The answer to the question of whether America is still a land of opportunity varies widely depending on where you live – and the Milwaukee area is one of the places where the answer is not so good, a prominent economist told an audience of several hundred at the Marquette University Alumni Memorial Union on Tuesday.
The answer to what Milwaukee might do to improve the opportunities of success for children from lower income homes emphasizes better education, Raj Chetty of Harvard University said.
Chetty spoke at a session that combined the Marquette University Department of Economics’ Marburg Memorial Lecture with the Marquette Law School’s “On the Issues with Mike Gousha.” Chetty spoke for about 45 minutes, followed by a conversation in which Gousha, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial page editor David Haynes, and audience members asked questions.
Chetty, now 34, is one of the youngest people to be named a tenured professor at Harvard and has won numerous awards, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. He spent his high schools years in the Milwaukee area and was the 1997 valedictorian at University School of Milwaukee.
Research by Chetty and several colleagues used data involving 40 million children and their parents to answer questions such as how likely it is for a child who grows up in a home where income is in the bottom 20% of the spectrum to end up making an average income or income in the top 20% as an adult.
Chetty said the answers ranged widely across 750 “commuting zones” in the US. For example, in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area, the odds of moving up the economic ladder were much better than in the Charlotte, N.C., area.
The Milwaukee area ranked 41st among the largest 50 zones in the study. The opportunity picture in most of the rest of Wisconsin was decidedly better. The differences, Chetty said, translate into saying that a child from a low-income household in Green Bay will, on average, make thousands of dollars more a year as an adult than a child from such a home in Milwaukee.
Chetty outlined five factors that correlate with opportunity: the percentage of racial minorities in a metro area, racial and economic integration and segregation, the quality of “social capital” of a community, the percentages of single- and two-parent households, and the quality of schools.
Milwaukee does well when it comes to social capital, Chetty said, and income inequality is about average for the nation. But Milwaukee is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country and the area does poorly when it comes to the percentage of single-parent homes (although there has been recent improvement).
But when it comes to policy implications of the results, Chetty said the emphasis in Milwaukee should be placed on education. He said the metro area as a whole is on a par with the nation when it comes to success in school. But the variability in quality within the metro area is very high, much higher than in many other places. The disparity in education may be related to the high degree of racial and economic segregation, he suggested.
In a different study, Chetty and colleagues looked at long-term school records in a district (not Milwaukee) where they were given access to data on 2.5 million students over 20 years, and correlated that to long-term economic success. One conclusion was that teachers with strong records of success with students have significant long-term impacts on their students’ income as adults. Students who had such a high-success teacher even for one year (say, third grade) had higher average income than students who did not have such teachers, Chetty said – and they were also less likely to become teen parents and more likely to go to college.
Early childhood education is important, he said. He showed a graphic that showed that doing well on tests in kindergarten matched closely with long-term income. But he also said there is data that shows that career success can be affected positively by what happens in higher grades such as fourth or eighth grades and there is a “dosage” factor in which involvement even for short periods with high-quality or low-quality education has impact.
One conclusion of the research, Chetty said, was that replacing the 5% of teachers with the weakest records of moving their students forward with teachers who have strong records would increase the average income of students who were affected by $50,000 each over their lifetimes.
Chetty’s research has been cited by Obama administration officials to support federal initiatives promoting more data-oriented assessment of teachers as part of efforts to improve teaching. Chetty said attracting top talent to teaching and keeping top teachers in the profession was an important policy goal.
When it comes to spending on education, Chetty said spending more money could help – but only if it is spent effectively, such as on efforts to improve teaching. He agreed that cutting education spending generally brings with it decisions that don’t promote success.
He said close study that compares Milwaukee to similar places where opportunity and success are better could yield insights into what can be done in Milwaukee that would bring real improvement. That puts a hopeful perspective on what his research has found, Chetty said.
To learn more about Chetty and his research, click here.
To view video of the “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session with Chetty, click here.
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