From 2004-2006, I gave all my donations to organizations focused on helping inner-city youth (particularly academically). Equality of opportunity was my favorite cause, and I assumed (without having time to really look into it) that inequality stemmed from the gap in quality between different grade schools. I now believe that this assumption was badly wrong, and that as a result, my donations were mistargeted.
The most surprising thing I’ve learned about the achievement gap between black and white / low-income and high-income students is how early in life the gap is present. Every source I’ve looked at is consistent in this regard: children from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds have large, systematic differences in academic performance in kindergarten, and these differences grow only slightly as children get older. In other words, most of the systematic academic inequality we observe is present by age 5. There is a good deal of literature on this subject, but the paper I’d recommend for starting to take a look is “Understanding Trends in the Black-White Achievement Gaps during the First Years of School” by Murnane, Willet, Bub, and McCartney (Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs, 2006).
This is a relatively simple observation, but it completely changes the way I think about promoting equality of opportunity in the U.S.
- It makes me much more interested in interventions that focus on early childhood, the period during which most of the “achievement gap” appears.
- It makes me much more skeptical of the idea that equalizing children’s schools will equalize their educations, something that once seemed obvious to me. It makes me much less optimistic about what one can accomplish with “small schools” (a Gates-backed initiative that has produced disappointing results), private-school scholarships, etc. (The Murnane paper also references research on disappointing results from programs in this category.)
- It makes me especially skeptical of low-intensity grade-school or high-school interventions such as after-school tutoring. I find it very possible that a few hours of extra help a week just aren’t enough to make a dent in deep-rooted disadvantages.
I think it’s interesting that this extremely basic, fundamental, and important fact about the achievement gap – how much of the gap is present by age 5 – has not come up in any of our conversations with (or applications from) charities themselves. That includes both education charities and child-care charities. It seems to me that most development and fundraising professionals are focused on reinforcing and serving donors’ existing assumptions; if you want to challenge your assumptions to get the best understanding possible, you have to look elsewhere.