Greg J. Duncan and Katherine A. Magnuson, The Future of Children, pp. 35-54
Spring 2005

According to this imaginative and timely analysis, family socio-economic status may explain as much as half a standard deviation in initial achievement gaps between black/Hispanic and white children at the time they enter school. Yet, say the authors (a social policy professor at Northwestern and a social work faculty member at Wisconsin/Madison), the policy implications of this are "far from clear." They note that "no policies address 'socioeconomic status' directly. They address only its components - income, parental schooling, family structure, and the like. Moreover, wise policy decisions require an understanding of both causal mechanisms and cost-effective interventions that can produce desired changes." Because these are few and far between, they conclude that, if the goal is to narrow achievement gaps among children entering school, "policies that directly target children's aptitude or mental and physical health" are better bets. (A host of those are addressed in other essays in the same journal; this whole issue is devoted to closing racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness.) If you ask why we're pointing out the obvious, the answer is that we keep encountering the determinist (and defeatist) assertion - see, for example, Richard Rothstein's 2004 book Class and Schools, reviewed here - that the achievement gap can only be dealt with via wholesale transformations in American society and its economy. The fact is, say Duncan and Magnuson, a surer bet is to work on things that deal directly with young children's education and health. Find this article here, or you can view the whole journal here.

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