Archives for category: Education Reform

Jan Resseger combines the meticulousness of a researcher and the heart of a social justice warrior. She is dismayed that the debate about federally mandated testing seems to have dropped out of sight since the Biden administration broke its promise to change the practice.

She writes:

It is worth remembering that until 2002, our society did not test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and compare the aggregate scores from school to school as a way to rate and rank public schools. School districts could choose to test students with standardized tests to measure what they had been learning, but until the No Child Left Behind Act was signed by President George W. Bush, there was no mandated high stakes testing across the states. We also ought to remember that NCLB did not, as promised, cause every child to make Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient. Because, as research has demonstrated, out-of-school challenges affect students’ test scores, the whole high stakes testing regime didn’t improve school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps.  

Sadly, it did, however, shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

A lot of damage has followed as we have branded the schools serving concentrations of very poor children as failures and punished them through state takeovers, forced privatization, and even school closures.  We have condemned the teachers in these schools as failures. We have published the comparative ratings of schools and thereby redlined particular communities, and accelerated white flight and segregation.

Standardized testing for purposes of school accountability is now mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, No Child Left Behind’s 2015 replacement. Last school year as COVID-19 struck, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cancelled the testing, but early this spring, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance mandating that the states would be required to administer standardized tests despite that COVID-19 had upended the school year with a mixture of in-person, hybrid, and online education.

In a letter, dated February 22, 2021, then acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum informed states they must test students this year, but Rosenblum offered school districts some flexibility if they submitted applications for waivers. He also said that this year the federal government would not require states to use the tests for holding schools accountable through penalties for the lowest scoring schools. His letter explains what is permissible but it has spawned considerable confusion: “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices… We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments. A state should use that flexibility to consider: administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. This could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021 school year.”

In March, 548 researchers from the nation’s colleges of education sent a joint letter protesting Cardona’s failure to cancel standardized testing in this 2020-2021 school year but at the same time affirming the Cardona plan not to use the tests  for high-stakes accountability. The researchers emphasize the danger of the past 20 years of test-and-punish: “We applaud USED’s recent decision to emphasize the importance of data for informational purposes, rather than high-stakes accountability. In light of research evidence, we wish to underscore the importance of continuing this practice in the future. For decades, experts have warned that the high-stakes use of any metric will distort results. Analyzing the impact of NCLB/ESSA, scholars have documented consequences like curriculum narrowing, teaching-to-the-test, the ‘triaging’ of resources, and cheating… The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting… Whatever their flaws, test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand that they be addressed. But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever.”

This summer, press coverage of the issue of standardized testing has largely disappeared. But suddenly there is some reporting, because McKinsey & Company, and a test publisher, NWEA have just released reports on tests conducted at the end of the school year. What’s troubling is that while Secretary Cardona has defined the need for widespread testing for the purpose of gathering information, the new reporting is simply being used to document so-called “learning loss,” which many fear will stigmatize and discourage the children in America’s poorest communities.

Trying to explore both sides of the for-or-against standardized testing issue, Chalkbeat Chicago’s Mila Koumpilova simply assumes that school districts will want to “quantify the academic fallout” from the pandemic and worries that if testing is cut back this year, Chicago will lose (according to the old NCLB argument) the chance to hold schools accountable: “The change also raises questions about what tests, if any, the district might use to rate its schools and evaluate its teachers and principals going forward. The MAP math and reading tests factored into the district’s controversial school ratings program, known as SQRP, as well as employee evaluations, admissions to selective enrollment and other competitive programs, and student promotion to the next grade.”

Koumpilova also assumes that our society needs something test makers brag their products will produce: the chance to prove with data that the poorest children were affected most seriously by the school closures and disruption of COVID-19. “New national data from NWEA shows the pandemic widened pre-pandemic test score gaps by race and economic status, and that those disparities were most pronounced for the country’s youngest students and those attending high-poverty schools. The results are considered among the most comprehensive national accounting so far of academic setbacks.  

