A Matter of Class
Educational Achievement Reflects Family Background More Than Ethnicity or Immigration
By Sandraluz Lara-Cinisomo, Anne R. Pebley, Mary E. Vaiana, Elizabeth Maggio, Mark Berends, and Samuel R. Lucas
Sandraluz Lara-Cinisomo is an associate behavioral scientist at RAND. Anne Pebley is a senior research associate at RAND and the Bixby professor of public health and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Mary Vaiana is communications director of RAND Health, a division of the RAND Corporation. Elizabeth Maggio is a communications analyst at RAND. Mark Berends, a RAND consultant, is associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. Sam Lucas is associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
We at the RAND Corporation have found that the most important factors associated with the educational achievement of children are not race, ethnicity, or immigrant status. Instead, the most critical factors appear to be socioeconomic ones. These factors include parental education levels, neighborhood poverty, parental occupational status, and family income.
Our findings cannot apply to the entire population of U.S. students engaged in all courses of study at all grade levels. The data do not exist to allow for such a comprehensive analysis. However, we have reached similar conclusions by studying two separate samples of U.S. students: a local, early childhood sample and a national, high school sample.
In a study of children in 65 Los Angeles neighborhoods, we found that the two factors associated most strongly with school readiness are (1) the educational attainment of mothers and (2) neighborhood poverty. For this reason, school-readiness programs should target children whose mothers are poorly educated and children who live in poor neighborhoods.
In a study of mathematics achievement among a national sample of high school students, we found that improved socioeconomic conditions among blacks and Latinos correspond strongly to decreases in the mathematics test score gaps — both between blacks and whites and between Latinos and whites. For this reason, socioeconomic policies that benefit lower-income families and communities should be recognized also as educational policies on behalf of the children in these families and communities.
In both cases, we found that education policy for disadvantaged families and communities should not be limited to conventional education policy alone. Current national policy is a case in point. One of the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act is to reduce the educational achievement gaps among students of different races and ethnicities.
Our findings suggest that education policies intended to benefit racial and ethnic minorities can be more successful if policymakers focus less on racial and ethnic factors and more on socioeconomic ones. Education policies alone, when not combined with socioeconomic policies, will be less successful. From preschool to high school, education policies should be coordinated with family and welfare policies — a complex, yet critical interplay that is often ignored by policymakers.
School Readiness: What Matters Most
“School readiness” means that children have acquired the social, mental, and physical skills that prepare them for classroom learning before they start school. Many programs promote school readiness: parenting classes, early childhood intervention programs, early childhood enrichment programs (such as Head Start), public library reading programs, and efforts to improve child-care quality. Evaluations show that effective programs designed to help poor children become ready for school can be very good investments. The question is where to target the resources for the best payoff.
To help answer the question, RAND researchers surveyed families and children in a random sample of 3,010 households in 65 Los Angeles neighborhoods. The researchers also gave standardized math and reading tests to the children and a reading test to the mothers in these families. The survey and tests helped us to assess the correlation between school readiness and two household dimensions: the home literacy environment and parenting behavior.
The home literacy environment consists of the availability of children’s books at home, time spent reading to children, visits to the library, and the amount of television that children watch. Parenting behavior involves disciplinary practices and the degree of warmth that parents show their children.
We found that most young Angelenos have books, are read to regularly, and go to the library regularly. However, many children in poorer neighborhoods and those whose mothers have not completed high school are disadvantaged in terms of reading-related activities. In this respect, Latino children appear to be particularly disadvantaged. They have less access to books at home, are less likely to be read to, and are less likely to use the library regularly. We found that children who are regularly read to and regularly visit the library have significantly higher reading and math scores.
As for parenting behavior, we found that less discipline and greater parental warmth are associated with fewer behavior problems for children, regardless of ethnicity, immigrant status, or neighborhood. Therefore, programs that improve the home literacy environment and improve parenting skills are likely to improve school readiness, even for children from disadvantaged families and neighborhoods.
We examined how the two household dimensions — the home literacy environment and parenting behavior — varied across major Los Angeles social groups. We defined the groups by ethnicity, immigrant status (measured by mother’s place of birth), mother’s educational attainment, and neighborhood poverty. The two characteristics associated most strongly with school readiness turned out to be mother’s educational attainment and neighborhood poverty.
Consistently, the test scores of kids rose with their moms’ education (see Figures 1 and 2). Among moms with a high school education or less, about 30 percent of the kids scored low in reading. But among moms who finished college, nearly all of the kids scored in the high and middle ranges on the reading test. Among moms with a high school education or less, about 40 percent of the kids scored low in math. But among moms who finished college, more than 90 percent of the kids scored in the high and middle ranges on the math test. These findings suggest that children of poorly educated mothers are at a disadvantage and thus are an important target group for school-readiness programs.
