Societal conditions, such as income inequality and residential segregation, and social institutions, such as families, intersect with the educational process in ways that have profound implications for efforts to reduce group disparities. These conditions lead to disparities in the resources that are available to support children’s learning and development in their families, schools, and neighborhoods. Combined with the differential treatment of children and parents who are racial, ethnic, and linguistic minorities, these disparities contribute to between-group differences in important educational outcomes (Reardon, 2016; Ribar, 2015).
This societal/institutional framework is consistent with the emerging consensus among child development and neuroscience researchers. This “brain science” or psychosocial framework connects childhood and adolescent learning outcomes with the brain’s responses to chronic stress and some forms of adversity; it includes a causal model based on neurochemistry, physiology, neuroanatomical plasticity, epigenetics, and related fields (Cantor et al., 2018; Osher et al., 2018). These two frameworks—the societal/institutional and the psychosocial/biomedical—together help in understanding the social determinants of learning. This framework is analogous to the social determinants of health, a familiar construct in medicine and public health.
With this framework in mind, this chapter discusses an interrelated set of contextual factors that affect academic engagement, progress, and attainment. Although these factors are largely beyond the control of the education system, we raise them because they strongly affect individual
students, disproportionately affect certain groups of students, and merit an intentional societal response to improve educational equity.
Families have been called the smallest schools because of the vital role they play in children’s education and development (Barton and Coley, 2007, p. 2):
Indeed . . . the foundation established and nurtured at home goes a long way in ensuring student achievement in school as well as success in later life. The important educational role of parents, however, is often overlooked in our local, state and national discussions about raising student achievement and closing achievement gaps.
Some of the same characteristics that are important in schools also are important in families: financial resources, the number of children and adults present in the home (family structure), and the quality of the environment and relationships in that environment. Differences in these types of family resources and supports are associated with between-group differences in children’s school-related outcomes.
One of the most important resources families can have is sufficient income. Adequate income allows families to live in a safe, unpolluted neighborhood, have access to good schools, not worry about having enough money to pay the rent or having to move frequently—and possibly change schools—when rents increase, be able to afford preventative visits to the doctor, and be able to withstand emergencies. Yet the continually shrinking middle class and widening gaps between the highest and lowest income groups in the United States over the past several decades have left many families living in or very close to poverty and without this type of security. And the same structural inequalities that give rise to poverty can cause it to become chronic throughout a lifetime and to persist into the next generation.
The cumulative effects of socioeconomic disadvantage, absent effective interventions and supports, can have enduring effects on children. Research has shown that these effects are associated with several categories of adverse childhood experiences, some of which are listed in Box 3-1. Many are more common among low-income families and in high-poverty communities. For example, children who live in poverty experience more language delays, poorer nutrition, and more chronic illness than higher--
income children (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016; National Center for Children in Poverty, 2019). The challenges associated with poverty also influence children’s readiness, attendance, engagement, and performance in school. In addition, children’s health or the health of the adults in their households, lack of transportation, abuse, or neglect can affect school attendance (Balfanz and Byrnes, 2012a,b). Changes in family employment or living situations (including homelessness) may result in one or more moves during a school year, which can adversely affect academic progress (Duncan and Murnane, 2011). Students who arrive at school hungry, stressed, or suffering the consequences of maltreatment and other traumas may have difficulty concentrating. Their stress response systems may lead to behaviors that interfere with the learning process, which in turn may lead to disciplinary actions (Brooks-Gunn and Duncan, 1997; Duncan and
Magnuson, 2011). It is also difficult to study or complete homework assignments in some home environments, and these difficulties are compounded for the large number of children who come into contact with the child welfare, foster care, and juvenile justice systems each year.
