Expert Commentary

Education and disadvantaged children: Research roundup

2012 research review on disadvantaged students in the United States and issues such as classroom practices, public policy and poverty.

2nd-3rd grade classroom (iStock)

Students from low-income households face significant barriers that typically persist through their school years. Studies have shown that as these students enter adulthood, they typically earn less, have limited or no access to health care, are more likely to suffer from obesity and its complications such as diabetes and heart disease, and be at greater risk for homicide or violent assault.

These disadvantages typically start before students enroll in school, and the public education system is generally seen as the best opportunity to address these inequities in a comprehensive manner. In addition to its strict performance mandates, the No Child Left Behind Act was meant to boost achievement for lower-income students, but success has been elusive. An array of federal, state and local initiatives work to promote public school and higher education successes for disadvantaged populations, and educators, parents and officials continue to debate the merits of giving students greater school choice.

The following studies analyze issues related to educational access and effective instruction for disadvantaged students:



“Differences Between Over-achieving and Under-achieving Classes in Reading: Teacher, Classroom, and Student Characteristics”
Damber, U.; Taube, K.; Samuelsson, S. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, January 2012, 1-28.

Abstract: “The main purpose of this study was to examine the classroom, teacher and student factors distinguishing grade three classes performing at higher levels than expected, in relation to socioeconomic status (SES) and language factors, from classes performing below their potential with regard to the same factors. Data from a standardized reading comprehension test and student and teacher questionnaires covering teacher, classroom and student characteristics were collected. The participants were 1,092 grade three classes and their class teachers, from Stockholm, Sweden. By use of regression and a twin-matching procedure, one group of 94 underachieving classes and another group of 94 overachieving classes were formed for comparison. Data about extended voluntary reading, classroom climate, teacher experience and the use of authentic literature were seen to be the main four indicators discriminating between over- and underachieving classes beyond the impact of SES and language background.”


“Not Just Any Path: Implications of Identity-based Motivation for Disparities in School Outcomes”
Oyserman, D. Economics of Education Review, 2012, 1-12.

Abstract: “Low-income and minority children aspire to school success and expect to attend college. These aspirations and expectations matter–predicting college attendance and graduation when present and failure to attend college otherwise. But aspiring to college does not necessarily result in relevant behavior; many children with high aspirations do not take sufficient action to work toward their school goals. This paper uses identity-based motivation theory (IBM, [Oyserman, 2007] and [Oyserman, 2009a]) to predict that school-focused expectations and aspirations predict action if at the moment of judgment, they are accessible (come to mind) and feel relevant. Relevance is operationalized in three ways. (1) Feeling congruent with important social identities (e.g., race-ethnicity, social class), (2) feeling connected with relevant behavioral strategies (studying, asking questions), and (3) providing an interpretation of difficulties along the way as implying task importance, not impossibility. Family assets and child savings are likely to influence each element of identity relevance.”


“Exacerbating Inequality: The Failed Promise of the No Child Left Behind Act”
Hursh, D. Race Ethnicity and Education, September 2007, Vol. 10, No. 3, 295-308.

Findings:No Child Left Behind [NCLB], therefore, both directly and indirectly exacerbates racial, ethnic and economic inequality in society…. Because urban school curricula is increasingly likely to focus on test preparation and basic skills, marginalizing the students’ culture and interests, and students may be retained in grade or forced out of school in order to increase the percentage of students passing the standardized exams, students are less rather than more likely to graduate from secondary school.”


“Is Choice a Panacea? An Analysis of Black Secondary Student Attrition from KIPP, Other Private Charters, and Urban Districts”
Vasquez Heilig, J.; Williams, A.; McSpadden McNeil, L.; Lee, C. Berkeley Review of Education, 2011, Vol. 2, No. 2, 153-178.

