Reinvigorating the American Dream: A Broader Bolder Approach to Tackling the Achievement Gap

02/24/2012 09:24 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2012

Rising income and wealth inequality has eroded economic opportunity in America. The potential of education to overcome adversity and our collective belief in a fluid social structure continue to be hailed as evidence that everyone has access to a path out of poverty. Yet recent research findings make clear that our faith in the American Dream stands on very shaky ground. Indeed, it seems that our education system may be compounding, rather than countering, the disadvantages faced by millions of low-income children.

A recent New York Times article highlights the impact of growing economic stratification on achievement gaps in American schools. Citing the Russell Sage compendium Whither Opportunity?, the article explains how the overall increase in income inequality since the 1960s has had detrimental effects on the school performance and college completion rates of low-income students compared with their wealthier peers. This is backed by OECD and Pew Chartable Trusts findings that U.S. society is not only less mobile than most Americans believe, but less so than most of our Western counterparts.

Importantly, their research finds that student achievement in the United States is more closely linked to parental education and to socioeconomic status than is true in most European countries. Bestselling author Daniel Pink makes the point, too, in a recent blog post noting the tight correlation between family income and SAT scores.

While the heightened attention paid to education policy, exemplified by federal policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, is a positive signal that the public and policymakers are eager to address the problems at hand, many of the "reforms" miss the mark. Yes, education is a way out of poverty -- but poverty is also a hindrance to education.

As such, addressing in-school factors in a vacuum -- with no consideration of the problems facing the wider community -- cannot do enough to improve educational outcomes or to narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers. This makes sense: English-language-learners with non-English-speaking parents are more likely to struggle academically than those whose parents can help them read in English or complete homework assignments, regardless of the quality of their teachers. Children whose parents cannot afford to enroll them in preschool during critical early years or in afterschool and summer programs face added barriers to educational attainment. A student whose physical health is compromised by food insecurity or who is stressed from living in a violent or degraded environment is set back academically in ways that even great teachers cannot fully counter. As Jean Anyon has noted, trying to reform inner-city schools without improving conditions in their cities is like cleaning the air on one side of a screen door.

This reality should serve as a clarion call for policymakers looking to make a difference in American education. Researchers and educators have identified an array of initiatives that can alleviate poverty-related gaps and successfully improve low-income students' educational outcomes. First and foremost are measures to increase family income and well-being through improved employment outcomes and public benefits. Quality preschool programs, school-based health clinics, nutritional support programs, and afterschool and summer enrichment have all been shown to narrow income-based achievement gaps.

School reformers must embrace and incorporate into their efforts policies to attack poverty directly. This adds to the challenges they face, but it is truly essential -- and certainly not impossible. Doing so will ensure that education is truly a path towards prosperity and an antidote to rising economic inequality.