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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Five Social Disadvantages that Depress Student Performance

From the Economic Policy Institute

By Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein
June 10, 2015

Why Schools Alone Can’t Close Achievement Gaps

Executive Summary

That students’ social and economic characteristics shape their cognitive and behavioral outcomes is well established, yet policymakers resist accepting that non-school disadvantages necessarily depress outcomes. Rather, they look to better schools and teachers to close achievement gaps, and consistently come up short.

This report describes how social class characteristics plausibly depress achievement and suggests policies to address them. It focuses on five characteristics for purposes of illustration:

  • parenting practices that impede children’s intellectual and behavioral development;

  • single parenthood;
  • parents’ irregular work schedules;
  • inadequate access to primary and preventive health care;
  • exposure to and absorption of lead in the blood.

These are not the only characteristics that depress outcomes, nor are they necessarily the most important. This report makes no judgment about the relative importance of the many adverse influences on child and youth development.

Parental unemployment and low wages, housing instability, concentration of disadvantage in segregated neighborhoods, stress, malnutrition, and health problems like asthma are among other harmful characteristics.

Certainly, some children with severe socioeconomic disadvantages achieve at higher levels than typical children without them; a range of outcomes is associated with every characteristic, and descriptions of the impacts of social class characteristics only describe averages, not the performance of any particular child. Likewise, this report does not imply that all lower-social-class families have each of these characteristics. But all have many of them.

Because characteristics of lower-class status overlap and may be interdependent, available data do not permit the isolation of any one. Econometric studies that identify the effect of a particular characteristic by holding others constant are valuable, but no study controls for all, and few control for very many.

For each characteristic reviewed here, this report describes its average incidence by race (black versus white) and socioeconomic status. Data limitations preclude similar descriptions of Hispanics’ characteristics. Where research is available, we then review what is known about the characteristic’s prediction of cognitive (academic performance or IQ, for example) and non-cognitive (behavioral) outcomes.

We next review the “plausible pathways” by which the characteristic influences youths’ outcomes—i.e., how these predictions might reflect causality. We conclude by recommending policies to reduce the intensity of these specific disadvantages.

This report’s key findings are as follows:
  • Parenting practices that impede children’s intellectual and behavioral development: Lower-social-class parents engage in fewer educationally supportive activities with young children, such as reading aloud or playing cognitively stimulating games. Lower-social-class parents also exert more direct authority and offer children fewer choices in their daily interactions, leaving them less prepared for “critical thinking” when school curricula expect it. Parents’ failure to engage in educationally supportive activities is associated with children’s poorer academic and behavioral outcomes. There are well-validated programs that can offset these effects. High-quality early childhood care and education centers provide intellectually stimulating environments that disadvantaged children may miss at home. Nurse home-visiting services assist disadvantaged mothers with health problems and teach developmentally appropriate parenting skills. High-quality after-school and summer programs that offer cultural and organizational activities are typically attended by middle-class youth, not students from lower-social-class backgrounds.
  • Single parenthood: Mothers raising children alone are more likely to be low-income, African American, and less educated. Their children typically have lower test scores, are more likely to drop out of school, and have greater emotional and behavioral difficulties (more delinquency and violence, more school dropout, more suicide). Sex education and school-based health centers that provide long-lasting contraception to teenage girls are important, but they will not be as effective as they have to be if African American men remain poor marriage partners—unable to help support families because of excessive unemployment and discriminatory arrest and incarceration. Full employment as well as labor market and criminal justice reforms that enable fathers to earn middle-class incomes are needed to improve children’s outcomes.
  • Parents’ irregular work schedules: Computerized scheduling and the weakening of norms governing employers’ responsibility for employee welfare have combined to produce irregular work schedules for many hourly paid low-wage workers, disproportionately African Americans and the less educated. Unpredictable schedules make it difficult, if not impossible, to place children in high-quality child care centers and to establish regular home routines in which children can thrive. Children of mothers with non-standard schedules have worse verbal and other cognitive skills, mental health, and behavior. New regulatory policies—for example, requiring call-in pay for workers sent home before shifts end—could create incentives for employers to reduce use of “just-in-time” employee scheduling
  • Inadequate access to primary and preventive health care: Minority children and those whose parents are less educated or who live in low-income neighborhoods are less likely to have personal physicians or nurse practitioners, or receive necessary referrals to specialists. No research directly associates physician access with children’s cognitive or non-cognitive outcomes, but a relationship is easy to intuit. Children with limited access are more likely to have routine and preventable illnesses, causing more frequent absences from school. Regulatory changes that support school-based health centers and Medicaid reimbursement changes to create incentives for primary care physicians to locate in low-access neighborhoods could address this.
  • Exposure to and absorption of lead in the blood: Children with high blood lead levels are disproportionately low income and African American. Lead reduces cognitive ability (IQ) and causes adverse behavioral outcomes, such as increased violence and other criminal behavior in adolescents and young adults. Although lead was removed from gasoline in the 1970s and 1980s, lead remains on the ground and is frequently stirred up into breathable air. Lead also remains in windows, window frames, the walls of older buildings, and pipes carrying water to residences. Lead cleanup is expensive, but it would result in substantial overall savings in reduced special education placements, reduced criminal behavior, and greater worker productivity from adults with greater cognitive ability.