Figure 3 shows how strongly a mother’s education influences her children’s reading and math skills when other factors are held constant. Kids whose mothers had at least some college do significantly better than the national average on the reading tests. Kids whose mothers finished college do significantly better in both reading and math. Well-educated mothers, even in poor neighborhoods, are likely to have kids who do well in reading and math.
Mothers’ educational attainment is important even when mothers’ reading scores are held constant. In other words, the link between mothers’ education and children’s scores does not seem to be due entirely to the fact that more-educated mothers can read better themselves. Rather, more-educated mothers may be more likely to understand the importance of learning basic skills early — especially basic skills connected with school. These moms may also be more likely to understand the learning process and how to help their kids develop the skills they need.
On average, Latino and African American children and those who have immigrant parents score lower on reading and math tests than other children. However, we found that the differences in socioeconomic status — particularly in the mother’s education — account for all of the differences in scores that might otherwise be attributed to differences of ethnicity or immigrant status.
In other words, ethnicity and immigrant status themselves are not important predictors of school readiness. In fact, children whose parents were born outside the United States do better on basic skills tests than kids with U.S.-born parents once socioeconomic factors (including mother’s education) are taken into account.
These findings on ethnicity and immigrant status are very important. They suggest that school-readiness programs should focus on the children of poorly educated mothers rather than on particular ethnic or immigrant groups. The findings also suggest that children of all ethnic groups and immigrant statuses can be well prepared for school if they are given the same set of advantages.
With regard to neighborhood poverty, we found that it is a very strong predictor not of basic skills acquisition but rather of behavior problems among young children — problems that impede school readiness. Children in poor neighborhoods are significantly more likely to exhibit both anxious and aggressive behavior, even regardless of parenting behavior. Other factors — ethnicity, mother’s immigrant status, and mother’s education — don’t matter much here, either.
We can only conclude that living in a poor neighborhood may be particularly stressful for young children. Poor neighborhoods may increase the stress levels of parents and older siblings and thus indirectly increase the stress among younger children. Poor neighborhoods may also prevent young children from playing outside or affect the behavior of their playmates.
Policymakers and communities can use these findings to improve school-readiness programs, but the resources are limited. To begin to close the schoolreadiness gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children, it is important to focus the resources on the children who need them the most. The children most in need appear to be those whose mothers are poorly educated and those who live in poor neighborhoods.
Math Achievement: What Matters Most
With the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, states and school districts across the country are required to monitor the achievement gaps among students from different socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups (and between disabled students and other students). So it is important to understand the factors that are related to student test score gaps.
We at RAND focused on the mathematics test score gaps for black and Latino students relative to white students in 1972, 1982, and 1992. We analyzed how changes in family and school conditions corresponded to changes in the test score gaps over time.
We saw significant reductions in both the blackwhite and Latino-white gaps in math scores. Between 1972 and 1992, the black-white gap narrowed by 20 percent, and the Latino-white gap narrowed by 32 percent (see Figure 4).
We found that the socioeconomic conditions of black students improved relative to white students throughout the two decades of our study. In contrast, the socioeconomic conditions of Latino students improved relative to white students only during the first decade. In both cases, the improving socioeconomic circumstances of blacks and Latinos consistently corresponded to the simultaneous improvements in student achievement relative to whites.
The families of black students made progress relative to the families of white students in all three categories of socioeconomic circumstances that we analyzed: parents’ educational attainment, occupational status, and income. Black mothers had almost one year of education less than white mothers in 1972. But by 1992 this education gap narrowed to about half a year (see Figure 5). Black fathers also made educational gains relative to white fathers.
To gauge trends in occupational status, we relied on the Duncan Socioeconomic Index, which assigns each occupational category a score from 7.22 to 70.21 based on the income and education associated with each occupation. We used the maximum score reported for the father or mother in each family. In 1972, the black-white gap in average occupational status on the Duncan scale was nearly 20 points. But by 1992, the gap contracted to about 9 points (see Figure 6).
To gauge income trends, we tracked the percentage of families whose household incomes fell within the lowest income quintile reported nationally each decade by the U.S. Census Bureau. As shown in Figure 7, the proportion of black students living among the nation’s poorest families decreased dramatically between 1972 and 1992, from 61 percent to 41 percent. The proportion of white students in poor families also decreased, from 30 percent to 19 percent.
Therefore, the percentage of poor families fell by a greater amount among blacks than among whites, meaning that the “poverty gap” shrank. The proportion of black students who still live in poverty is substantial, but the progress of blacks relative to whites is noteworthy. Overall, we found that the combined improvements in socioeconomic measures among black families (including parents’ education, occupation, and income) correlated with a 57-percent decrease in the black-white gap in math scores from 1972 to 1992.