Without a benchmark to compare pre-pandemic growth, it’s not clear how Chicago would measure its own students’ academic progress.”Without reminding readers that national testing companies have a vested interest in promoting their expensive products, the NY Times’ Sarah Mervosh simply quotes Karyn Lewis of NWEA, and one of the authors of new report on the importance of NWEA’s recent test results: “How much did the pandemic affect students? The latest research is out, and the answer is clear: dramatically. In math and reading, students are behind where they would be after a normal year, with the most vulnerable students showing the steepest drops… ‘It’s a bitter pill to swallow,’ said Karyn Lewis, a senior researcher at NWEA and the lead author of the organization’s report… ‘It just keeps you up at night.’ For example, in math, Latino third graders performed 17 percentile points lower in spring 2021 compared with the typical achievement of Latino third graders in the spring of 2019. The decline was 15 percentile points for Black students, compared with similar students in the past, and 14 for Native students…. The report used data from about 5.5 million public school students in third through eighth grade who took the NWEA’s tests during the 2021 school year….”

Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat reported that the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are joining forces to fund a “breakthrough” in American education, despite the consistent failures they have experienced.

Are they slow learners or persistent?

Barnum writes:

The Advanced Education Research & Development Fund, announced Wednesday, is already funded to the eye-popping tune of $200 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Walton Family Foundation. (Gates and Walton are also supporters of Chalkbeat.)

AERDF (pronounced AIR-dif) says its focus will be on what it calls “inclusive R&D,” or bringing together people with different expertise, including educators, to design and test practical ideas like improving assessments and making math classes more effective. Still, the ideas will have “moonshot ambitions,” said the group’s CEO Stacey Childress.

“One of our mottos for our program teams and the projects they fund is ‘heads in clouds and boots on the ground,’” she said.

It’s an unusually well-funded start for a new education organization, especially as big education funders have seen their influence wane in recent years after some of their ideas showed uneven results and prompted backlash. AERDF suggests these funders still have significant ambitions for improving education in the U.S., even if those efforts are less splashy — or controversial — than they once were.

The organization emerged from work that began in 2018, when CZI and Gates teamed up to invest in R&D. That resulted in a project known as EF+Math, which funds efforts to embed lessons in executive functioning — a set of cognitive skills related to self control and memory — into math classes.

“These executive functioning skills allow you to focus on what’s important, ignore distractions, let you think flexibly to solve problems and keep track of ideas,” said Melina Uncapher, the program’s director. “Perhaps not surprisingly, they’re strongly related to math skills.”

That effort, now part of AERDF, will start work in three school districts — Newark, New Jersey; Vista Unified in California; and Middletown, Ohio — this fall, said spokesperson Ed Wyatt.

You could write a book about their any failures. In fact, I already have written two. One is called Reign of Error and the other is Slaying Goliath.

What the billionaires refuse to recognize is that the root cause of poor academic performance is poverty. One experiment they might try is to raise the standard of living for targeted communities. Or they could fund hundreds of community schools with wraparound services for children and families.

Instead they prefer to search for the magic bullet that will overcome the obstacles in the lives of children who live in poverty. It appears that they learned nothing from their previous adventure into “education reform.”

A suggestion for the funders: Read Richard Rothstein’s Class and Schools.

Readers of this blog have followed the advance of privatization of public school funding for nearly a decade. We know the big foundations and individuals that support privatization. We have followed their activities and watched as all of their strategies have failed to match their promises. The great puzzle, to me, is the indifference of the mainstream media. While they cover political scandals of every variety, they are just not interested in the sustained campaign to divert public money to schools there privately managed,to religious schools, to other private schools, and even to homeschooling. The media rightly criticized Betsy DeVos’s crusade for school choice, but as soon as she left office, they lost interest in the issue. Meanwhile, red states are rushing to open more charter schools and fund more vouchers.

Maurice Cunningham explored this issue in a recent post on the blog of the MassPoliticsProfs. He chastises the Boston Globe, but the same complaint could be directed to most mainstream media.

He begins:

Suppose WalMart swept into Boston and spent millions to acquire Market Basket. The town would go ballistic. It would be covered every day in every media outlet, front page of the Boston Globe. But the Walton Family Foundation of Arkansas—the exact same heartless* mercenaries—spends millions of dollars to take over public schools and it gets ignored. Why is that?

He discusses “Hidden Politics” and “the Politics of Pretending.” He has written frequently about astroturf groups and how they present themselves to a gullible media as authentic spokesmen for parents or for some other groups.

That’s the PR facade, he says. What really matters is: who is funding these groups? Why doesn’t the media care?

