The APPAM International conference closed with a plenary on Educational Inequalities, chaired by Lee Elliott Major and featuring speakers Sean Reardon, Bridget Terry Long, and Sandra McNally. Sean Reardon began by reviewing the evidence on how the income-based achievement gap has widened in the United States in recent decades. He discussed several possible explanations, including the notion that the association between income and achievement has increased; high-income families increased their spending on child enrichment items at a higher rate than did low-income families; that income-based housing segregation has increased among families with children. He also discussed potential reasons why the achievement gap at school entry appears to have narrowed in recent data. Reardon suggested that perhaps due to the cultural diffusion of the notion that investing in young children’s cognitive development is critically important, low-income families have increased their investments in this area. Reardon then introduced new tools he has developed with colleagues including Andrew Ho, which address the issue of how educational inequalities vary across communities in the U.S. Reardon and Ho compiled test score and other administrative data from districts around the U.S., and put state tests on the NAEP scale. Reardon illustrated that student performance and growth rates vary considerably across districts, even across some districts with similar socioeconomic compositions.
Turning to higher education, Bridget Terry Long discussed barriers that low-income students face to accessing and graduating from college, and potential strategies for reducing inequality in higher education. Long argued that despite growth in the overall college attendance rate in the U.S., the attendance gap between high and low-income students has not shrunk considerably. Income-based gaps in college persistence also remain large; even low-income students who are well-prepared for college academically are considerably less likely to graduate than their higher-income peers. Long pointed out that with the shift toward federal student loans, affordability has become a major problem. In addition, many students arrive at college academically unprepared to complete college-level material, resulting in large rates of enrollment in remediation courses. Long also noted the complex nature of the college application and financial aid processes, which many families struggle to navigate. She presented results from recent experimental studies which demonstrated that providing families with help to complete and submit the FAFSA increased college-going and persistence, and that helping families to open college savings accounts and providing a small initial deposit caused families to increase their college savings rates.
In the final talk of the session, Sandra McNally discussed both early childhood and vocational education, focusing specifically on the U.K. context. She noted that despite the fact that a large share of the population attends vocational schools, there is a lack of understanding of the progression routes students take at this level. She argued that more research is needed to understand what constitutes ‘good quality’ in vocational education, and how to get it. In addition, McNally pointed out that despite widespread agreement on the importance of quality in early childhood care, questions remain in the field about what good quality looks like at this level, and how to achieve it.