Education for Underprivileged Children

One of the best ways to avoid being poor as an adult is to obtain a good education. People who have higher levels of academic achievement and more years of schooling earn more than those with lower levels of human capital. This is not surprising, since economists believe that schooling makes people more productive and that wages are related to productivity.

Early childhood education

Disparities in academic achievement by social class are apparent as early as ages three and four—well before children enter kindergarten. Recent research in neuroscience, developmental psychology, economics, and other fields suggests that the earliest years of life may be a particularly promising time to intervene in the lives of low-income children. Studies show that early childhood educational programs can generate learning gains in the short-run and, in some cases, improve the long-run life chances of poor children. Moreover, the benefits generated by these programs are large enough to justify their costs.

Most social policies attempt to make up for the disadvantages poor children experience early in life. But given the substantial disparities between poor and non-poor children that already exist among very young children, it is perhaps not surprising that many disadvantaged children never catch up.

The role of student background

Some believe that the disappointing performance of our public schools stems in large part from the challenges that poor children face outside of school. Clearly, differences in family background help explain a large share of the variation in academic achievement outcomes across children. Poor children have substantially lower achievement test scores than non-poor children as young as ages three or four, before they even start school. More relevant for present purposes is whether the challenges of living in poverty cause poor children to benefit less than non-poor children from similar types of schooling experiences. Our reading of the available evidence instead suggests that improving the quality of academic programs is at the very least sufficient to make noticeable improvements in poor children’s educational outcomes. In fact, studies of early childhood education programs typically find that disadvantaged children benefit even more from these interventions than do non-poor children. As a result, social policy changes outside the realm of education that reduces child poverty in our country, as desirable as they may be on their own merits, is not a necessary condition for enacting education reforms that improve poor children’s outcomes by enough to justify the costs of these reforms.

At the same time, the fact that poor children are geographically concentrated in neighborhoods that are segregated by social class presents special challenges for education policy, given that children have traditionally attended neighborhood schools. For example, research suggests that, all else equal, teachers tend to prefer to work in schools that serve more affluent and less racially diverse student bodies. In addition, systems that fail to adequately account for the confounding influence of family background may help drive the most effective teachers out of high-poverty schools. Peer characteristics may also directly affect student learning, if teachers set the level or pace of instruction to match the average student ability in their classroom. 


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