I always thought that if out-of-state billionaires could be proven to have entered the state using local fronts to change Massachusetts education policy that would be a great, great, great story. I’ve been proven wrong again, and again, and again. I still think it’s a great story, it’s just a great story that only gets told at a small political science blog. Why is that?

Why is that?

The public schools of Chicago have had an appointed school board for more than 150 years. In 1995, the law was changed to give the Mayor full control of the schools. He named the members of the school board, and they followed his wishes. Mayoral control of the schools, I have come to believe, is a terrible idea. Theoretically, the Mayor is accountable, but in reality, he or she never is. There are too many issues, and education gets low priority. However, we have seen Mayors using the schools as political props, heralding any progress as the fruits of their labor. We have even seen examples where Mayors distort the data to claim credit.

An elected board is not perfect. No system of governance is. But it gives parents and community activists the opportunity to be heard, even to run for election. With an elected board, there are checks and balances. Democracy is better than authoritarianism. That is why it is so outrageous to see billionaire faux-reformers creating stealth organizations to funnel money to their candidates. True grassroots candidates can ever compete with big money from out of state financiers.

The Chicago Teachers Union issued this statement yesterday.

Elected school board is an historic achievement for Chicago’s students, families and school communities

After more than 150 years of appointed boards of education in Chicago, the road to the city’s first fully elected representative leadership has come to an end.

CHICAGO, July 29, 2021 — The Chicago Teachers Union issued the following statement in response to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature of House Bill 2908, creating an elected representative school board for Chicago Public Schools:

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature today of HB2908, the historic bill to create an elected representative school board for Chicago, caps a decades-long fight by parents, rank-and-file educators and community activists to provide our school district the same democratic rights afforded to every other district in the state of Illinois.

Students, families and educators will now have the voice they have long been denied for a quarter of a century by failed mayoral control of our schools. Chicago will finally have an elected board accountable to the people our schools serve, as it should be.

Our union is grateful to the grassroots movement that led with us in this fight. We owe special thanks to state representatives Kam Buckner and bill sponsor Delia Ramirez, Sen. Rob Martwick, Illinois Speaker Chris Welch and Senate President Don Harmon. All were instrumental in getting this landmark legislation to the governor’s desk. We are also thinking tonight about our beloved President Emerita Karen GJ Lewis, NBCT. This victory is hers as much as it is a victory for our city. Here’s to you, Karen.


The Chicago Teachers Union represents more than 25,000 teachers and educational support personnel working in schools funded by City of Chicago School District 299, and by extension, over 350,000 students and families they serve. The CTU is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers and is the third-largest teachers local in the United States. For more information, please visit the CTU website at

Bob Moses died on July 25 at the age of 86. He was noted for his intellect and courage. He was a leader of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), leading a voter registration drive in Mississippi at a time when violence against Black civil rights activists were at risk of being murdered, and no jury would convict their killers. In 1964, he led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which tried unsuccessfully to replace the all-white Democratic delegation to the Democratic National Convention. In 1982, he founded the Algebra Project, to teach algebra to underprepared Black youth. He received multiple honors for his work. He graduated from the elite Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Hamilton College (where he majored in philosophy and French), and earned a master’s degree at Harvard in philosophy.

One of his friends and admirers forwarded the following story:

It might be of interest that Bob’s first stop on his way South from the Bronx was the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] office on east 19th street He said it was his first stop and affirmation of friendship and sncc sds solidarity

He was always a friend

He spoke at a University of Michigan commencement ceremony
He said “people don’t like long speeches and that are hard to remember. Mine will be short.

I want everyone here to accept as a common mission to guarantee quality public education to everyone in America as a matter of right guaranteed by the federal constitution” then he paused and then said “So you remember I will repeat: I want everyone here to accept as a common mission to guarantee quality public education to everyone in America as a matter of right guaranteed by the federal constitution.” Then he sat down.

It was stunning. The University president expecting a long something didn’t know what to say… having previously mis-introduced him as. author of “Racial Equations”

I found the address memorable and it might be well in memory of our friend to rededicate ourselves to the common mission to guarantee quality public education to everyone in America as a matter of right guaranteed by the federal constitution. Bob Moses, Presente!

I previously posted the decision by the Boston School Committee to change the requirements for admission to its elite examination schools. What I didn’t know was that there was a minority report from the school committee’s Task Force that was voted down.

