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4 EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY  S chooling is key to acquiring the skills and credentials needed to take advantage of opportunities, from obtaining consumer goods and services at reasonable prices to participating in the larger culture and finding gainful employment. Increasingly, success in our information-based society depends on our ability to manage the avalanche of information confronting us in every domain of life, particularly in our jobs. Admittedly, not all occupational categories require increasing levels of education. In fact, some forms of technology are being used by employers to automate processes in ways that reduce the need to invest in human capital. However, there is little doubt that higher-paying occupations are demanding more and more education. Technological changes in the world of work confer increasing advantages on workers with higher educational attainment and disadvantages on those with lower education levels. The most direct measure of the advantages of education involves income differences: more educated people earn higher wages. Researchers disagree somewhat on why this is true, some believing that the knowledge and skills obtained in school enhance the ability to perform valuable work, while others think that diplomas and degrees signal to employers that the graduate has demonstrated an ability to meet the challenges posed by teachers and tests and that this ability to “navigate in the system”—more than the knowledge obtained—is valued by employers. Whatever the explanation, there is no doubt that having more education increases a worker’s chances for earnings. Educational attainment, however, creates benefits beyond the level of individuals . In a knowledge economy, productivity growth within metropolitan areas is largely driven by shifts toward more skilled employment. Hence, the economic well-being of the region’s population as a whole depends on broadly increasing the skill levels and productivity of the citizenry. As Chapter 2 showed, the economy operates regionally, with people commuting in many directions across local borders. In effect, every resident of the region, no matter where she or he lives, has a stake in the quality of the regional labor force, because that labor force is a commonly shared asset that affects the productivity of all of the region’s employers. Yet the educational experiences and achievements of students in different communities are dramatically uneven. How Do Educational Opportunities Differ across the Region? To portray the differing levels of educational opportunity available in different parts of the region, we must first decide how to measure the quality of educational opportunity. Some studies have used measures of the resources applied to education, like expenditures per student or the student-teacher ratio. While these are important pieces of information about school districts, we believe a better measure of the quality of education in different communities is student achievement, which most consumers of public education see as the important consideration in choosing a school. When we surveyed households in the greater Philadelphia region about how they judged the quality of schools in their area, less than 4 percent of respondents cited the dollars spent per student as an indicator of school quality, but the most important indicator of quality was the percent of students graduating from area schools who go on to college—cited by 24 percent of respondents.1 (Other important indicators of quality cited by our survey respondents included class size, up-to-date resources like computers and textbooks, and the proportion of students obtaining jobs after graduation.) At least since the Coleman Report,2 educators have known that an individual student’s chances of succeeding are significantly higher when she or he is surrounded by high-performing students. The aspirations and achievements of a child’s schoolmates represent an important component of the opportunity to learn and succeed. Following this logic, we chose to measure the quality of opportunity in different school districts according to a standardized measure of student achievement—namely, the average combined Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores earned by high school students in the district. Although SAT scores have well-known drawbacks as measures of individual student abilities, their virtue for our purpose is their standardization across schools and districts. Since the control of schools is local, most measures of school or student performance vary widely across places. Even where there are E D U C A T I O N A L O P P O R T U N I T Y 111 attempts to impose wider standards, as in the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program, evaluation methods vary by state. As...


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