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Improving the schooling outcomes for disadvantaged children is central to efforts to reduce overall inequality and for increasing economic growth. Around 78 percent of white high school students graduate within four years, compared to 58 percent of Hispanics and 55 percent of blacks. (1) In the federal government's 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 16 percent of fourth-grade students who were eligible for free lunch scored at proficient levels in reading, compared with 44 percent of those with higher family incomes. (2) These large disparities understandably have intensified concern about how to improve our system of public schools. The possibility that some of the most effective ways to improve school outcomes might not have anything to do with elementary or secondary schools first was raised in a landmark 1966 study named after its lead investigator, the distinguished sociologist James S. Coleman. (3) The "Coleman Report" made several remarkable claims, including: the black-white gap in school "inputs" was much smaller than generally perceived; school inputs were only weakly correlated with student test scores; among the strongest correlates of test scores were family background and the socio-economic composition of the child's school; and, disparities in test scores open up very early in life, so that for example the black-white test score gap was already 1.5 standard deviations by first grade. Subsequent studies have shown that these disparities are evident in the pre-school years, in part because of disparities in early learning environments. By age three, children in professional families have larger vocabularies than the parents of children in families on welfare. (4)

Business & Personal Finance
22 September
National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
The Gale Group, Inc., a Delaware corporation and an affiliate of Cengage Learning, Inc.

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