Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FALL 2010

"Everyday learning deserves attention in its own right, regardless of how it relates to school."


Amy Liu

- Mesmin Destin, assistant professor of human development and social policy

Beating the Odds: Overcoming Social Disparities in Education


By Lisa Stein
Child image beating the odds

It's a widely recognized, pervasive problem: students from different socioeconomic backgrounds have very different educational outcomes. Those from affluent areas by and large score much better on standardized tests, get better grades, are likelier to attend college and go on to higher-paying jobs than those living in poor neighborhoods.

But what actually accounts for these disparities? Does it all come down to a student's financial background? What about other factors, such as friends, family, access to health care and technology, or how a person is motivated? What role do they play in perpetuating inequality in the lives of our nation's students?

"We have learned from research both recent and done in the last 50 years that what happens outside the school — in families, communities and the early part of a student's life — have big impacts on the way kids learn," notes Jonathan Guryan, associate professor of human development and social economics and economics, who arrived at SESP in July. "The problem is much more complicated than saying poverty causes unequal educational outcomes."

Guryan joins Kirabo Jackson and Mesmin Destin, both assistant professors of human development and social policy, in studying social disparities in educational outcomes. All three of these new faculty members delve deeper into certain aspects overlooked in previous research to bring fresh approaches to the problem. They often take a holistic perspective that involves untangling and investigating the myriad influences on today's students, as well as designing and studying interventions that can help improve outcomes.

Psychology of Success

Destin takes a social psychological approach in analyzing how kids process messages coming from their communities, families and the culture at large as they try to figure out their path in life, in particular whether or not they see college as even possible. He completed a study with Daphna Oyserman of the University of Michigan of low-income middle schools, one in Detroit comprising mostly black students and another in Chicago made up mostly of Latinos.

Destin learned that most kids in the study thought the doors to college are closed to them.

Not only is the family's level of income and savings a good predictor of a student's future academic success, Destin observes, but so is the level of income and home ownership on the block and neighborhood in which they live. "A lot of socioeconomic factors run hand in hand. In neighborhoods where many fewer people go to college, then it doesn't feel like a normative track for a kid. … When there are so many structural barriers, it's not reasonable to expect that students will find a way to college all on their own."

Such a belief has a profound effect on how hard students are willing to work in school and on their overall academic goals. "Once students have the identity that they're not headed for college, they won't study as much; they won't try as hard. Every identity comes with a set of everyday behaviors," Destin explains.

Destin posits that something as simple as giving financial aid and scholarship information to those kids at a younger age, say, in elementary school, might go a long way in helping them see college as a viable option. To that end, Destin designs interventions that reinforce the idea that the path to college is open through resources such as financial aid, create a psychological link between education and future financial success, and increase a sense of belonging in the academic environment. He plans to follow students over the next five years to see how they progress through high school. "This is one of the most exciting things for me — setting up long-term relationships with different schools and working with the same students over time," Destin says.

Cash Incentives

Kirabo Jackson, who is particularly interested in analyzing the achievement gap between black and white students, has studied another tack designed to lessen the impact of social inequality in schools: the much-debated lure of cash incentives. Jackson evaluated a Texas initiative called the Advanced Placement Incentive Program (APIP), which gives money to both teachers and students for each passing score on AP exams. Students receive between $100 and $500 for a passing grade in an eligible subject, and lead teachers receive an annual bonus of between $3,000 and $10,000, with an additional bonus based on test results. Begun in 1996 in 10 schools, APIP now includes more than 40 across Texas, mostly in largeand medium-sized cities, and the National Math and Science Initiative plans to expand the program to 150 districts across 20 states.

Jackson examined how APIP affected the number of students who are enrolled in AP courses and who take the tests, and how well they did in a broader set of outcomes, such as high school graduation rates, SAT and ACT performance, and the percentage of students attending college. "I've found the program to be very, very successful in terms of getting kids to college. In black and Hispanic students we've seen lasting effects years after they've been exposed to this program," Jackson notes.

He found a 30 percent increase in the number of students scoring above 1100 on the SAT or above 24 on the ACT, and an 8 percent increase in the number of students who enroll in a college or university in Texas. However, APIP did not improve high school graduation rates or increase the number of students taking college entrance exams, suggesting to Jackson that APIP may affect high-achieving students rather than those who may not have graduated from high school or even applied to college.