For Latino families, some socioeconomic conditions improved. But the positive trends among Latinos did not allow them to reduce the socioeconomic gap relative to whites, because the conditions among whites improved even more.
Both the mothers and fathers of Latino students had an extra year of schooling in 1992 than in 1972. But white parents made educational gains that were even greater. Likewise, the percentage of Latino students living in poor households fell from 57 percent to 49 percent over the two decades. But the “poverty gap” between Latinos and whites grew slightly (see Figure 7). Only the gap in occupational status shrank between Latino and white households, from about 18 points in 1972 to about 13 points in 1992, using the Duncan scale.
Overall, the socioeconomic conditions of Latino students worsened relative to those of white students, especially during the later decade of 1982 to 1992. In fact, the diverging socioeconomic fortunes for Latinos over this later decade corresponded to a divergence, or net increase, in the Latino-white test score gap during the same time, a sharp departure from the previous decade.
The high schools attended by black and Latino students also experienced long-term trends that corresponded with increasing the gaps in test scores. In particular, these high schools became increasingly populated with higher proportions of minority students from 1972 to 1992.
A high minority composition is often viewed as a proxy for schools that have historically been segregated and underserved by the education system in terms of high-quality resources, services, and instruction. Indeed, we found that the convergence of black-white and Latino-white test scores might have been greater from 1972 to 1992 if the minority composition of the schools attended by the black and Latino students had remained the same as in 1972.
But there was one notably positive change in students’ educational opportunities within schools. In 1972, only 28 percent of black students reported being in the academic track, whereas 41 percent reported such placement in 1992. Among Latino students, only 26 percent reported academic track placement in 1972, compared with 37 percent in 1992. In both years, 47 percent of white students reported academic track placement. We found that the shrinking gaps in academic track placement corresponded to 59 percent of the shrinking gap in black-white test scores and to 34 percent of the shrinking gap in Latino-white test scores.
In sum, the key factors associated with narrowing the gaps in math scores for black and Latino students were (1) improved socioeconomic conditions among their families and (2) expanded placement in academic tracks. The key factor associated with widening the gap for both black and Latino students was the growing minority composition of the schools they attended.
For Latino students, the story is slightly more complex. The socioeconomic conditions of Latino families first improved and then worsened relative to white families, eventually canceling each other out with respect to both family well-being and student test scores. The heavy minority composition of the schools corresponded to a further widening of the Latinowhite test score gap. Only the expanded academic track placement among Latino students corresponded with a steady reduction in the test score gap, perhaps allowing the Latinos to make up ground lost elsewhere.
Our findings have several policy implications. Because of the strong correspondence between improved socioeconomic circumstances and decreased gaps in test scores, the particularly worthwhile policies are those that promote socioeconomic progress — educational attainment, occupational advancement, and wage increases — among the parents of black and Latino students.
A key factor in improving the socioeconomic circumstances of future parents is access to higher education today. While there is a great deal of controversy about providing racial preferences for college admission, policymakers need to think about revising affirmative action policies to provide black and Latino students with opportunities for higher education.
Our analyses also show that there were significant advances in achievement for black and Latino students who reported academic track placement. A large portion of the convergences in mathematics scores over time corresponded to the growing percentages of black and Latino students who reported college track placement relative to white students. Therefore, educational policies that require students to take college preparatory courses are likely to further narrow the achievement gap, or at least keep it from widening.
We found that an increasing percentage of minority students were attending high schools with heavy minority concentrations — and that this trend was associated with diverging test scores. Policies that address the increasing racial isolation of students in schools can certainly be controversial. However, recent policy initiatives of some states and school districts to balance school funding across all schools as well as to balance the racial composition of the schools are likely to be worthwhile.
Another worthy policy would be to use socioeconomic measures, such as family income, for admissions purposes in elementary and secondary schools. Such a policy may hold some promise in ameliorating school problems related to poverty. Simultaneously, school districts may be able to use socioeconomic measures to preserve racial and ethnic diversity in schools.
Other educational policies that have gained currency include school choice, vouchers, and charter schools. While choice plans may have some benefit for creating more racially diverse schools, the evidence is far from complete about whether the plans reduce racial isolation across the nation as a whole or whether they contribute directly to closing achievement gaps. As choice plans are developed and implemented under the No Child Left Behind Act, the next few years will be telling in terms of the positive and negative effects of different choice policies.
Beyond any specific policies that may contribute to the closing of the achievement gaps — whether by providing more support to families, increasing educational opportunities, or decreasing racial isolation — it is important to understand that educational policies should be coordinated with socioeconomic policies. If we do not consider how educational policies complement or conflict with policies related to family welfare, work, poverty, housing, and neighborhood conditions, then we will continue to face significant obstacles in attaining our goal to narrow the achievement gaps.