Pennsylvania’s Student Achievement Gap

As students ready themselves to return to their classrooms, a report from the RAND Corporation looks past test scores to the issue of Pennsylvania’s student achievement gap – one of the largest in the country.  Although data from 2013 Pennsylvania standardized tests ranks the Commonwealth among the top ten states in student performance (according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)) RAND found sizable achievement gaps according to race/ethnicity, economic status, parent education, and school district.

Some study findings:

  • An achievement gap by race/ethnicity: The proportion of white students achieving proficiency or above in reading and math was 24 to 38 percent larger than African-American and Latino students.
  • An achievement gap by economic status: Students from lower economic statuses had lower proficiency scores, and were estimated to be an average of two or three years behind their peers from higher economic statuses.
  • An achievement gap by district: After removing the highest and lowest performing school districts, RAND found performance gaps between districts similar those identified in the race/ethnicity and economic analyses.  Low performing school districts were identified in both urban and rural areas.

The report, The Economic Impact of Achievement Gaps in Pennsylvania’s Public Schools by Lynne Karoly, also compares the achievement of Pennsylvania students both nationally and globally, and examines the impact that gaps in academic performance may have on Pennsylvania’s  economy.  The full report is available at the RAND website.




Report  Citation: Karoly, Lynn A.. The Economic Impact of Achievement Gaps in Pennsylvania’s Public Schools. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015.

Inmate Education Programs: Save Dollars, Decrease Risk of Re-Offending, Help Employment Odds

Latest analysis of educational and vocational programs in prisons indicate they lead to employment, decrease risk of recidivism.
Latest analysis of educational and vocational programs in prisons found they lead to employment, decrease risk of recidivism.

American prisons have offered education programs of one kind or another since the end of the 18th century; and though funding decreased during the 1980’s and 1990’s, the majority of correctional institutions still offer some type of educational and vocational programming. While opinions vary on what prisons and time spent within them should “look like”, research in the correctional field indicates that vocational training and educational programs increase the likelihood that a participant will maintain a law-abiding existence upon their return to the community.  The most recent addition to this research is the RAND report, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults by Lois M. Davis, Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders and Jeremy N. V. Miles, discussing the impact of educating persons housed in correctional institutions and how the most effective programs could be administered across different settings.

Studies have shown that employment is a major predictor of recidivism; RAND’s meta-analysis (utilizing studies with treatment and comparison groups) spans from 1980 until 2011, including programs funded under the Second Chance Act of 2007 aimed at improving outcomes (such as employment) through education to inmates planning to return to their communities upon completion of their term.  Some highlights  (the full report is available at the RAND website):

  • Participation in correctional education did result in a decreased recidivism risk, the likelihood of re-offending, after release.
  • Although any participation in educational/vocational programming increased the likelihood of post-release employment, the likelihood was higher for those in vocational training rather than academic programs.
  • Initial cost comparisons found that money is saved through prison education due to the lower risk of recidivism gained through such programs, compared to the costs of  re-incarcerating re-offending inmates.

Not only does such research inform (or confirm) policy decisions impacting state and federal prisons, it has opened the door for start-ups, and even nonprofits, to provide more convenient and potentially more secure ways to educate inmates.  Prison education, wireless technology and social enterprise – keep an eye on that intersection in the upcoming year.


NOTE: If you are interested in reading more about correctional education, employment training and returning to the community post-incarceration, check out the documents from the 2008  Reentry Roundtable sponsored by the The Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Urban Institute.




Photo by User:Nyttend (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

School Budget Cuts Become Reality as Students Return


As we approach the start of another school year, students in Pennsylvania may find themselves returning to fewer elective classes (even in math science and English), increased class sizes, old textbooks, suspension of field trips, and fewer teachers and staff due to furloughs and hiring freezes. These intended changes, from a survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, also include, 22 percent of districts cutting tutoring programs for students (just under a third – 32 percent – did the same for the 2012-13 school year), and 13 percent of districts ending summer school programs for 2013-14, as did 21 percent last year.