Since then, I learned that there was a minority report by two Task Force members who offered a different approach (actually there were two minority reports). Rosann Tung and Simon Chernow wrote a dissent, printed here in part:

…By dissenting, Simon and I urge Boston Public Schools to go further and faster. BPS will not achieve justice until we eliminate the structures that uphold White supremacy and capitalism — structures like the tracking that is the accelerated grades 4–6 Advanced Work program in some schools and like the three tiers that our high schools still represent (exam, application, and open enrollment). Permanent ranking and sorting are a major root cause of the fact that 40 percent of our schools require assistance or intervention for poor outcomes. Many scholars have shown that children who attend truly diverse schools benefit both academically and socio-emotionally. The segregation of students by race, socioeconomic status, learning style, language, and special needs leads to our most vulnerable students receiving inadequate resources and support.

Another structure that upholds power and privilege is standardized testing. Every standardized test ever created shows group mean differences, because standardized tests measure more than just academic content; in fact, they cement unequal opportunities.

An oft-leveled critique has been that the human, financial, and political capital poured into this admissions process is misguided and should be put into improving the other 120-plus BPS schools. Actually, we believe that when the admissions of the three schools become test-blind and lottery-based, and when all of the students who test well attend more than just three schools, system-wide improvement will accelerate…

Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner write in The Progressive about the ways that charter schools select and remove students. These practices are not permitted in real public schools.

Some make it difficult to apply, like the charter in Philadelphia that required parents to travel to a private golf club in the suburbs to seek admission. Or the charter school that sent recruitment letters, but not to the zip codes with the highest number of black and brown families.

Some charters have rules so strict (“no excuses”) that it is easy to suspend students repeatedly to get rid of them

Are charter schools “public schools,” as their advocates claim? Many are not.

Bruce Baker is a school finance expert at Rutgers. For years, he has been concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability in the charter industry. In this post, he foresees the possibility or likelihood that recent Supreme Court decisions pave the way for charter schools to become religious schools and he suggests a model that would protect the charter concept from being corrupted.

He writes:

Charter schooling is at a critical juncture and the future of charter schooling across US states can take either of two vastly different paths. On the one hand, charter schooling could become increasingly private, more overtly religious, openly discriminatory and decreasingly transparent to voters, taxpayers and the general public.  On the other hand, charter schooling could be made more public and transparent and be shielded from religious intrusion and all that comes with it. We recommend a policy framework which advances the latter and protects against the former.

Maryland, he suggests, has a model for charters that other states should emulate.

Maryland provides one example which is sufficiently tight in this regard. Charter schools are authorized by, governed by and financed through their host county school districts. Further, while private management companies may be hired to “operate” the schools, employees of the schools are under county district contracts. That is, teachers and other certified staff in Maryland charter schools are public employees and themselves “state actors,” even when they work under the direction of a private management company. 

This model provides for increased public transparency, and at the same time, minimizes potential for religious intrusion on the charter sector. A truly public governing board (like the district board of education, appointed or elected) would not be able to exclude from management contracts, firms with religious ties or origins on that basis alone. But, given that instruction is provided by public employees and the school governed by public officials, the school would be bound by constitutional requirements regarding discrimination and the provision of religious curriculum (here, the establishment clause prohibits advancement or promotion of religion).

Fred Klonsky writes that when slaves were emancipated in Washington, D.C. in 1862, the slave owners received payment for the loss of their property, but those who had been enslaved received nothing.

Not everyone thought paying reparations to slaveowners was a good idea.

 “If compensation is to be given at all,” the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said at the National Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia in 1833, “it should be given to the outraged and guiltless slaves, and not to those who have plundered and abused them.”

This article by the political journalist Thomas B. Edsall appeared in the New York Times. I don’t think the title of the original (used here) is accurate or fair. The points I take from the article are

1) when almost everyone has a high school diploma, there is little or no benefit to having one although there is a huge penalty for not having one;

2) the more advanced education one has, the greater the long-term economic benefits;

3) early childhood experiences and education have positive benefits;

4) socioeconomic circumstances of students have a large impact on their success or failure in schools;

5) schools alone cannot overcome the deep and growing inequality in society and do not have the impact that would be produced by progressive taxation and policies that diminish poverty and inequality.

