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  • Improving the Education of Children Living in Poverty
  • Richard J. Murnane (bio)

Richard Murnane observes that the American ideal of equality of educational opportunity has for years been more the rhetoric than the reality of the nation's political life. Children living in poverty, he notes, tend to be concentrated in low-performing schools staffed by ill-equipped teachers. They are likely to leave school without the skills needed to earn a decent living in a rapidly changing economy. Murnane describes three initiatives that the federal government could take to improve the education of these children and increase their chances of escaping poverty. All would strengthen the standards-based reforms at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) by bracing the three legs on which the reforms rest: accountability, incentives, and capacity.

Congress, says Murnane, should improve accountability by amending NCLB to make performance goals more attainable. The goals should emphasize growth in children's skills rather than whether children meet specific test score targets. Congress should also amend NCLB to develop meaningful goals for high school graduation rates.

Congress should strengthen states' incentives to improve the education of low-income students. It should also encourage states to develop effective voluntary school choice programs to enable students who attend failing public schools to move to more successful schools in other districts.

Finally, Congress should use competitive matching grants to build the capacity of schools to educate low-income children and the capacity of state departments of education to boost the performance of failing schools and districts. The grants would help develop effective programs to improve teaching and to serve students who do not fare well in conventional high school programs.

Murnane estimates the annual cost of these three initiatives to be approximately $2.5 billion.

Richard J. Murnane

Richard J. Murnane is the Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


1. Data are from the Current Population Survey and were taken from the Economic Policy Institute Data Zone,

2. Richard J. Murnane and others, "How Important Are the Cognitive Skills of Teenagers in Predicting Subsequent Earnings?" Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 19, no. 4 (Fall 2000): 547-68.

3. Richard J. Murnane, John B. Willett, and Frank Levy, "The Growing Importance of Cognitive Skills," Review of Economics and Statistics 77, no. 2 (May 1995): 251-66.

4. National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2005 Mathematics Assessment (U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences).

5. Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters, "Locating the Dropout Crisis—Which High Schools Produce the Nation’s Dropouts? Where Are They Located? Who Attends Them?" (Johns Hopkins University, September 2004),

6. For example, 16 percent of public school students in Boston have limited English proficiency, compared with 5 percent of students statewide (

7. This description of standards-based educational reforms is taken from Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market (Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 134-35.

8. See Center on Education Policy, Title I Funds: Who’s Gaining, Who’s Losing and Why (Washington, 2004),

9. Robert L. Linn, "Accountability: Responsibility and Reasonable Expectations," Educational Researcher 32, no. 7 (October 2003): 7.

10. For a discussion of the difficulties in getting the incentives right in accountability systems and the consequences of not doing so, see Helen F. Ladd and Randall P. Walsh, "Implementing Value-Added Measures of School Effectiveness: Getting the Incentives Right," Economics of Education Review 21, no. 1 (February 2002): 1-17.

11. Robert L. Linn, "Fixing the NCLB Accountability System," Policy Brief 8 (Los Angeles, Calif.: Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, Summer 2005).

12. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "Education at a Glance: Highlights" (Paris, 2006), p. 10,, p. 10

13. Robert Linn is...


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