angle-up angle-right angle-down angle-left close user menu open menu closed search globe bars phone store

Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America
Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Mary Louise Lennon, and Anita Sands


1 Child Poverty,  National Center for Children in Poverty, accessed September 10, 2015,

2 Neighborhood Safety: Indicators on Children and Youth, Child Trends Data Bank, May 2013,

3 Food Insecurity, Child Trends Data Bank, December 2014,; Homeless Children and Youth: Indicators on Children and Youth, Child Trends Data Bank, March 2015,

4 See Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), where the authors use internationally comparable data to highlight the effects that inequality has on health and social problems across societies.

5 Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

6 Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015); Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010  (New York: Crown Forum, 2013).

7 The phrase "American Dream" was first coined by the historian James Truslow Adams, who said, in part, that it was "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." James Truslow Adams papers, 1918-1949, Columbia University Libraries,

8, s.v. "opportunity," accessed September 10, 2015,

9 See Leslie McCall, "Political and Policy Responses to Problems of Inequality and Opportunity: Past, Present, and Future," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016) for a discussion of the related issues of opportunity and inequality.

10 Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race between Education and Technology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 352.

11 Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, s.v. "Gary, IN,"   (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 2005),

12 Throughout this narrative, the terms "human capital" and "skills" will be used interchangeably. While the term "skills" is often associated solely with cognitive abilities, it is used in its broadest sense here. So "skills" and "human capital" are defined as the knowledge, competencies, and attributes needed for work and personal life. These include reading, writing, and mathematics skills; general and specific knowledge; analytical, problem solving, and technical skills; the ability to learn independently and continuously upgrade skills; interpersonal skills such as collaboration, communication, and teamwork; and character traits such as motivation, persistence, conscientiousness, reliability, self-discipline, and curiosity, often referred to as noncognitive skills.

13 David H. Autor, "Skills, Education, and the Rise of Earnings Inequality among the ‘Other 99 Percent,' " Science 344, no. 6186 (2014): 843-51. Data from Current Population Survey. As we explain in the subsection entitled "America's Skills Gap," although datasets commonly use educational attainment as a proxy for skills, it is important to distinguish between them.  The two are clearly related, but data show that some students with educational credentials do not have the skills we might expect from their level of schooling. 

14 David Leonhardt, "Is College Worth It?  Clearly, New Data Say," The Upshot, New York Times, May 27, 2014,

15 Authors' calculations based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data on earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, last modified April 2, 2015,

16 Harry Holzer, "Job Market Polarization and U.S. Worker Skills:  A Tale of Two Middles," Economic Studies at Brookings, Brookings Institution, April 2015,

17 While this narrative focuses on opportunity in the United States, another positive outcome is that there has also been a dramatic reduction in global poverty as documented by The World Bank ( and the United Nations (

18 Derek Thompson, "A World without Work," Atlantic, July/August, 2015, Since 2000, the number of manufacturing jobs has fallen by almost 5 million, or about 30 percent; The Low-Wage Recovery: Industry Employment and Wages Four Years into the Recovery, National Employment Law Project Data Brief, April 2014,

19 Levy and Murnane, New Division of Labor, 157.

20 Up Front, "Profiles of Change: Employment, Earnings, and Occupations from 1990-2013," blog entry by Melissa S. Kearney, Brad Hershbein, and Elisa Jácome, Brookings Institution, April 21, 2015,

21 In These Times, "How Flexible Scheduling Is Making American Workers' Lives Miserable," blog entry by Robert Reich, April 24, 2015, Note that some companies, such as Starbucks, have made efforts to establish more regular scheduling for employees.  See Jodi Kantor, "Starbucks to Revise Policies to End Irregular Schedules for Its 130,000 Baristas," New York Times, August 14, 2014,

22 Anton Cheremukhin, "Middle-Skill Jobs Lost in U.S. Labor Market Polarization," Economic Letter, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, May 2014,

23 Holzer, "Job Market Polarization."

24 Robert Lerman, "Restoring Opportunity by Expanding Apprenticeship," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016).

25 Andrew Cherlin, "The Missing Working Class," Washington Post, February 13, 2015,

26 Ana Campoy, "Match Game: Companies Push Training to Close Skills Gap, Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2015,

27 Ibid.

28 Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014).

29 Jared Bernstein, "Wages in the United States: Trends, Explanations, and Solutions," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016); On the Economy; "The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity," blog entry by Bernstein, April 2015, See Ishwar Khatiwada and Andrew M. Sum, "The Widening Socioeconomic Divergence in the U.S. Labor Market," in Dynamics of Opportunity, for a detailed discussion of the uneven distribution of labor market outcomes across workers based on differences in household income and educational attainment.