Findings: “The dropout rate for privately operated charter districts in Texas (13%) is more than three times that of their urban public district counterparts (4%). The rate of leavers of charter schools (defined separately from dropouts) is roughly double that of charters’ urban public counterparts. Charter schools that serve predominantly black students have a lower dropout rate (11%) than both the average charter dropout rate (13%) and the dropout rate of charters with less than 100 Black students (22%). Black students attending Texas charter schools tend to cluster in larger urban districts such as Houston and Dallas. Charter districts that enrolled more than 100 Black students matriculated 325 Black secondary students on average while districts with fewer than 100 enrolled 17 Black students on average. These findings suggest that Black students are segregated in Texas charter schools. And across Texas, the ‘vast majority of privately-operated charter districts serve very few Black students.… Despite the claim that 88-90% of the children attending [leading] charters go on to college, their Black secondary student attrition rate surpasses that of peer urban districts.’”


“An Academic Curriculum Will Close the Achievement Gap”
Palumbo, A.; Kramer-Vida, L. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, March 2012, Vol. 85, No. 3, 117-121.

Abstract: “America’s unyielding academic achievement gap has been a national priority for a long time; yet, some schools have succeeded with academically disadvantaged youth. Usually, these institutions embrace a culture of success and follow an academic curriculum that is grounded in core knowledge and scholastic vocabulary. Academically disadvantaged students need school-wide programs that meet their distinct needs. These programs emphasize basic knowledge, grounded in contextual references. Students are taught to decode and comprehend domain specific and academic vocabulary. They learn skills and content that will help them achieve as successful adults. These schools are the antithesis of “mean streets.” They welcome disadvantaged students and provide the intellectual and emotional tools they need to thrive, while instilling self-discipline and hope in their pupils.”


“Good Help Is Hard to Find: A Study in Retention and Motivation”
Norman, S.W. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, September 2010, Vol. 13, 7-12.

Abstract: “This case study confronts the issues of staff motivation and teacher retention that face administrators in low-paying and/or low-performing small school settings when teacher pay is low and morale is lower, especially in communities having a lower economic base. It will present not only opportunities to try to keep good teachers but also opportunities to motivate and inspire them to a level of success that will turn school performance around and raise student achievement scores. It may be used in an introductory course in critical issues in leadership, especially in the areas of distributed leadership and team building methods.”


“Irreconcilable Differences: Teacher Attrition in Public and Catholic Schools”
Scheopner, A.J. Educational Research Review, 2010, Vol. 5, No. 3, 271-277.

Abstract: “Teachers have a powerful impact on student achievement, yet high attrition rates hinder the ability of schools to provide quality instruction. Attrition rates are highest for schools serving low income, minority students and among small private schools. This review of research seeks to understand why teachers leave, examining different teaching contexts and comparing teaching contexts around the world and in both public and Catholic schools. Findings indicate that simple solutions will not suffice and that research methods are needed that take into account changes in the culture of schools, teacher identity, and teacher commitment that impact decisions to stay or leave the profession throughout a teacher’s career.”


“Can Districts Keep Good Teachers in the Schools that Need Them Most?”
Guarino, C.M.; Brown, A.B.; Wyse, A.E. Economics of Education Review, October 2011, Vol. 30, No. 5, 962-979.

Abstract: “This study investigates how school demographics and their interactions with policies affect the mobility behaviors of public school teachers with various human capital characteristics. Using data from North Carolina from 1995 to 2006, it finds that teachers’ career stage and human capital investments dominate their decisions to leave public school teaching and school demographic characteristics play a dominant role in intra-system sorting. Schools serving at-risk children struggle to attract and retain teachers with desirable observable characteristics. We find evidence to suggest that across-the-board school-based pay-for-performance policies have small but significant associations with mobility decisions and appear to exacerbate inequities in the distribution of teacher qualifications.”


“Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools”
Rothwell, J. Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, April 2012, 1-31.

