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How family background influences student achievement

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11th-Jun-2017       
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Anna J. Egalite :
(From previous issue)
The main drawback of the Promise Neighborhoods model is its high cost. To cover the expenses of running the Promise Academy Charter School and the afterschool and wraparound programs, the HCZ spends about $19,272 per pupil. While this price tag is about $3,100 higher than the median per-pupil cost in New York State, it is still about $14,000 lower than what is spent by a district at the 95th percentile. If future research can demonstrate that the HCZ positively influences longer-term outcomes such as college graduation rates, income, and mortality, the model will hold tremendous potential that may well justify its costs.
Early childhood education
Early childhood programs can provide a source of enrichment for needy children, ensuring them a solid start in a world where those with inadequate education are increasingly marginalized. Neuroscientists estimate that about 90 percent of the brain develops between birth and age 5, supporting the case for expanded access to early childhood programs. While the United States spends abundantly on elementary and secondary schoolchildren ($12,401 per student per year in 2013-14 dollars), it devotes dramatically less than other wealthy countries to children in their first few years of life.
Four years before James Coleman released his report, a group of underprivileged, at-risk toddlers at the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan, were randomly selected for a preschool intervention that consisted of daily coaching from highly trained teachers as well as visits to their homes. After just one year, those in the experimental treatment group were registering IQ scores 10 points higher than their peers in the control group. The test-score effects had disappeared by age 10, but follow-up analyses of the Perry Preschool treatment group revealed impressive longer-term outcomes that included a significant increase in their high-school graduation rate and the probability of earning at least $20,000 a year as adults, as well as a 19 percent decrease in their probability of being arrested five or more times. Similar small-scale, "hothouse" preschool experiments in Chicago, upstate New York, and North Carolina have all shown comparable benefits.
Unfortunately, attempts to scale up such programs have proved challenging. Studies of the Head Start program, for instance, have uncovered mixed evidence of its effectiveness. Modest impacts on students' cognitive skills mostly fade out by the end of 1st grade. Such results have led many to question whether quality can be consistently maintained when a program such as Head Start is implemented broadly. Indeed, recent research has revealed considerable differences in Head Start's effectiveness from site to site. Variation in inputs and practices among Head Start centers explains about a third of these differences, a finding that may offer clues as to the contextual factors that influence the program's varying levels of success.
Although the policymaker's challenge is to figure out how to expand access to such programs  while preserving quality, evidence suggests that investment in early childhood education has the potential to significantly address disparities that arise from family disadvantage.
Small schools of choice
Traditional public schools assign a child to a given school based exclusively on his family's place of residence. As Coleman pointed out, residential assignment promotes stratification between schools by family background, because it creates incentives for families of means to move to the "good" school districts. Under this system, schools cannot serve as the equal-opportunity engines of our society. Instead, residential assignment often replicates within the school system the same family advantages and disadvantages that exist in the community.
The most promising social policy for combating the effects of family background, then, could well be the expansion of programs that  allow families to choose schools without regard to their neighborhood of residence.  An analysis of more than 100 small schools of choice in New York City between 2002 and 2008 revealed a 9.5 percent increase in the graduation rate of a group of educationally and economically disadvantaged students, at no extra cost to the city. Positive results have also been observed with respect to student test scores for charter schools in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and New Orleans.
Small schools of choice might also build the social capital that Coleman considered crucial for student success. First, small schools are well positioned to build a strong sense of community through the development of robust student-teacher, parent-teacher, and student-student relationships. Helping students to cultivate dense networks of social relationships better equips them to handle life's challenges and is particularly vital given the disintegration of many social structures today. While schools may not be able to compensate fully for the disruptive effects of a dysfunctional or unstable family, a robust school culture can transform the "social ecology" of a disadvantaged child.
A small school of choice also engenders a voluntary community that comes together over strong ties and shared values. Typically, schools of choice feature a clearly defined mission and set of core values, which may derive from religious traditions and beliefs. The Notre Dame ACE Academy schools, for instance, strive for the twin goals of preparing students for college and for heaven. By explicitly defining their mission, schools can appeal to families who share their values and are eager to contribute to the growth of the community. A focused mission also helps school administrators attract like-minded teachers and thus promotes staff collegiality. A warm and cohesive teaching staff can be particularly beneficial for children from unstable homes, whose parents may not regularly express emotional closeness or who fail to communicate effectively. Exposure to well-functioning adult role models at school might compensate for such deficits, promoting well-being and positive emotional development.
Implications for policy
Determining the causal relationships between family background and child well-being has posed a daunting challenge. Family characteristics are often tightly correlated with features of the neighborhood environment, making it difficult to determine the independent influences of each. But getting a solid understanding of causality is critical to the debate over whether to intervene inside or outside of school.
The results of quasi-experimental research, as well as common sense, tell us that children who grow up in stable, well-resourced families have significant advantages over their peers who do not-including access to better schools and other educational services. Policies that place schools at center stage have the potential to disrupt the cycle of economic disadvantage to ensure that children born into poverty aren't excluded from the American dream.
In opening our eyes to the role of family background in the creation of inequality, Coleman wasn't suggesting that we shrug our shoulders and learn to live with it. But in attacking the achievement gap, as his research would imply, we need to mobilize not only our schools but also other institutions. Promise Neighborhoods offer cradle-to-career supports to help children successfully navigate the challenges of growing up. Early childhood programs provide intervention at a critical time, when children's brains take huge leaps in development. Finally, small schools of choice can help to build a strong sense of community, which could particularly benefit inner-city neighborhoods where traditional institutions have been disintegrating.
Schools alone can't level the vast inequalities that students bring to the schoolhouse door, but a combination of school programs, social services, community organizations, and civil society could make a major difference. Ensuring that all kids, regardless of family background, have a decent chance of doing better than their parents is an important societal and policy goal. Innovative approaches such as those outlined here could help us achieve it.

(Anna J. Egalite is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at the College of Education, North Carolina State University).

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