30 Gerry Smith, "Without Internet, Urban Poor Fear Being Left Behind in Digital Age," Huffington Post, March 1, 2012,

31 In fact, the figure of 60 percent is an underestimate of the proportion of adults at the lowest levels as no data was collected for just over 10 percent of adults who either did not demonstrate the minimal computer skills required to complete the assessment (including the ability to use a mouse to move, point and click, and type on a keyboard) or refused to participate in the computer-based portion of the survey.

32 "Pensions Decline as 401(k) Plans Multiply," Bankrate, July 24, 2014, Statistics cited are from the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

33 Elise Gould, A Decade of Declines in Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance Coverage, Briefing Paper 337 (Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, February 28, 2012),

34 Ibid.

35 Ellen Peters, Louise Meilleur, and Mary Kate Tomkins, eds. "Appendix A: Numeracy and the Affordable Care Act: Opportunities and Challenges," Health Literacy and Numeracy: Workshop Summary (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014), In addition, appropriate support must be available for those individuals who have not been able to develop requisite skills.  Such support can be provided through social networks in the community or, in some cases, through technological solutions.  One example of the latter is tax preparation software that greatly reduced the cognitive skills required to file taxes. 

36 Paula A. Braveman, Catherine Cubbin, Susan Egerter, David R. Williams, and Elsie Pamuk, "Socioeconomic Disparities in Health in the United States: What the Patterns Tell Us," American Journal of Public Health 100, no. S1 (April 2010), S186-S196, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.166082.

37 Pamela A. Meyer, Paula W. Yoon, and Rachel B. Kaufman, CDC Health Disparities and Inequalities Report – United States, 2013, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Supplement 62, no. 3, November 22, 2013,

38 Current Cigarette Smoking among Adults in the United States,  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed January 2015,

39 Obesity and Socioeconomic Status in Adults: United States, 2005-2008, Centers for Disease Control, NCHS Data Brief 50, December 2010,

40 Brian L. Rostron, John L. Boies, and Elizabeth Arias, "Education Reporting and Classification on Death Certificates in the United States," Vital and Health Statistics, Series 2, no. 151 (2010): 1-16.

41 Jacob Hacker, "The Privatization of Risk and the Growing Economic Insecurity of Americans," in Privatization of Risk book series, eds. Craig Calhoun and Jacob S. Hacker (New York: Social Science Research Council and Columbia University Press, June 7, 2006),

42 U.S. Department of Education, "U.S. High School Graduation Rate Hits New Record High, U.S. Department of Education," press release, February 12, 2015, Graduation rates based on new uniform way of calculation adopted in 2010.

43 Undergraduate Enrollment, The Condition of Education (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, last modified May 2015),

44 Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students, The Condition of Education (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, last modified May 2015). See Harry J. Holzer, "Improving Opportunity through Better Human Capital Investments for the Labor Marker," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016) for a discussion of a policy agenda that includes improving completion rates at two- and four-year colleges.

45 Adam Gamoran, The Future of Educational Inequality in the United States: What Went Wrong, and How Can We Fix It?, 2014 Annual Report, William T. Grant Foundation,

46 Marc Tucker, "Are We Just Fooling Ourselves? Is American Education a Colossal Failure?" Opinion, Education Week, April 16, 2015, Because NAEP is a low-stakes assessment, there are long-standing questions about the level of engagement and effort of the 12th graders who participate in the assessment and, consequently, about the validity of the reported results. A randomized control study of the impact of monetary incentives on performance found that NAEP may both underestimate the reading abilities of students enrolled in 12th grade and yield biased estimates of certain achievement gaps. See Henry Braun, Irwin Kirsch, and Kentaro Yamamoto, "An Experimental Study of the Effects of Monetary Incentives on Performance on the 12th-Grade NAEP Reading Assessment," Teachers College Record 13, no. 111 (2011), 2309-44.

47 Information about how achievement levels are determined for NAEP can be found on the National Center for Education Statistics website at

48 For more discussion, see Gamoran, Future of Educational Inequality.

49 Sean F. Reardon, "The Widening Academic-Achievement Gap between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations," in Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances, eds. Greg Duncan and Richard M. Murnane (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011).

50 These results focus on mathematics as that was the major domain in 2012.  For information about performance in reading and science, see OECD, PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do (Volume I). Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading and Science (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013),

51 Community College FAQs, Community College Research Center (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, September 10, 2015),

52 Remediation: Higher Education's Bridge to Nowhere, Complete College America, April 2012,

53 Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, America's Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2015),

54 One important point to be noted is that the large-scale data cited here focus only on the cognitive components of human capital.  Important social, behavioral, and personality characteristics, often labeled noncognitive skills, are not yet targeted in these surveys.  See detailed discussions about noncognitive skills and their role in adult outcomes in Henry M. Levin, "The Utility and Need for Incorporating Noncognitive Skills into Large-Scale Educational Assessments," in The Role of International Large-Scale Assessments: Perspectives from Technology, Economy, and Educational Research, eds. Matthias von Davier, Eugenio Gonzalez, Irwin Kirsch, and Kentaro Yamamoto (New York:  Springer, 2013); and Patrick Kyllonen, "Soft Skills for the Workplace," Change 45 (no. 6): 16-23, November-December 2013,