Policymakers are perplexed about addressing the impact of racial and socioeconomic class differences on student outcomes. While they generally understand that family and community characteristics affect performance, they also fear that acknowledging this fact means we should tolerate lower standards for disadvantaged children, something they consider morally and politically unacceptable. As a result, contemporary education reform efforts focus disproportionately on school and teacher incentives and do little to narrow achievement gaps.

Economists, sociologists, and developmental psychologists have consistently concluded that background characteristics strongly shape cognitive and behavioral outcomes.1 When school improvement is not complemented by policies to narrow social class differences, students’ chances of success are greatly diminished.

Thus, educators should, as educators, be vocal advocates for policies that reduce poverty and address other characteristics of lower-class status. But educators can do more, seizing opportunities to coordinate school improvement with community services that ameliorate socioeconomic disadvantage—services such as early childhood care and education, nurse home-visiting programs, after-school and summer opportunities, school-based health centers, and sponsorship of community lead cleanup.

Such services cannot substitute for macroeconomic policies like full employment, higher wages, and stable work schedules, all of which help parents nurture and support their children, but the limitations of school-based social and economic improvement programs should not discourage educators from pursuing them.

Highlighting the socioeconomic impediments to student achievement does not make “excuses” for the achievement gap, as some advocates glibly, and defensively, charge. Rather, it provides explanations. Although some educators may use student poverty as an excuse for inadequate performance, the conscientious understand that without good explanations for low achievement, policies to address it are unlikely.

Of the many social class characteristics known to depress outcomes, this report deals with five: challenged home intellectual environments, single parenthood, irregular parental work schedules, inadequate health care access, and exposure to environmental lead. These factors were chosen because recent research has offered important new insights regarding each. But these are not the only important characteristics depressing outcomes, nor is there a research basis for determining with any certainty whether they are necessarily the most important.

Therefore, this report can make no judgment about the relative importance of such adverse influences on children, although we can assert with confidence, based on available research, that each is quite important. Other characteristics, all associated with poverty—including parental unemployment and low wages, housing instability, concentrated disadvantage in segregated neighborhoods, stress, malnutrition, and health problems like asthma—deserve similar treatment. We will consider these in future work.

Such characteristics interact, so precise estimates are not possible for the shares of achievement gaps attributable to specific social class differences, just as they are not possible for the shares attributable to teacher performance or other school qualities. For example, this report describes how poor parental literacy and irregular work schedules each varies by race and social class and affects children’s outcomes. But they co-vary—simply adding effects together exaggerates estimates of harm because poor literacy and irregular work are themselves correlated; research has not established the additional impact of children’s suffering from the results of both, rather than one factor.

We also underestimate harm by considering disadvantage only for individual children. When disadvantaged children are concentrated in classrooms and schools, their difficulties are exacerbated. Children in racially isolated and predominantly low-income schools have few peers who legitimize higher achievement standards. Their teachers must focus more on remediation and discipline, without time to devote to children whose problems they could address only if those needing special attention were few.

Because characteristics of lower-class status overlap and may well be interdependent, available data do not permit the isolation of any one. Econometric studies that identify the effect of a particular characteristic by holding others constant are valuable. But no study controls for all, and few control for very many. Correlations between specific socioeconomic barriers and child outcomes may, in many cases, seem small.

But while we cannot estimate the precise contribution of each disadvantage to achievement gaps, influences not attributable to schools are so numerous that policy should consider how to address them.

No influence is fully determinative. Some children with less literate parents excel beyond the typical performance of college graduates’ children. Each adverse socioeconomic influence has a wide range of outcomes but, on average, exposed children will perform less adequately.

For the characteristics reviewed below, where recent research provides reliable information, we discuss:
  • average race and social class differences in incidence;
  • prediction of cognitive outcomes;
  • prediction of non-cognitive outcomes;
  • the plausible pathways by which these associations may reflect causation.

We conclude by reviewing practical reforms to narrow differences in these characteristics that would, in turn, likely help narrow outcome gaps. Ultimately, to make substantial progress in narrowing gaps, school improvement should be complemented by and coordinated with amelioration of socioeconomic disadvantages.

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