A dire prediction: The achievement gap will grow

I make a discouraging prediction: academic achievement gaps between advantaged children and the various categories of disadvantaged children will grow in coming years, and education policy will be powerless to prevent this.

A recent Economic Policy Institute analysis suggests the impact of our stagnant employment rate on children’s welfare. Consider, for example, the unusually severe labor market adversity experienced by black families, and how this is likely to affect the black-white achievement gap that receives so much well-deserved attention in education policy.

– Although the national unemployment rate for whites is now 8 percent, for African-Americans it is 17 percent.

– Although the underemployment rate (including those who have given up looking for work, and those who have taken part time jobs because full time work is unavailable) for whites is now 13 percent, for African-Americans it is 25 percent.

– Although 8 percent of white children had an unemployed parent during an average month in 2010, 16 percent of African-American children had such a parent.

– Because African-American children are more likely to be in single parent homes than whites (67 percent vs. 24 percent), they are also more likely to have been in homes where no parent was working at some time during the past year.

Parental unemployment has a demonstrable impact on student achievement. When parents suffer unemployment, parents’ stress increases and they are more likely to discipline their children arbitrarily, leading to children themselves attending school in greater stress and less able to perform to the top of their ability.

When parents suffer unemployment, they are more likely to lose health insurance; their children are less likely to get routine and preventive health care, are more likely to suffer from untreated asthma, toothaches, and earaches, and uncorrected vision problems, all of which contribute to school absenteeism and less ability to perform in schools.

When parents suffer unemployment, they are more likely to lose their homes, or fall behind in rent, leading to more frequent moves and interrupted schooling for their children. When parents suffer unemployment, they are more likely to shift their youngest children from more expensive (and higher-quality) early childhood programs to less expensive (and lower-quality) programs.

Even children of employed parents are suffering from the weak labor market: 38 percent of families have suffered an erosion of wages, hours worked or benefits. Many have also lost health insurance in the last year. All of these adverse impacts of the recession disproportionately affect African-Americans, Hispanics and low-income families.

Even if the modest job creation policies now being advanced by President Obama were to be enacted, and unemployment were to fall somewhat, the accumulated effects of the economic crisis will permanently damage a generation of children. The first five are the most important years of a child’s development. When parents are in economic crisis during their children’s infancy and early childhood, the damage to children’s healthy maturation permanently diminishes their future prospects. Today’s disparate experience of unemployment by parental group will be reflected not only in their young children’s relative school readiness, but in an achievement gap of high schoolers a decade hence and then in disparate adult earnings throughout their working careers.

Education policymakers devote great time and effort these days to a variety of school interventions – improving teacher quality, creating common standards, offering greater school choice. These may make a difference, but will be overwhelmed by the immediate and long-term consequences of our failure to attack unemployment with sufficient vigor. As a result, our achievement gaps will grow and whatever positive effect new school interventions may have will be swamped by the array of calamities accompanying persistent high unemployment –  parental stress, housing instability, inadequate health care, and other impacts of reduced income on parental ability to nurture their children and deliver them to school ready to learn.