While the enormous impact of the recession prompted serious budgetary reviews, from the dinner table to the halls of the State Capitol, the reduction in education funding has hit urban schools first, and worst.   While fingers point at various “causes of the problem” and some argue the problem doesn’t exist but for mismanagement,  the financial shortfall, at least in urban Pennsylvania schools, appears to be a mixture of shrinking tax bases, shrinking enrollment, ever-increasing per-pupil spending, and bureaucratic administrations, coupled with reductions in funding from the Commonwealth.  Still, cutting programs (like tutoring) that are designed to help struggling students seems to only contribute to the achievement gap that already exists between schools  in poorer areas and their more affluent counterparts.

The report, Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward by Richard J. Coley of Educational Testing Service (ETS) and Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, examines the connection between poverty and life outcomes, including success in education and future employment.  The researchers note the academic achievement gap is larger between poor and not poor than between races, with those living in extreme poverty lagging most behind peers in cognitive performance.  Poverty is also associated with outcomes of less schooling, lower income, and higher likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system.   The impact of poverty on educational quality is illustrated in the brief, The Impact of Teacher Experience, Examining the Evidence and Policy Implications by Jennifer King Rice, through a discussion of data that indicate high-poverty schools have teachers with the least experience and, according to some studies, a lower level of effectiveness.  A National Center on Educational Evaluation brief reports that, overall, poorer students had unequal access to the highest quality teachers (although the study on just 10 districts is not generalizable).

Lest one think such relationships have little bearing on their local schools, the issue of poverty and education is no longer just a concern for city residents as the 2000’s saw a shift in the distribution of families living below the poverty line.  Suburbs are the fastest growing pockets of poverty in the country, according to the book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube. Over the last decade, the population of poor in the suburbs grew by 64 percent and at a brisker pace than in many of their regional cities.  According to Kneebone and Berube, there are more poor people living in the suburbs now than anywhere else in America.

This past year, school districts – urban and suburban – have dealt with budget issues by challenging mandates that limited the number of students to teachers in a classroom, removing access to or increasing participation fees for extracurricular activities, and reducing the number of available courses.  A cursory read of the trends in income, funding steams and predicted economic growth suggests that even the more affluent districts won’t be able to escape the experience of severe budget cuts and need for increased tax revenues for too much longer.



Fewer Summer Jobs for Teens Fits Trend of Declining Youth Employment

Summertime employment has traditionally been seen as a rite of passage, a builder of character and a source of funding for teenage frolic, but even a part-time job serving burgers or minding the retail racks isn’t easy to come by these days.  In 2000, the average summer employment rate was nearly 52 percent, dropping to 30 percent last year.  In 2012, just a quarter  of teens reported having a paying job.*

The report, The Dismal State of the Nation’s Teen Summer Job Market, 2008-2012, and the Outlook for the Summer of 2013, from the Center for Labor and Market studies at Northeastern University details the decline in teenage employment rates and the weakness of the current job market and what that means for young adults.  A key take-away from the report is that household income was a better predictor of youth employment than race.  Low income youth were least likely to be working. As family income rose, so did teen employment rates, with 21 percent of youth  from households earning under $20,000  reporting summer employment compared to 38 percent from households earning between $100,000 and $150,000 a year.

The sad state of teen summer employment isn’t surprising considering the decline of the overall youth employment rate.  A policy report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation on the growing number of  teens and young adults both unemployed and not in school –  referred to as disconnected youth in the brief – found that such youth were most likely to be from low income families. Specifically,

  • 21 percent of low income (under $20,000/household) 16-to-19 year old youth were disconnected compared to 8 percent of their counterparts in families with an income over $100,000; and
  •  among 20-to 24-year-olds from low income families, 30 percent were not in school or employed,compared  to 10 percent of those from families earning $100,000 or more.

The Pennsylvania employment rate for young adults (20 to 24 years old) is approximately 62 percent, for teens 16 to 19, 39 percent.

The authors of the report Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunitychallenge policy makers to find cooperative cross-system approaches to reconnecting and reengaging youth with education and employment opportunities.  An approach that is flexible enough to use the strengths of the community where it operates but based in proven outreach and engagement strategies that go beyond mere job-matching  might have a chance, if the funding survives.

If you are interested in learning more about models of youth employment initiatives check out  Best Practices for Youth Employment Programs:A Synthesis of Current Research from What Works, Wisconsin.




*Source: Andrew Sum, Ishwar Khatiwada, Walter McHugh, and Sheila Palma, The Dismal State of the Nation’s Teen Summer Job Market, 2008-2012, and the Outlook for the Summer of 2013, Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University, May 2013.