Using the Child Opportunity Index in education research and decision-making

Published: 08.26.2022 Updated: 04.19.2023

Where a child grows up has enormous consequences for their development. Research evidence is clear that neighborhoods influence long-term outcomes such as adult employment, income, health and life expectancy. For education leaders and researchers, this understanding about neighborhood opportunity is key to exploring and closing learning inequities. But neighborhoods themselves are difficult to define and measure. It can be prohibitively complicated to conduct research that combines neighborhood effects with children’s education outcomes or that uses data on neighborhood opportunity in conjunction with education data.

The Child Opportunity Index can facilitate neighborhood-based education research

The Child Opportunity Index 2.0 (COI) is a free, ready-to-use measure that synthesizes contributing factors of neighborhood opportunity for children, overcoming many of the barriers researchers confront when studying neighborhoods and education.

For example, previous education researchers have had to first create a measure of neighborhood opportunity to then explore its impact (see Jeon and colleagues's 2014 American Psychological Association manuscript; Sampson et al. 2002; Leventhal & Dupéré 2019). The COI reduces the need for these technical and time-consuming data processing skills. It is available for any practitioner or researcher who wants to get their “hands on” neighborhood opportunity data and start using it to better understand educational outcomes—expanding the pool of people who can do this work.

Comprised of 29 indicators related to education, health and environment and socio-economic factors, the Child Opportunity Index can be widely used as an aggregate indicator of neighborhood opportunity. It can thus facilitate comparisons between studies in different developmental domains.

The COI has a wide range of uses in the education sector—from academic research to applied policies to localized resource-targeting to district decision-making.

Using the Child Opportunity Index to study education outcomes

As an example, we recently combined the Child Opportunity Index with data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort 2011 (ECLS-K:2011) to study the effects of neighborhood opportunity on reading scores. The ECLS-K:2011 is a nationally representative dataset following children who attended kindergarten in 2010-2011 through the fifth grade, designed to provide comprehensive and reliable data on educational development. In our analysis, we found that at the start of kindergarten, children living in very high-opportunity neighborhoods scored about 14% higher on reading assessments than those living in very low-opportunity neighborhoods.

We then took advantage of one of the unique features of the COI to explore the relationship between student race/ethnicity, neighborhood and reading scores. Relationships such as these are particularly salient for education administrators and researchers, who are often stymied by racial achievement gaps in their communities. The COI does not include the racial/ethnic composition of a given neighborhood as one of its component indicators, which distinguishes it from other indices measuring neighborhood opportunity. Because of the deeply interwoven nature of neighborhood opportunity with systemic racism in the United States, including racial/ethnic composition as part of neighborhood opportunity measure confounds the two effects. This confounding can actually make it more difficult to parse out a neighborhood's effect on education outcomes from the variation in circumstances experienced by specific racial/ethnic  groups.  

In Figure 1, we show the strong relationship between the race/ethnicity of elementary school-aged children and neighborhood opportunity, controlling for gender. Black and Hispanic children are significantly more likely to reside in low- or very low-opportunity neighborhoods. In contrast, White and Asian/Pacific Islander children are more likely to reside in high- or very high-opportunity neighborhoods. After controlling for student race/ethnicity, we found that the importance of neighborhood opportunity level on reading scores was reduced, but still significant. This analysis was presented in June at the National Research Conference on Early Childhood (NRCEC), and it is the first stage of continuing research that utilizes the COI and ECLS-K data to explore how neighborhoods might affect elementary school learning and developmental outcomes. We plan to continue analyzing these children over the course of elementary school to understand if neighborhood opportunity is also associated with changes in reading scores over time.

Applying the Child Opportunity Index to center equity in local programs and decision-making

In Michigan, the Child Opportunity Index is playing an integral role in securing equitable learning opportunities for the state’s youngest children. Leaders of public pre-K in the state, called Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), are invested in the relationship between pre-K access and neighborhood opportunity. To better serve children living in lower-opportunity neighborhoods and equitably direct investments for new programs, GSRP is integrating the COI with its own data on the location of public pre-K sites. By using insights gained from the COI, these administrators are working to target new pre-K programs in areas where there is high need across multiple, interrelated dimensions.

In Tennessee, advocates are using the COI to emphasize the need for policy change in education. The Nashville Public Education Foundation recently mapped the location of public schools relative to COI scores of neighborhood opportunity, finding that “a large percentage of [Nashville's] struggling schools are in very low or low opportunity neighborhoods." The accompanying report underscored how White children are significantly more likely than Black and Hispanic children in Nashville to live in higher opportunity neighborhoods with more economic, education, health and environmental supports. The Foundation hopes to use these findings to generate support for a customized index, which could include local data not available in the COI, to “support and reinforce systems, policies, and practices driving equitable outcomes for students while also helping the district define improvement targets for areas of inequity.”

Getting started using the Child Opportunity Index for education research

If you are an education researcher ready to use the Child Opportunity Index to study neighborhood effects on education, you will first need to merge it with another dataset that tracks where children are living over time. Start by determining which child-level dataset is best for your needs.

  • Several longitudinal surveys of children and youth provide geolocation information for respondents. Sometimes gaining access to this information requires applying for restricted use data, but often the data are free. In addition to the ECLS-K, other education data sources include the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, High School and Beyond or Add Health.
  • If you are collecting original data, consider the need to add data collection regarding respondent address, either at the census tract or ZIP code level. We recommend neighborhoods be measured at the census tract, if possible, but asking for ZIP code may be an easier alternative and can still help demonstrate neighborhood effects.

Learn more about the Child Opportunity Index and explore child opportunity in your community

Ready to start using the COI? Download census tract estimates or ZIP code estimates of neighborhood opportunity

Read more about how Michigan's public pre-K program uses the COI to reach the highest-need communities

For more information about neighborhood effects on long-term outcomes, see: Alexander et al. 2014; Visser et al. 2021; Acevedo-Garcia, Noelke et al. 2020; Chetty, Hendren et al. 2016

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Robert Ressler
Senior Research Associate
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Nancy McArdle
Senior Research Analyst
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Leah Shafer
Senior Communications Specialist