A new Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis working paper examines educational opportunities for elementary and middle school students in nearly all U.S. school districts. Stanford University researcher Sean Reardon, who posed the question that I used in the title, found,
First, there is enormous variation among districts in the extent of early learning opportunities available to children before third grade. These differences in opportunities are evident in the wide range of average third grade test scores. Not surprisingly, early opportunities are strongly associated with districts’ socioeconomic characteristics; affluent families and districts are able to provide much greater opportunities than poor ones early in children’s lives.
What may be surprising, however, is the extent of variation among districts in the kinds of opportunities they provide for students to learn from grades three to eight, and the fact that these growth opportunities are at best weakly correlated with early opportunities and with socioeconomic status. The empirical patterns evident presented above are most similar to the scenario described in Panel D of Figure 1 above: both early and middle childhood opportunities vary widely among school districts, but do not covary significantly.
In other words, poverty appears to make a big difference in the early years but has much less bearing on what occurs in middle school. Professor Reardon concludes that his findings “provide, at a minimum, an existence proof of the possibility that even schools in high-poverty communities can be effective.” Demographics is not necessarily destiny.