Journal Issue: School Readiness: Closing Racial and Ethnic Gaps Volume 15 Number 1 Spring 2005
On average, when black and Hispanic children begin school, their academic skills lag behind those of whites. Accounting studies find that differences in socioeconomic status explain about half a standard deviation of the initial achievement gaps. But because none of the accounting studies is able to adjust for a full set of genetic and other confounding causes of achievement, we regard them as providing upper-bound estimates of the role of family socioeconomic status.
If, indeed, differences in the socioeconomic backgrounds of young white, black, and Hispanic children play a causal role in creating achievement gaps, what are the implications for policy? The answer is far from clear. First, 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.
To illustrate, suppose that increasing maternal schooling by one year raises children's kindergarten achievement scores by one quarter of a standard deviation, or roughly 4 points on our reference test. With the achievement gaps between whites and both blacks and Hispanics at one-half to three quarters of a standard deviation (7 to 11 points), a policy that could increase maternal schooling for all black and Hispanic mothers by an average of one or two years would significantly narrow the achievement gap. But few programmatic interventions can deliver such gains, and whether further expansions in educational funding will increase Hispanic or black mothers' educational attainment will depend on the specifics of how the money is spent.
In the case of household income, it appears that reducing the racial and ethnic differences in family income by several thousand dollars would reduce achievement gaps. Political support for work-based approaches to boosting income, such as the earned income tax credit, has increased considerably over the past decade. Moreover, because income appears to matter more for preschoolers than for older children—and much more for poor children than for others—it seems that an effective policy would be to adopt child focused redistributive efforts using, say, European- style child allowances or increases in the EITC with benefits restricted to families with preschool children. Such programs may prove politically feasible, because it would be considerably cheaper to cover only a fraction of children than to cover all children.68
All in all, given the dearth of successful large scale interventions, it may be wise to assign only a modest role to programs that aim to increase parents' socioeconomic resources. In the end, policies that directly target children's aptitude or mental and physical health, discussed in other articles in this issue, may be the most efficient way to address the gap.