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Do skills taught in K-12 schools really lead to upward mobility? $3 million in grant money aims to find out

Matt Chingos | June 12, 2024

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Eamonn Fitzmaurice/LA School Report

One of the challenges schools face is that there’s very little evidence directly connecting most pre-K-12 skills to measures of success in adulthood such as economic mobility. This means school and district leaders must rely on instinct and guesswork when faced with decisions about how much to prioritize teaching math (and which specific aspects), fostering students’ self-management abilities or developing teamwork skills.

Those guesses are surely correct at least sometimes. But what if they were right more often? Could it help schools put more students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds on a path to economic security?

To find potential answers to these questions, the Urban Institute, where I lead the Center on Education Data and Policy, recently launched the Student Upward Mobility Initiative. This year, we will invest $3 million in innovative research and development through our first request for proposals. The goal is to help educators understand which skills in schools are most strongly associated with long-term success, through research linking students’ competencies to upward mobility and by building new, easily collectable measures. An example of this could be a metric for career preparedness encompassing job-preparation and technical abilities.

It is important to first define how we view “mobility” through the context of this work, as we are using a broader conception of the term developed by the Urban Institute:

  • “Economic success: When a person has adequate income and assets to support their and their family’s material well-being.
  • Power and autonomy: When a person has the ability to have control over their life, to make choices and to influence larger policies and actions that affect their future.
  • Dignity and belonging: When a person feels the respect, dignity and sense of belonging that comes from contributing to and being appreciated by people in their community.”

An example of the types of work that Urban institute seeks to fund is in the area of noncognitive factors such as teamwork, grit and communication, which have been identified as predictors of wages and other positive life outcomes. A potential project could link data on noncognitive factors in school-age students at many schools to adult economic outcomes and compare variations among schools against economic mobility.

To take it a step further, research could seek to determine whether a student’s noncognitive factors are more predictive of mobility if they are measured by a teacher of the same race.

A second objective is to expand the universe of mobility measurements. For example, research has demonstrated that a student’s percentage of friends with high socioeconomic status is a key correlate of upward mobility for people with lower socioeconomic status. A potential project under this RFP could develop a new measure of social capital that could be collected in PK-12 schools. A proposed study might consider how the measure works in rural versus urban areas, and how it should incorporate school and neighborhood segregation.

Identifying the pre-K-12 skills that matter most for lifetime success takes a long time, between developing new measures, collecting data on them in schools, waiting many years for students to reach adulthood and connecting all the needed information. But the advantages to having this evidence are too great to ignore, and the current landscape is too bleak: Students who grow up in the poorest 20% of families have a 1 in 3 chance of remaining poor as adults.

This is not to say that those pre-K-12 skills are the sole causes of, or potential solutions to, intergenerational poverty. Students face barriers that affect their ability to learn, such as substandard housing and inadequate health care, and that diminish the fruits of their labors after they leave school, such as occupational segregation and labor market discrimination. This is why we are pushing all our grantees to consider individual students’ circumstances both in and beyond school.

Today, most schools largely rely on the same measures of student success they’ve used for decades, such as reading and math scores, attendance and graduation rates. If our initiative is successful, schools in 2034 will regularly measure a set of skills that drive economic mobility and consciously work to improve them. That could make a real difference helping all students thrive after graduation — and put more low-income students on a path to economic security.

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