When families live in precarious economic circumstances, parents also are more likely to struggle with physical and mental health challenges, such as depression and substance abuse (Adler et al., 1993; Brooks-Gunn and Duncan, 1997; Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, and Aber, 1997; Duncan and Brooks-Gunn, 1999; Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, and Klebanov, 1994). These challenges negatively affect the quality and stability of family relationships and make it more difficult for parents to provide a warm, responsive, supportive environment for their children. These challenges may be compounded for immigrant families, especially those who face potential deportation and family separation because one or more family members is undocumented. Chronic exposure to these kinds of conditions creates stressors that compromise children’s neural and cognitive development and affect their health, well-being, and behavior (Blair and Raver, 2012; Cantor et al., 2018; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2014; Osher et al., 2018). In the short term, exposure to the toxicity of adverse childhood experiences and chronic stress can interfere with children’s self-regulation, executive function, learning, and memory (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016). In the longer term, it can increase susceptibility to a variety of physical illnesses and mental health problems (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs, 2011), which lie within the category of social determinants of health.
Often, these challenges accumulate, increasing the risk of school failure and other adverse life outcomes (Educational Testing Service, 2013). Indeed, achievement gaps on standardized tests between high- and low-income students in the United States have grown by 40 percent in a generation, and gaps have grown by the equivalent of 35 SAT points (on an 800-point SAT scale) (Reardon, 2011). These types of gaps ultimately lead to disparities in educational attainment, which further compounds inequities and can result in lack of economic mobility (Reardon, 2011).
The number of parents at home and the stability of parental relationships can also affect the types of family processes that promote children’s educational success. The associations between family structure and children’s outcomes arise for several reasons. First, having more adults in a household may translate into more time available for reading to children in early childhood or monitoring them during adolescence. Second, families
with fewer adults in the household typically have fewer economic resources (Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan, 2002; Thomas and Sawhill, 2005). Third, family structure instability is associated with children’s self-regulation and attention skills. These effects appear to be more pronounced if the father is absent during early childhood, and they may be more pronounced for boys than for girls (McLanahan, Tach, and Schneider, 2013). Although children who live apart from one of their parents are more likely to experience negative outcomes than children who live with both parents, family resources and processes are more important for children’s outcomes than family structure itself.
Poverty and the absence of fathers can reduce investments of parental time and cognitive stimulation, both of which are crucial to children’s development and learning. These investments are particularly important during the early years of life, when brain development and cognitive development are at their most plastic (Shonkoff, 2010). Although parenting and care-giving are beyond the scope of this report, we mention them here because of their importance for educational outcomes.
Differences in the quality and quantity of out-of-school learning supports are a major influence on group differences in children’s learning and academic achievement (Bassok et al., 2016). In general, wealthier families are more likely to be able to afford materials, experiences, and services that support their children’s development, such as books, computers, family educational activities, enrichment activities outside the home, and tutoring (Garrett, Ng’andu, and Ferron, 1994). In contrast, those investments may be less affordable for families with limited resources. Moreover, as mentioned, the living conditions of some families may not be as conducive to learning (e.g., low lighting, high noise levels, or limited space) (Dearing and Taylor, 2007; Evans, 2004).
Research has long shown that reading to young children is vital to helping children acquire important literacy skills (Leibowitz, 1977; National Research Council, 1998; Scarborough and Dobrich, 1994; Storch and Whitehurst, 2001). Children in higher-income families are read to more frequently than children in lower-income families. Children in two-parent families are also more likely to be read to than children in one-parent families (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2012a, as cited in Educational Testing Service, 2013).
Time is often used as a proxy for investment in children’s socioemotional and academic development, though the quality of time spent matters as much as, if not more than, the amount of time (Magnuson, 2018). Time-use data show significant variations by income level in the
amount of time parents spend with their young children (Guryan, Hurst, and Kearney, 2008; Kalil, Ryan, and Corey, 2012). Self-report time diary data also have revealed meaningful differences in the developmental quality of time that mothers spend with their children by mother’s level of education (Kalil, Ryan, and Corey, 2012; Ramey and Ramey, 2010).
The challenges described above are magnified in neighborhoods where many other families are poor and experience precarious circumstances. Moreover, such neighborhoods often lack institutional resources that can help protect children and parents from the effects of economic insecurity. As discussed in detail below, neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income families tend to have higher crime rates and less access to healthy foods (i.e., “food deserts”) and to lack basic resources for medical and dental care. These conditions take a toll on children.