Edsall writes:

There is an ongoing debate over what kind of investments in human capital — roughly the knowledge, skills, habits, abilities, experience, intelligence, training, judgment, creativity and wisdom possessed by an individual — contribute most to productivity and life satisfaction.

Is education no longer “a great equalizer of the conditions of men,” as Horace Mann declared in 1848, but instead a great divider? Can the Biden administration’s efforts to distribute cash benefits to the working class and the poor produce sustained improvements in the lives of those on the bottom tiers of income and wealth — or would a substantial investment in children’s training and enrichment programs at a very early age produce more consistent and permanent results?

Take the case of education. On this score — if the assumption is “the more education, the better” — then the United States looks pretty good.

From 1976 to 2016 the white high school completion rate rose from 86.4 percent to 94.5 percent, the Black completion rate from 73.5 percent to 92.2 percent and the Hispanic completion rate rose from 60.3 percent to 89.1 percent. The graduation rate of whites entering four-year colleges from 1996 to 2012 rose from 33.7 to 43.7 percent, for African Americans it rose from 19.5 to 23.8 percent and for Hispanics it rose from 22.8 to 34.1 percent.

But these very gains appear to have also contributed to the widening disparity in income between those with different levels of academic attainment, in part because of the very different rates of income growth for men and women with high school degrees, college degrees and graduate or professional degrees.

Education lifts all boats, but not by equal amounts.

David Autor, an economist at M.I.T., together with the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, tackled this issue in a paper last year, “Extending the Race Between Education and Technology,” asking: “How much of the overall rise in wage inequality since 1980 can be attributed to the large increase in educational wage differentials?”

Their answer:

Returns to a year of K-12 schooling show little change since 1980. But returns to a year of college rose by 6.5 log points, from 0.076 in 1980 to 0.126 in 2000 to 0.141 in 2017. The returns to a year of post-college (graduate and professional) rose by a whopping 10.9 log points, from 0.067 in 1980 to 0.131 in 2000 and to 0.176 in 2017.

I asked Autor to translate that data into language understandable to the layperson, and he wrote back:

There has been almost no increase in the increment to individual earnings for each year of schooling between K and 12 since 1980. It was roughly 6 percentage points per year in 1980, and it still is. The earnings increment for a B.A. has risen from 30.4 percent in 1980 to 50.4 percent in 2000 to 56.4 percent in 2017. The gain to a four-year graduate degree (a Ph.D., for example, but an M.D., J.D., or perhaps even an M.B.A.) relative to high school was approximately 57 percent in 1980, rising to 127 percent in 2017.

These differences result in large part because ever greater levels of skill — critical thinking, problem-solving, originality, strategizing​ — are needed in a knowledge-based society.

“The idea of a race between education and technology goes back to the Nobel Laureate Jan Tinbergen, who posited that technological change is continually raising skill requirements while education’s job is to supply those rising skill levels,” Autor wrote in explaining the gains for those with higher levels of income. “If technology ‘gets ahead’ of education, the skill premium will tend to rise.”

But something more homely may also be relevant. Several researchers argue that parenting style contributes to where a child ends up in life.

As the skill premium and the economic cost of failing to ascend the education ladder rise in tandem, scholars find that adults are adopting differing parental styles — a crucial form of investment in the human capital of their children — and these differing styles appear to be further entrenching inequality.

Such key factors as the level of inequality, the degree to which higher education is rewarded and the strength of the welfare state are shaping parental strategies in raising children.

In their paper “The Economics of Parenting,” three economists, Matthias Doepke at Northwestern, Giuseppe Sorrenti at University of Zurich and Fabrizio Zilibotti at Yale, describe three basic forms of child rearing:

The permissive parenting style is the scenario where the parent lets the child have her way and refrains from interfering in the choices. The authoritarian style is one where the parent imposes her will through coercion. In the model above, coercion is captured through the notion of restricting the choice set. An authoritarian parent chooses a small set that leaves little or no leeway to the child. The third parenting style, authoritative parenting, is also one where the parent aims to affect the child’s choice. However, rather than using coercion, an authoritative parent uses persuasion: she shapes the child’s preferences through investments in the first period of life. For example, such a parent may preach the virtues of patience or the dangers of risk during when the child is little, so that the child ends up with more adultlike preferences when the child’s own decisions matter during adolescence.

