Friday, May 17, 2013

Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances

reviewed by Rollande Deslandes — May 10, 2013

coverTitle: Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances
Author(s): Greg J. Duncan & Richard J. Murnane (eds.)
Publisher: Russell Sage Foundation, New York
ISBN: 0871543729, Pages: 528, Year: 2011
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This volume is about rising inequality and its impact on the educational attainment of American children. The authors are concerned that social and economic inequalities limit social mobility. They also discuss promising avenues to improve the life chances of children growing up in impoverished families and neighborhoods. The volume brings together 51 contributors and includes 25 chapters divided into six parts. The rationale for this actual part division is based on an ecological perspective framework. The two editors, Duncan and Murnane, in their introduction, posit that income inequality has an impact on families, neighborhoods and labor markets which in turn affects school functioning and children’s educational performance and attainments. 

The volume is divided into six parts: (1) Overview, (2) the Developing Child and Adolescent, (3) the Family, (4) the Neighborhoods, (5) the Labor Markets, and (6) the Schools. From the beginning, the tone is rather pessimistic and at alarming pace: Are there any solutions? Will there be a light at the end of the tunnel? That is the question that challenges me from the start. From the outset, I would like to remind the readers that a book review can hardly do justice to the wide scope and extent of such a collective work. I sometimes dwell on chapters that have caught my attention more.

In the Developing Child and Adolescent part, Nelson and Sheridan argue that since the brain is more plastic in early years, they are in favor of early interventions that are more cost-effective. Much is said about the predictive power of school-entry skills of later school achievement. Duncan and Magnuson as well as Farkas conclude that persistent problems such as low math and reading test scores associated with learning behavior problems explain in great part the persistent achievement gap between children from low and high-income. On his side, Reardon warns that this gap has been increasing over the past 40 years in U.S.A, and that it may lead to reduced intergenerational mobility. Bailey and Dynarski highlight the existence of such a gap in postsecondary education. On their part, Jacob and Wilder Linkow contend that almost everyone expects to go to college but the majority of students update their expectations starting in the middle school years; hence the importance of helping them in their academic performance during those years. As Reardon says: “As the children of the rich do better in school are more likely to become rich, we risk producing an even more unequal and economically polarized society” (p.111).

Regarding the Family part, Hout and Janus attempt to describe what educated parents do in order to promote learning and to instill in their children the importance of education and of pursuing it through postsecondary schooling. Interestingly, they declare: “Downward educational mobility actually increased in recent years as the enrollment capacity of colleges and universities failed to keep up with population growth and rising aspirations” (p. 183). Dropping out of college, just as dropping out of high school, appears to be an important problem. According Kaushal, Magnuson and Waldfogel, low-income families invest less in home learning materials such as books or computers, in enrichment or extracurricular activities like summer camps or in school-related assistance (tutoring). Philips, on her part, reminds the reader of the low school readiness of children from poorer families. She takes a quite enriching approach when she suggests modifying some processes that lead to differences in academic preparedness and progress. She focuses on interactive time between the parent and the child. Reading to the child, adult-child conversations including mealtime conversations and involvement in novel contexts (non routine activities) contribute to the development of knowledge, verbal skills, vocabularies, cognitive and analytic thinking skills. Playing sports and participating in structured activities are reported to be associated with higher scores in math and fewer behavior problems. As for Sweeney, she recalls the increasing prevalence of single-parent families in today’s society and its contribution to creating variation between children’s educational attainment. Living in nontraditional families is linked to fewer economic and parenting resources, lower school engagement and performance and higher level of school-behavior problems.

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