Neighborhood economic context has powerful, long-term effects on educational achievement and attainment (and earnings and family structure) (Chetty, Hendren, and Katz, 2016; Reardon, 2016; Schwartz, 2010). The historical legacy of racism, discrimination, and exclusion has disproportionately affected black children, who are more likely to experience precarious economic circumstances because they have grown up without familial wealth to rely on in times of crisis. They also are more likely to live in neighborhoods with other financially disadvantaged African-American families (Patillo, 2013; Reardon, Fox, and Townsend, 2015; Sharkey, 2010). The same is true for Latino children who experience the effects of discrimination and isolation as a consequence of language and cultural differences and immigration patterns.
Wealth inequality—in addition to housing and zoning policy reflecting discrimination—also has led to neighborhood and societal segregation (Owens, 2016; Reardon and Bischoff, 2011; Rothwell and Massey, 2010). While race-based neighborhood segregation has been slowly declining overall, socioeconomic segregation has steadily risen (Owens, Reardon, and Jencks, 2016; Reardon et al., 2018; Reardon and Bischoff, 2011). Socioeconomic segregation patterns shape children’s residential contexts and the quality of the education, support services, and enrichment opportunities that are available to them (Putnam, 2015). Because children attend schools near their homes, school and neighborhood quality are linked. Schools in communities with abundant resources can draw on those resources in ways that schools in poorer communities cannot.
Residential segregation concentrates financially disadvantaged, black, and Hispanic children and families in high-poverty neighborhoods, which compounds the effects of poverty and magnifies societal inequalities. In segregated contexts, not only are children from lower-income families subject to the stresses and educational challenges associated with family-level poverty, but also lower-income families are much more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods and their children are much more likely to attend high-poverty schools (Patillo, 2013; Reardon, Fox, and Townsend, 2015; Sharkey, 2010). Conversely, children from higher-income families are more likely to live in high-income neighborhoods and attend more affluent schools.
To the extent that high-poverty contexts limit educational opportunities and high-income contexts expand opportunities, segregation will exacerbate inequalities in educational opportunity and outcomes. Indeed, racial differences in exposure to economically disadvantaged schoolmates are linked to achievement gaps, and these achievement gaps are larger in more segregated school systems (Condron et al., 2013; Reardon, 2016; Reardon, Kalgorides, and Shores, 2019).
An increasing body of research points to environmental conditions and hazards as threats to learning and development, and children in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to these harmful conditions (Magnuson, 2018). Exposure to toxins, such as tobacco smoke, air pollutants, and lead, for example, can lead to a wide range of health and developmental problems, and exposure varies by poverty status. In 2010, 10 percent of children in families below the poverty level lived in homes where someone regularly smoked, compared with 3 percent of children in the most affluent families (Educational Testing Service, 2013). In terms of lead exposure, 21 percent of children aged 1-5 in families below the poverty level had 2.5 or more micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, compared with 10 percent of children in families above the poverty level (Educational Testing Service, 2013).
- For school-aged children, exposure to community violence is associated with lower academic test scores (Margolin and Gordis, 2000; Sharkey, 2010; Sharkey et al., 2014).
Moreover, while the findings about academic achievement hold for K–12 students, the extent to which exposure to harmful environmental conditions explains group differences in kindergarten readiness is much less clear (Magnuson, 2018).
Children who experience any or all of these challenges in their families and neighborhoods need especially supportive schools. But as we discuss in Chapter 5, evidence suggests that the schools available in their neighborhoods tend to be less strong, at least on some dimensions—such as more novice teachers, fewer rigorous course offerings, and climates that do not support student learning—than the schools available to families with more means.
