Q&A with Greg Duncan

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Greg Duncan

Photo by Jason Reblando

Greg Duncan

Economic policies that support work and boost income are a proven way to improve children’s academic achievement, says Greg Duncan of Northwestern University. Duncan is co-author of the new book “Higher Ground: New Hope for the Working Poor and Their Children,” on a three-year program instituted in Milwaukee in the mid-1990s. The New Hope Project provided 22 poor African-American and Hispanic families with jobs, wage supplements, subsidized health insurance and child care, then examined the economic and educational impact of these extra resources. Duncan talked with Associate Editor Debra Williams about New Hope and how children’s education was affected.

How did you conduct the research? Why look at education as well as economics?

We spent a lot of time finding out about the kids. We asked parents how they were doing. We did teacher interviews and asked how kids were doing in terms of achievement and behavior. We administered achievement tests. We were able to construct a pretty complete picture. We were interested in economics, but also in all kinds of outcomes like achievement and children’s well-being.

What did you find with the study?

When we did interviews two years into the program, we found that families were working more and the poverty rate was dramatically lower for the New Hope families [compared to a similar group of families not receiving the resources]. But the striking thing was how much better teachers were reporting that kids were doing, in terms of both achievement and behavior. This was particularly true for the boys. The boys’ achievement was about a third higher [based on test scores].

Did the girls improve too?

It was insignificant. One interesting question is why? We found a number of instances where the mothers worried about their boys getting into gangs and didn’t worry so much about their daughters, and they were pushing hard to keep their boys on the right path. They would use some of their extra money to buy the boys the kinds of things like tennis shoes that the gangs would have supplied had they not been able to do it themselves. They also were more likely to put their boys into formal child care and school programs. That made a difference, according to the teachers.

What did you find once the program ended?

Two years afterward the differences in behavior and achievement were somewhat less, but they were still highly significant.

You say the program did not have the same effect on teenagers.

Right. We found that teenagers, especially girls, were taking on responsibilities for caring for their younger siblings and this sometimes interfered with their own school work.

Are there more recent findings?

We’re starting to get some results from the [five-year] follow up. The kids who were in elementary school are now in their adolescent years and we’re finding that the positive effects have continued. We were expecting there wouldn’t be any differences, but it’s as though the benefits that these kids received when they were younger have insulated them from some of the problems that they might have experienced in adolescence. It is really remarkable. That’s why I wrote the book, to bring this program to the attention of policy makers.

What do your findings say about policy?

You can’t have education people thinking only of education and economic people just thinking of economics. You need different avenues to boost student achievement. And school policies that are somewhat flexible would be helpful. I remember one case where the mom had to go to work at 3 a.m. and her daughter had to take a younger sibling to school, so every day she was late and went to detention. There was no accommodation.