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Do better schools help the poor?

Data suggest they don't. A better approach is investment in communities.

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If taxpayers were not already frustrated enough by the performance of public schools, their mood was probably not improved by the release of contrasting manifestoes in June by two prominent organizations dedicated to improving education.

Whether the case made by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) or the one by the Education Equality Project (EEP) prevails depends in large part on the willingness of voters to put aside their personal biases and confront the evidence.

At issue is the academic achievement gap between racial groups. Despite protracted efforts in the past decade, this problem continues to plague the nation. The policy debate takes on special urgency during this summer of presidential conventions, and special meaning as the US struggles to compete in the new global economy.

On one side are those who agree with the EPI. Its "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education" initiative maintains that the best schools with the best teachers cannot do the job expected of them without help. This group points to the disproportionate influence of factors beyond the control of educators in the performance of students.

Data from the US Department of Education, for example, show that disadvantaged children enter kindergarten already three months behind the national average in reading and math skills – and never catch up. These children bring huge deficits in socialization, motivation, and intellectual development to class that simply overwhelm teachers and schools.

On the other side are those who agree with the EEP. They insist that schools can overcome these setbacks if they are reformed through stiffer measures aimed at making them more accountable. By using strategies that provide greater parental choice, for example, schools will be forced to improve or will eventually find themselves without students.

This side argues that the proper use of carrots and sticks – the same incentives that shape behavior of other professionals – can lead to positive results for students.

Which is right?

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