The accumulation of family and neighborhood risks detailed above is associated with increased occurrences of adverse childhood experiences and trauma, including child maltreatment and exposure to domestic and intimate partner violence in the families. Children in such contexts are also at increased risk of exposure to community violence, both as witnesses and as direct victims (Richters and Martinez, 2016). Children who live in high-poverty neighborhoods are also exposed to higher levels of homicide, which has been shown to be associated with lower test scores (Sharkey, 2010). Trauma may also be related to children’s capacity for attention and impulse control, which are important for academic outcomes. For example, preschoolers who experienced recent local violence near their homes exhibited lower attention and impulse control than they had previously shown and performed less well on assessments of preacademic skills, with parents also showing more distress. This evidence highlights a potential pathway of effects of community violence on even very young children who may not themselves be aware of the incidents (Sharkey et al., 2012).
Research shows that exposure to violence has deleterious developmental effects in terms of the incidence of trauma symptoms, behavioral dysregulation,1 impaired cognitive development, and their underlying
1 Harmful behaviors that people use as they try to cope with stressful situations. These behaviors can include drinking alcohol to cope with problems, binge eating, extreme social reassurance seeking, and non-suicidal self-injuries (NSSI). These behaviors allow people to shift their attention away from unpleasant emotional states and toward bodily sensations, taste, and social support. Relief is only short-term and may trigger new behaviors, such as feelings of guilt, negative bodily states, and social problems (Jungmann et al., 2016).
neurobiological organization2 (Margolin and Gordis, 2000). Understanding of the relationships between community and family violence and child well-being is incomplete but rapidly evolving. Efforts to learn more about children’s physical and emotional responses to trauma can support the development and implementation of interventions.3
More broadly, as noted at the beginning of this chapter, the broader frameworks of societal/institutional and psychosocial/biomedical considerations encompass several aspects of context: see Box 3-1. It is important to note that the effect of adversity on a child or adolescent depends not only on individual resilience and natural variations in child development, but also on the child’s opportunity for experiences, interventions, and supports that may mitigate or even undo the effects of adversity, both material and psychological. For example, within the psychosocial/biomedical framework, scientists point to neuroplasticity and the malleability of function and anatomy in response to experiences, relationships, and the general context. Brain malleability supports the notion that context need not be destiny; learning obstacles that are a result of context are not student deficits barring success, but student needs that can be met with appropriate opportunities.
The collection of potentially useful opportunities suggested by research is quite broad. Apart from obvious material examples, such as free lunches, the list includes caring adults, supportive peer relationships, mental health services, culture-informed pedagogy, and trauma-informed disciplinary and instructional strategies.
More research is needed to increase understanding of how various interventions or opportunities map onto individual student needs that are rooted in context. In addition, research and consensus-building are needed to create indicators and measures that could eventually be included in an equity indicator system.
For many student needs, screening and responses can best be provided outside of school settings, budgets, and systems. Educators and staff often lack adequate professional and fiscal resources. Therefore, an indicator system that encompasses all the domains of opportunity important for equity will need to monitor how well student success is supported by other child-serving agencies and nonprofit organizations.
3 The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative (NCTSI) represents the realization of congressional recognition of the serious impact on child mental health and well-being of the experience of traumatic events in childhood; it includes technical assistance and training in trauma-informed evidence-based modalities through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network: see https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma.
Out-of-school context matters for student outcomes. The cumulative effects of toxic stress in both environmental and social domains across childhood can affect school readiness, engagement, and achievement. Information about a student’s context should be available to schools, limited by due attention to privacy and unreasonable intrusiveness.
CONCLUSION 3-1: The circumstances in which students live affect their academic engagement, progress, and attainment in important ways. If narrowing disparities in student outcomes is an imperative, schools cannot shirk the challenges arising from context. Neither can they confront these challenges on their own. Contextual factors that bear on learning range from food and housing insecurity to exposure to violence, unsafe neighborhoods, and adverse childhood experiences to exposure to environmental toxins. Children also differ in their individual responses to stress. Addressing student needs, in light of their life circumstances, requires a wide variety of resources. It is a responsibility that needs to be shared by schools, school systems, other agencies serving children and families, and nongovernmental community organizations.
In the chapters that follow, we focus on indicators of measurable student outcomes that may be influenced by family and neighborhood contextual factors, but we do not propose indicators of contextual factors themselves. Future efforts to target the root causes of disparities in student outcomes would require more direct measures of those family and neighborhood factors.