There is an “interaction between economic conditions and parenting styles,” Doepke and his colleagues write, resulting in the following patterns:

Consider, first, a low inequality society, where the gap between the top and the bottom is small. In such a society, there is limited incentive for children to put effort into education. Parents are also less concerned about children’s effort, and thus there is little scope for disagreement between parents and children. Therefore, most parents adopt a permissive parenting style, namely, they keep young children happy and foster their sense of independence so that they can discover what they are good at in their adult life.

The authors cite the Scandinavian countries as key examples of this approach.

Authoritarian parenting, in turn, is most common in less-developed, traditional societies where there is little social mobility and children have the same jobs as their parents:

Parents have little incentive to be permissive in order to let children discover what they are good at. Nor do they need to spend effort in socializing children into adultlike values (i.e., to be authoritative) since they can achieve the same result by simply monitoring them.

Finally, they continue, consider “a high-inequality society”:

There, the disagreement between parents and children is more salient, because parents would like to see their children work hard in school and choose professions with a high return to human capital. In this society, a larger share of parents will be authoritative, and fewer will be permissive.

This model, the authors write, fits the United States and China.

There are some clear downsides to this approach:

Because of the comparative advantage of rich and educated parents in authoritative parenting, there will be a stronger socioeconomic sorting into parenting styles. Since an authoritative parenting style is conducive to more economic success, this sorting will hamper social mobility.

Sorrenti elaborated in an email:

In neighborhoods with higher inequality and with less affluent families, parents tend to be, on average, more authoritarian. Our models and additional analyses show that parents tend to be more authoritarian in response to a social environment perceived as more risky or less inspiring for children. On the other hand, the authoritative parenting styles, aimed at molding child preferences, is a typical parenting style gaining more and more consensus in the U.S., also in more affluent families.

What do these analyses suggest for policies designed to raise those on the lowest tiers of income and educational attainment? Doepke, Sorrenti and Zilibotti agree that major investments in training, socialization and preparation for schooling of very young (4 and under) poor children along the lines of proposals by Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, and Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist, can prove effective.

In an October 2020 paper, Fryer and three colleagues described

a novel early childhood intervention in which disadvantaged 3-4-year-old children were randomized to receive a new preschool and parent education program focused on cognitive and noncognitive skills or to a control group that did not receive preschool education. In addition to a typical academic year program, we also evaluated a shortened summer version of the program in which children were treated immediately prior to the start of kindergarten. Both programs, including the shortened version, significantly improved cognitive test scores by about one quarter of a standard deviation relative to the control group at the end of the year.

Heckman, in turn, recently wrote on his website:

A critical time to shape productivity is from birth to age five, when the brain develops rapidly to build the foundation of cognitive and character skills necessary for success in school, health, career and life. Early childhood education fosters cognitive skills along with attentiveness, motivation, self-control and sociability — the character skills that turn knowledge into know-how and people into productive citizens.

Doepke agreed:

In the U.S., the big achievement gaps across lines of race or social class open up very early, before kindergarten, rather than during college. So for reducing overall human capital inequality, building high quality early child care and preschool would be the first place to start.

Zilibotti, in turn, wrote in an email:

We view our work as complementary to Heckman’s work. First, one of the tenets of his analysis is that preferences and attitudes are ‘malleable,’ especially so at an early age. This is against the view that people’s success or failure is largely determined by genes. A fundamental part of these early age investments is parental investment. Our work adds the dimension of “how?” to the traditional perspective of “how much?” That said, what we call “authoritative parenting style” is relative to Heckman’s emphasis on noncognitive skills.

The expansion of the Heckman $13,500-per-child test pilot program to a universal national program received strong support in an economic analysis of its costs and benefits by Diego Daruich, an economist at the University of Southern California. He argues in his 2019 paper “The Macroeconomic Consequences of Early Childhood Development Policies” that such an enormous government expenditure would produce substantial gains in social welfare, “an income inequality reduction of 7 percent and an increase in intergenerational mobility of 34 percent.”

As the debate over the effectiveness of education in reducing class and racial income differences continues, the Moving to Opportunityproject stresses how children under the age of 13 benefit when they and their families move out of neighborhoods of high poverty concentration into more middle-class communities.

