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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Improving the Education of Children Living in Poverty
Richard J. Murnane

Summary

Richard Murnane observes that the American ideal of equality of educational opportunity has for years been more the rhetoric than the reality of the nation’s political life. Children living in poverty, he notes, tend to be concentrated in low-performing schools staffed by ill-equipped teachers. They are likely to leave school without the skills needed to earn a decent living in a rapidly changing economy. Murnane describes three initiatives that the federal government could take to improve the education of these children and increase their chances of escaping poverty. All would strengthen the standards-based reforms at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) by bracing the three legs on which the reforms rest: accountability, incentives, and capacity.

Congress, says Murnane, should improve accountability by amending NCLB to make performance goals more attainable. The goals should emphasize growth in children’s skills rather than whether children meet specific test score targets. Congress should also amend NCLB to develop meaningful goals for high school graduation rates.

Congress should strengthen states’ incentives to improve the education of low-income students. It should also encourage states to develop effective voluntary school choice programs to enable students who attend failing public schools to move to more successful schools in other districts.

Finally, Congress should use competitive matching grants to build the capacity of schools to educate low-income children and the capacity of state departments of education to boost the performance of failing schools and districts. The grants would help develop effective programs to improve teaching and to serve students who do not fare well in conventional high school programs.

Murnane estimates the annual cost of these three initiatives to be approximately $2.5 billion.