55 Michael Gerson, "Our Disconnected Working Class," Washington Post, May 15, 2014,

56 See, for example, "Dimensions of Social Capital," The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey,, and Social Capital Glossary, Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, accessed September 10, 2015),

57 David Halpern, The Hidden Wealth of Nations (Boston: Polity, 2009).

58 See the Expanding College Opportunities Project, a low-cost intervention for high-achieving, low-income students, in Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, "Expanding College Opportunities," Education Next 13, no. 4 (2013), See also a College Board project designed to expand access to scholarship opportunities earlier in high school to change students' trajectories and help inform their decisions about pursuing college in, "College Board Announces Major Expansion in Access to Scholarships for the Millions of Students Who Take the PSAT/NMSQT®," press release, January 29, 2015,

59 Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Social Capital, Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, accessed September 10, 2015,

60 Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000); Putnam, Our Kids.

61 This section draws on the work of Robert Putnam and Charles Murray looking at the stratification of social capital by education and skills.

62 2012 Voter Turnout Report, Bipartisan Policy Center, November 8, 2012,

63 U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, November 2012,

64 Mike Maciag, "Voter Turnout Plummeting in Local Elections," Governing the States and Localities, October 2014,

65 Richard J. Coley and Andrew Sum, Fault Lines in Our Democracy  (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2012),

66 Robert D. Putnam, Carl B. Frederick, and Kaisa Snellman, Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness among American Youth, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, August 8, 2012),

67 Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Nathan T. Carter, "Declines in Trust in Others and Confidence in Institutions among American Adults and Late Adolescents, 1972-2012," Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/0956797614545133.

68 Authors' calculations based on General Social Survey data on trust by educational attainment, 1972–2014.

69 Murray, Coming Apart. Statistics from the Pew Research Center show that in 1950, 92 percent of 35- to 39-year-olds without a college degree had ever married; in 2012 that was the case for only 73 percent of this group. (Note that because of the increase in college graduation rates, the characteristics of those without a college degree have changed.)  Richard Fry, New Census Data Show More Americans Are Tying the Knot, But Mostly It's the College-Educated, Fact Tank, Pew Research Center, February 6, 2014,

70 Richard Fry and D'Vera Cohn, "Living Together: The Economics of Cohabitation," Social & Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center, June 27, 2011,

71 Ibid.

72 Family Structure:  Indicators on Children and Youth, Child Trends Data Bank, March 2015,

73 Authors' calculations based on figures in United States Census Bureau, Years of School Completed by People 25 Years and Over, by Age and Sex: Selection Years 1940 to 2014, CPS Historical Time Series Tables, Table A-1,

74 Most Popular College Degrees for Men and Women,, June 1, 2015,

75 The Rise of Women: Seven Charts Showing Women's Rapid Gains in Educational Achievement  (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, February 21, 2013),

76 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, BLS Reports, Report 1052, May 2014,

77 Wendy Wang, Record Share of Wives Are More Educated than Their Husbands, Fact Tank, Pew Research Center, February 12, 2014,

78 Rich Morin, "New Academic Study Links Rising Income Inequality to ‘Assortative Mating,' " Fact Tank, Pew Research Center, January 29, 2014,

79 Reardon, "Widening Academic-Achievement Gap."

80 As quoted in Thomas B. Edsall, "The Hidden Prosperity of the Poor," New York Times, Opinionator, January 30, 2013,

81 Achievement testing did not demonstrate long-lasting improvements in children's outcomes, but positive effects of the Moving to Opportunity treatments reemerged in adulthood.  See Raj Chetty, Nathanial Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz, The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015), See also the work of Karl L. Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson in The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood, Rose Series in Sociology, American Sociological Association (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2014). The authors report on their longitudinal study of children growing up in Baltimore and their findings that opportunities at an early age – related to growing up in strong families and living in cohesive neighborhoods with better schools –  shaped the socioeconomic status of those children as they grew to adulthood. 

82 Reardon, "Widening Academic-Achievement Gap."

83 Timothy M. (Tim) Smeeding, "Gates, Gaps, and Intergenerational Mobility: The Importance of an Even Start," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016).

84 James J. Heckman, "Invest in Early Childhood Development: Reduce Deficits, Strengthen the Economy," The Heckman Equation, December 7, 2012,

85 Isabel Sawhill, Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage  (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2014).

