disparities in schools, families, and communities—which do affect test scores. Jens Ludwig and Jacob Vigdor demonstrate that the period of greatest progress in closing the gap coincided with the historic push for school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s. Stagnation came after efforts to integrate schools slowed down. Today, the test score gap is nearly 50 percent larger in states with the highest levels of school segregation. Katherine Magnuson, Dan Rosenbaum, and Jane Waldfogel show how parents’ level of education affects children’s academic performance: as educational attainment for black parents increased in the 1970s and 1980s, the gap in children’s test scores narrowed. Sean Corcoran and William Evans present evidence that teachers of black students have less experience and are less satisfied in their careers than teachers of white students. David Grissmer and Elizabeth Eiseman find that the effects of economic deprivation on cognitive and emotional development in early childhood lead to a racial divide in school readiness on the very first day of kindergarten. Looking ahead, Helen Ladd stresses that the task of narrowing the divide is not one that can or should be left to schools alone. Progress will resume only when policymakers address the larger social and economic forces behind the problem. Ronald Ferguson masterfully interweaves the volume’s chief findings to highlight the fact that the achievement gap is the cumulative effect of many different processes operating in different contexts.

The gap in black and white test scores is one of the most salient features of racial inequality today. Steady Gains and Stalled Progress provides the detailed information and powerful insight we need to understand a complicated past and design a better future.

More than ever, the economic health of a country depends upon the skills, knowledge, and capacities of its people. How does a person acquire these human assets and how can we promote their development? Securing the Future assembles an interdisciplinary team of scholars to investigate the full range of factors—pediatric, psychological, social, and economic—that bear on a child's development into a well-adjusted, economically productive member of society. A central purpose of the volume is to identify sound interventions that will boost human assets, particularly among the disadvantaged. The book provides a comprehensive evaluation of current initiatives and offers a wealth of new suggestions for effective public and private investments in child development.

While children from affluent, highly educated families have good quality child care and an expensive education provided for them, children from poor families make do with informal child care and a public school system that does not always meet their needs. How might we best redress this growing imbalance? The contributors to this volume recommend policies that treat academic attainment together with psychological development and social adjustment. Mentoring programs, for example, promote better school performance by first fostering a young person's motivation to learn. Investments made early in life, such as preschool education, are shown to have the greatest impact on later learning for the least cost.

In their focus upon children, however, the authors do not neglect the important links between generations. Poverty and inequality harm the development of parents and children alike. Interventions that empower parents to fight for better services and better schools are also of great benefit to their children.

Securing the Future shows how investments in child development are both a means to an end and an end in themselves. They benefit the child directly and they also help that child contribute to the well-being of society. This book points us toward more effective strategies for promoting the economic success and the social cohesion of future generations.

A Volume in the Ford Foundation Series on Asset Building

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