When asked if cash incentive programs could be the wave of the future, Jackson points out that APIP is not a pure incentive program — it also includes teacher training and provides schools with other resources, such as a curriculum for earlier grades that prepares students for AP courses. He predicts that programs such as APIP that combine cash incentives with supports will prove most successful. "That way students have teachers who want them to do well and access to tutoring or some kind of help — some guidance to turn incentives into results," he says.

Closing the Technology Gap

Another area that has come under much scrutiny in the last decade by people studying social disparities is technology in schools. Guryan examined the effects of what is known as the E-Rate program, a national program launched in public schools in 1998 to slow the growth of a perceived digital divide. The program subsidized spending on technology as much as 90 percent, depending on the school.

Guryan's study of California schools showed that E-Rate did, in fact, result in a major Internet investment in schools, and that in two years there were about 68 percent more Internet-connected classrooms per school than there would have been without the subsidy. The biggest improvements were seen among urban schools and those with large black and Hispanic students; rural schools and predominantly white and Asian schools showed far fewer gains. However, the E-Rate program had no significant impact on students' academic performance.

"If the goal of the program was to increase student learning, there was no evidence of that," Guryan says. "If the goal was to narrow the digital divide, then it was effective. Technology is sometimes too easy of an answer. People want to fix schools and sometimes buying a bunch of computers has the feel of being a silver bullet that will solve all the problems. It's not that technology can't be effective, but if investments in technology are made instead of other things, like finding good teachers, then that's detrimental. If the choice was between a computer or a teacher, the extra teacher would have been the better choice."

The results of research by Destin, Jackson and Guryan underscore the difficulty of addressing social inequalities in education, and how much remains to be done. Rather than rely solely on a students' financial background, their explorations suggest that educators would do well to consider a variety of factors — community and cultural settings and technology, just to name a few — in looking for possible solutions.

Amy Liu (BS93) Furthers Urban Policy to Increase Opportunities

Amy Liu

"Almost all of our work relates to social, economic and racial disparities and how to create opportunities for upward mobility," says Amy Liu (BS93), deputy director and co-founder of the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. "Social disparities undermine the economic vitality of a city or region. They're highly linked."

One important aspect of social disparities that her program has examined since the 1990s is the high concentration of poverty in cities and metro areas. From Brookings's study of concentrations of poverty in the 100 largest metropolitan areas came policy ideas on how to create neighborhoods of choice and opportunity. According to Liu, the current Obama administration has put these ideas into practice as Choice Neighborhoods.

A more recent trend affecting her policy work is the movement of poverty to the suburbs.

She notes, "There are more poor people in the suburbs than in the city, and I don't think our policies reflect that. From 2000 to 2008, the poor population grew five times faster in the suburbs than in the cities. There are 1.5 million more poor people living in the suburbs than in the city. Yet we still deliver the bulk of programs for the poor to cities, a fundamental mismatch to where the needs are today." To help, nonprofits that connect the less fortunate to affordable housing, job training and social services need to scale up and learn to navigate the suburban landscape, she says.

A third focus is on older industrial cities. "This recession has further accelerated the loss of jobs and opportunities in cities like Detroit and Cleveland, already grappling with economic restructuring," she says. "How do we leverage their assets and create opportunities?"

Since 2005 Liu has concentrated on New Orleans, working with federal and local leaders on how to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. Looking toward creating a new city that is economically healthy, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable, she sees promising efforts underway. "There has been a strong rise in citizen engagement in rebuilding the city. Community groups came together and moved mountains in transforming neighborhoods and advancing reforms," she comments.

At SESP, Liu graduated in social policy with a concentration in urban studies. "I feel blessed that I'm in a field that came directly from my schooling," she says. "I enjoyed being at SESP, mainly because of the quality of the professors. I learned a lot about income disparities, particularly through Jim Rosenbaum. I had the opportunity to take graduate courses, which continued to push me, and I enjoyed the practicum, which enabled me to work in Chicago with a major civic group."

Liu is a visiting scholar at University of California-Berkeley and a board member of an early childhood education center in Northern Virginia that serves lowand moderate-income children and their families.