86 Smeeding, "Gates, Gaps"; see Social Genome Project for more about benchmarks for success at key stages of the life cycle. The Social Genome Project, Brookings Institution, September 10, 2015,

87 The factors influencing why a growing percentage of children, especially African-American children, are born to unmarried mothers are complex.  They include the role of declining labor market opportunities for poorly educated African-American males as well as very high incarceration rates.  For more in-depth discussion, see the poverty research work by Kathryn Edin and colleagues.

88 Authors' calculations based on figures in Family Structure:  Indicators on Children and Youth, Child Trends Data Bank, March 2015,

89 Stephanie J. Ventura, Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, Centers for Disease Control, NCHS Data Brief No. 18, May 2009,

90 Gretchen Livingston and Anna Brown,  "Birth Rate for Unmarried Women Declining for First Time in Decades," Fact Tank, Pew Research Center, August 13, 2014,

91 Wendy D. Manning, Susan L. Brown, and Bart Stykes, "Trends in Births to Single and Cohabiting Mothers, 1980-2013, Family Profiles-15-03, (Bowling Green, Ohio: National Center for Family and Marriage Research), 2015),

92 Kelly Musick and Katherine Michelmore, Change in the Stability of Marital and Cohabiting Unions Following the Birth of a Child,  California Center for Population Research (Los Angeles: University of California–Los Angeles, revised October 27, 2014).

93 Tamara Halle, Nicole Forry, Elizabeth Hair, Kate Perper, Laura Wandner, Julia Wessel, and Jessica Vick. Disparities in Early Learning and Development: Lessons from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort (ECLS-B). (Washington, DC: Child Trends, June 2009),

94 Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3," American Educator, Spring 2003: 4-9,

95 Rob Stein, "Study Finds that Effects of Low-Quality Child Care Last into Adolescence," Washington Post, May 14, 2010,

96 Edward Rodrigue and Richard V. Reeves, "Getting Attached: Parental Attachment and Child Development," Social Mobility Memos, Brookings Institution, April 21, 2015,

97 Poverty Threatens Health of U.S. Children, American Academy of Pediatrics, May 4, 2013,

98 Smeeding, "Gates, Gaps."

99 Putnam, Our Kids, 127.

100 Sean F. Reardon, "No Rich Child Left Behind," The Great Divide, New York Times, April 27, 2013,

101 Bruce Baker, Danielle Farrie, and David Sciarra. "The Changing Distribution of Educational Opportunities: 1993-2012, in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016). For a discussion of the history of free public schools and school funding, see Carl Kaestle, "Federalism and Inequality in Education: What Can History Tell Us?" in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016).

102 Jennifer A. O'Day and Marshall S. Smith, "Quality and Equality in American Education: Systemic Problems, Systemic Solutions," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016).

103 Sheryll D. Cashin, "Place, Not Race: Affirmative Action and the Geography of Educational Opportunity," University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 47 (2014), 935-65,

104 Henry Braun, "The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: A Working Framework," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016).

105 U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, Data Snapshot: School Discipline, Civil Rights Data Collection, Issue Brief 1, March 2014,

106 Russell Skiba, "Disparities in School Discipline: The Complex Fact of Inequality in Education," William T. Grant Foundation, March 10, 2015, See also the post from the superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools where she states, "Minority students do not misbehave more than their white peers; they are disciplined more severely for the same behaviors. For example, a study of North Carolina schools found that discipline gaps exist for various infractions: for dress-code violations, black students were suspended at a rate six times higher than white students; for cellphone use, it was eight times higher; for displays of affection, 10 times higher; and for disruptive behavior, it was double." Bernadeia Johnson, "Critics Say My New Discipline Policy Is Unfair to White Students. Here's Why They're Wrong," PostEverything, Washington Post, November, 26, 2014,

107 Mona Chalabi, "American Kids Will Spend an Average of 943 Hours in Elementary School This Year," FiveThirtyEight, New York Times, September 4, 2014,

108 O'Day and Smith, "Systemic Problems."

109 Douglas Massey and Jonathan Tannen, "Segregation, Race, and the Social Worlds of Rich and Poor," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016).

110 Richard Florida, "The U.S. Cities With the Highest Levels of Income Segregation," CityLab, Atlantic,  March 18, 2014,

111 Cashin, Place not Race.

112 Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).

113 Ibid.  For the role of historical policies that supported racial residential segregation, see Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010); and Massey and Tannen, "Segregation, Race."

114 O'Day and Smith, "Systemic Problems."

115 Ibid.

116 See examples at the Collective Impact Forum,

117 Gamoran, Future of Educational Inequality.

118 Richard Reeves, "How Will We Know?  The Case for Opportunity Indicators," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016).

119 The Churchill Society, London.

120 Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Kentaro Yamamoto and Andrew Sum, America's Perfect Storm:  Three Forces Changing Our Nation's Future (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2007),,

121 Abraham Lincoln Second Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862,

122 Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Second Machine Age.