Thursday, August 7, 2014

Study Says Money and Family Cast Long Shadow

I'm just going to steal the lede from the article on John Hopkins HUB website in June:

In a groundbreaking study, Johns Hopkins University researchers followed nearly 800 Baltimore schoolchildren for a quarter of a century, and discovered that their fates were substantially determined by the family they were born into.

Karl Alexander and the late Doris Entwistle published the results of the study in April-- The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood. (h/t to former student George Kroner).

Researchers picked up their subjects' lives in First Grade, back in 1982, tracking them through age 28 or 29. They interviewed the children and their families extensively and repeatedly over time. This book is actually the fourth in a series of works based on the study data. Here's some of the data points from this work.

Of the 790 students, only 33 children born into the low-income bracket moved into the high-income bracket-- about half of what would have been predicted if family were not a factor.

Almost none of the low-income children made it through college.

Among non-college attenders, low-income white guys landed the best jobs.

White women benefited from marriage in terms of stability and income.

Most likely to abuse drugs and alcohol? Better-off white men. But they were also least likely to suffer bad consequences for that behavior. The arrest rates of abusers was similar regardless of race, but whites with records were still able to land jobs. African Americans, not so much. The study posits that the white men have a network that keeps them tied into employment opportunities even when they've made some bad choices.

I've scanned portions of the book (it is very much written by academic sociologists. The chapter about neighborhoods and schools yields a couple of observations worth noting.

The first is not exactly shocking. Poor students from poor neighborhoods get schools that have fewer resources. Neighborhoods with few economic resources get economically strapped schools. Or at least they did in West Baltimore a few decades ago. The authors also note that Africa American students are far more likely to attend a low-economic level school than whites.

The second s more subtle, involving forces the at affect social cohesion:

Two forces are at play in this account of urban disadvantage. The first, residential instability, is centripetal; it scatters families. The second, the retreat from public space into the protective cocoon of family life, is centrifugal; it isolates families from one another. Both forces weaken community cohesion.

That cohesion emerges as a major factor in the work. The advantage that money and family confer is a network of support that pulls folks back up when things go south. Community cohesion, a connection to family and friends who want to help and who have the economic resources to help-- that emerges from this study as one of life's big advantages.

There are huge implications here for the whole "Your school shouldn't be determined by your zip code crowd." If there is a definite advantage in life to coming from a cohesive connected community, breaking apart communities by scattering the students is exactly the wrong thing to do. Closing neighborhood schools and dispersing the students to the four corners of Newark or New Orleans becomes just one more force weakening community cohesion and denying students the advantage that such cohesion provides.

I see two implications in this study. One is that we should be using schools to increase community cohesion. To anyone who attended schools that had this quality, this seems as obvious as air, but many reformsters are convinced that a high quality charter is more important.

The second implication is also obvious. If the neighborhood school lacks economic resources, get it some. Fund the schools in the neighborhood just as well as you fund the schools in the rich ones.

Neither of these implications is news. But here's a study to back them up. There are other details to consider-- race is clearly a factor in much of what goes on here, but I'm not sure to what extent the study addresses racism. The whole set of four books are clearly not an easy read, but are valuable nonetheless.


  1. Now, how we we get education deformers to read this study?

  2. Community cohesion? Have you lived in a middle class neighborhood? Didn't know my neighbors and didn't want to. In a poor neighborhood people know eachother far better. I have experienced both. Perhaps the white guys did better because are more likely to give them another shot.