Findings: “An analysis of national and metropolitan data on public school populations and state standardized test scores for 84,077 schools in 2010 and 2011 reveals that: nationwide, the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams; northeastern metro areas with relatively high levels of economic segregation exhibit the highest school test-score gaps between low-income students and other students; across the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school; and large metro areas with the least restrictive zoning have housing cost gaps that are 40 to 63 percentage points lower than metro areas with the most exclusionary zoning….As the nation grapples with the growing gap between rich and poor and an economy increasingly reliant on formal education, public policies should address housing market regulations that prohibit all but the very affluent from enrolling their children in high-scoring public schools in order to promote individual social mobility and broader economic security.”


“Neighborhood Effects in Temporal Perspective: The Impact of Long-Term Exposure to Concentrated Disadvantage on High School Graduation”
Wodtke, G.T.; Harding, D.J.; Elwert, F. American Sociological Review, September 2011, Vol. 76, No. 5, 713-736.

Findings: “Only about 9% of non-black children spent the majority of their childhoods in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, while 65% of black children were similarly exposed. ‘Black children, therefore, were about seven times more likely than non-black children to experience long-term residence in the most disadvantaged 20 percent of American neighborhoods.’ More than one in three black children and about one in six non-black children remained in a disadvantaged neighborhood throughout their childhoods. But they did not necessarily remain in the same disadvantaged neighborhood: 30% of black children and 44% non-black children moved among different disadvantaged neighborhoods at least three times by the time they were 17 years old. Compared with those who experienced a medium-quality neighborhood, long-term residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood reduced a black child’s chance of graduating from high school by about 65%, and a non-black child’s graduation chances by about 40%. Sustained residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood — versus a high-quality neighborhood — reduced a black child’s chance of graduating from high school by about 90%, and a non-black child’s graduation chances by about 70%.”


“Rural-Nonrural Disparities in Postsecondary Educational Attainment Revisited”
Byun, S.; Meece, J.L.; Irvin, M.J. American Educational Research Journal, June 2012, Vol. 49, No. 3, 412-437.

Findings: “Rural youth tend to suffer from higher rates of poverty and have less access to college prep classes and educational counseling resources than their urban counterparts. Their parents tend to be less educated and less likely to encourage their children to attend college. Urban students are more than twice as likely to earn a B.A. than their rural counterparts, and suburban students more than 50% as likely. ‘Family income was found to predict college enrollment only for urban students. By contrast, family structure predicted college enrollment only for rural students, whereas the number of siblings predicted only for suburban students. In addition, student church attendance was significantly related to college enrollment only for rural students.’ Parental involvement and expectations differed between rural and nonrural students, with rural parents earning fewer bachelor’s degrees and holding ‘lower levels of educational expectations for, and involvement in, their children’s education’ than their nonurban counterparts. The authors noted that this puts rural students at a disadvantage, as parental involvement and expectations are ‘positive predictors’ of college enrollment and degree completion. Rural students typically benefited from more social resources, including parents who communicate with church members and students’ friends and parents. These resources produced a ‘small but significant increase in the likelihood of college degree attainment’ for rural students.


“Juvenile Arrest and Collateral Educational Damage in the Transition to Adulthood”
Kirk, D.S.; Sampson, R.J. Sociology of Education, May 2012, 1-27

Findings: “Among Chicago adolescents otherwise equivalent on prearrest characteristics, 73% of those arrested later dropped out of high school compared with 51% of those not arrested, a substantial difference of 22%.’ More students with no criminal records who graduated from high school or obtained GED certification subsequently enrolled in four-year colleges (35%), nearly twice the amount of those with an arrest record (16%). ‘Arrested youth… tend to have less self-control and persistence, and they are more commonly sensation seeking. In terms of problem behavior, those arrested tend to be more aggressive [and] are significantly more likely to engage in violent offending, property crime, and drug distribution than those not arrested.’ A student with an arrest record is less likely to be female, Mexican or white and is more likely to have a mother with a substance abuse problem; he or she is also more likely to associate with ‘deviant peers’ and have failed a grade in school. Further, ‘even prior to contact with the criminal justice system, eventual arrestees showed signs of educational difficulties.’”

Tags: civil rights, youth, poverty, research roundup

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