In a widely discussed 2015 paper, “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children,” three Harvard economists, Raj ChettyNathaniel Hendren and Katz, wrote:

Moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children who were young (below age 13) when their families moved. These children also live in better neighborhoods themselves as adults and are less likely to become single parents. The treatment effects are substantial: children whose families take up an experimental voucher to move to a lower-poverty area when they are less than 13 years old have an annual income that is $3,477 (31%) higher on average relative to a mean of $11,270 in the control group in their mid-twenties.

There is a long and daunting history of enduring gaps in scholastic achievement correlated with socioeconomic status in the United States that should temper optimism.

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In a February 2020 paper — “Long-Run Trends in the U.S. SES-Achievement Gap” — Eric A. Hanushek of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, Paul E. Peterson of Harvard’s Kennedy School, Laura M. Talpey of Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy Research and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich report that over nearly 50 years:

The SES-achievement gap between the top and bottom SES quartiles (75-25 SES gap) has remained essentially flat at roughly 0.9 standard deviations, a gap roughly equivalent to a difference of three years of learning between the average student in the top and bottom quartiles of the distribution.

The virtually unchanging SES-achievement gap, the authors continue, “is confirmed in analyses of the achievement gap by subsidized lunch eligibility and in separate estimations by ethnicity that consider changes in the ethnic composition.”

Their conclusion:

The bottom line of our analysis is simply that — despite all the policy efforts — the gap in achievement between children from high- and low-SES backgrounds has not changed. If the goal is to reduce the dependence of students’ achievement on the socio-economic status of their families, re-evaluating the design and focus of existing policy programs seems appropriate. As long as cognitive skills remain critical for the income and economic well-being of U.S. citizens, the unwavering achievement gaps across the SES spectrum do not bode well for future improvements in intergenerational mobility.

The pessimistic implications of this paper have not deterred those devoted to seeking ways to break embedded patterns of inequality and stagnant mobility.

In a November 2019 essay, “We Have the Tools to Reverse the Rise in Inequality,” Olivier Blanchard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard, cited the ready availability of a host of policies with strong support among many economists, political scientists and Democrats:

Many areas have low-hanging fruit: expansion of EITC-type programs, increased public funding of both pre-K and tertiary education; redirection of subsidies to employment-friendly innovation, greater overall progressivity in taxation, and policies to help workers reorganize in the face of new production modes.

Adoption of policies calling for aggressive government intervention raise a crucial question, Autor acknowledged in his email: “whether such interventions would kill the golden goose of U.S. innovation and entrepreneurship.” Autor’s answer:

At this point, I’d say the graver threat is from inaction rather than action. If the citizens of a democracy think that “progress” simply means more inequality and stratification, and rising economic insecurity stemming from technology and globalization, they’re eventually going to “cancel” that plan and demand something else — though those demands may not ultimately lead somewhere constructive (e.g., closing U.S. borders, slapping tariffs on numerous friendly trading partners, and starving the government of tax revenue needed to invest in citizens was never going to lead anywhere good).

A promising approach to the augmentation of human capital lies in the exploration of noncognitive skills — perseverance, punctuality, self-restraint, politeness, thoroughness, postponement of gratification, grit — all of which are increasingly valuable in a service-based economy. Noncognitive skills have proved to be teachable, especially among very young children.

Shelly Lundberg, an economics professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, cites a range of projects and studies, including the Perry Preschool Project, an intensive program for 3-to-4-year-old low-income children “that had long-term impacts on test scores, adult crime and male income.” The potential gains from raising noncognitive skills are wide-ranging, she writes in a chapter of the December 2018 book “Education, Skills, and Technical Change: Implications for Future US GDP Growth”:

Noncognitive skills such as attention and self-control can increase the productivity of educational investments. Disruptive behavior and crime impose negative externalities in schools and communities that increased levels of some noncognitive skills could ameliorate.

But, she cautions,

the state of our knowledge about the production of and returns to noncognitive skills is rather rudimentary. We lack a conceptual framework that would enable us to consistently define multidimensional noncognitive skills, and our reliance on observed or reported behavior as measures of skill make it impossible to reliably compare skills across groups that face different environments.

Education, training in cognitive and noncognitive skills, nutrition, health care and parenting are all among the building blocks of human capital, and evidence suggests that continuing investments that combat economic hardship among whites and minorities — and which help defuse debilitating conflicts over values, culture and race — stand the best chance of reversing the disarray and inequality that plague our political system and our social order.