Any effort to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty begins with education. Four decades of research has found that the single best thing one can do for a low-income student is give her a chance to attend a middle-class school. The landmark 1966 Coleman Report found that the most important predictor of academic achievement is the socioeconomic status of the family a child comes from, and the second most important predictor is the socioeconomic makeup of the school she attends. A low-income student given the chance to attend a middle-class school is likely to be surrounded by peers who are academically engaged and less likely to act out; a set of parents who volunteer in the classroom and know how to hold school officials accountable; and high-quality teachers who have high expectations.
That more advantaged school environment translates into dramatically different achievement levels. On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) given to fourth-graders in math, for example, low-income students attending more affluent schools scored almost two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools. Indeed, low-income students given a chance to attend more affluent schools performed more than half a year better, on average, than middle-income students who attend high-poverty schools. This matters because performance in early grades tends to predict performance in later grades, and high school performance predicts the level of educational attainment, which in turn predicts adult earnings.
Today, more than 60 school districts are explicitly seeking to reduce concentrations of school poverty. For example, in Wake County, North Carolina, which includes the city of Raleigh and surrounding suburbs, the district adopted a goal in 2000 that no school should have more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The results are quite impressive, with Wake County's low-income, minority, and middle-class students generally outperforming peers in other large North Carolina districts.
Race to the Top has at least gotten me to think about what I'd do at this level of coarseness -- what policy prescriptions could be passed down from DC and actually make our schools better. The answer is desegregation, and the data backs it up.