5 How well do we understand achievement gaps? achievement tests as a direct measure of human capital. In the end, although this is a smaller and thinner body of work than the broader topic related to education in general, I think it is fundamental to much of the rest of the literature. An overview of achievement issues Focusing on achievement rather than school attainment has several advantages in discussing the interaction of re- search and policy. First, most current policy discussions relate directly to issues of quality and student learning. For example, policy discussions of accountability and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), or of preschool and the preparation of disadvantaged students for school, are concerned with what students know at any point in time. Second, a focus on achievement allows for the fact that much of education actually takes place outside of schools. Finally, a focus on achievement allows for the possibility that other policy-relevant factors, such as health and neighborhoods, are important for education. There are also disadvantages to focusing on achievement. With many different tests, the reliability and validity of spe- cific measures is often unknown. Additionally, achievement may not reflect an individual’s full range of education. This disadvantage may be greater at higher levels of education; Eric A. Hanushek Eric A. Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. An underlying principle of U.S. social policy is that educa- tion is the key policy lever for addressing poverty. In the United States and around the world, education is almost always heavily subsidized by government. The justifications for government involvement vary, but increasingly rely on the suggestion that expanded educational investments both strengthen the national economy and improve the societal distribution of income and welfare. Education, for example, had a prominent role in the U.S. “War on Poverty,” with many of the programs developed in the 1960s continuing through today. The expansion of public colleges and univer- sities over the past three decades has also rested on distribu- tional arguments. This article assesses what we currently know about the role of education in improving the welfare of the disadvantaged population by looking at one particular aspect of the subject, achievement gaps for disadvantaged students. Specifically, I review literature related to measured cognitive skills, focus- ing on achievement rather than school attainment. For the most part, I interpret cognitive skills as measured by student -.3 -.2 -.1 0 .1 .2 .3 Standard Deviation Difference 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 Year Reading scores compared to 1971 Math scores compared to 1973 Figure 1. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Scores, 17-year-olds 1971–2008 .
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