Career-Long Study Wins Top Education Prize

Three Johns Hopkins University researchers whose 2014 book traced the lives of nearly 800 Baltimore City public school students for a quarter of a century have won the prestigious $100,000 Grawemeyer Award in Education.

In The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood, Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson followed 790 Baltimore children from 1982, the year they entered first grade, until they turned 28 or 29 years old, and concluded that the children’s fates were largely determined by the economic status of the family they were born into.

Melissa Evans-Andris, the award director, said that studies of that depth and breadth that include census data, historical narratives, personal interviews, race, gender, family background, neighborhood and school conditions and social mobility over a lifetime are rare.

“Just 4 percent of the youngsters from low-income families went on to get a college degree by age 28,” she said.

Alexander is the John Dewey Professor Emeritus of Sociology; Entwisle, who died in 2013, was a research professor of sociology; and Olson, who recently retired, was an associate research scientist with the university’s Center for Social Organization of Schools. Researching The Long Shadow spanned most of their careers.

Founded by industrialist and philanthropist H. Charles Grawemeyer in 1984, the Grawemeyer Awards are presented annually by the University of Louisville for outstanding works and powerful ideas in education, psychology, music, religion and political science. The goal of the Grawemeyer Award in Education is “to stimulate ideas that have the potential to bring about improvement in educational practice and attainment.”

The 2016 winners will present lectures about their award-winning ideas when they visit Louisville in April to accept their $100,000 prizes.

Alexander said he was “thrilled and humbled” to learn that The Long Shadow has been honored. His and Olson’s only regret, he said, was that Entwisle, who died of cancer just before the book went to press, would be unable to share in “the splendid validation of our work.”

The book highlights the challenges that burdened many of Baltimore’s young people as they came of age in a time of declining opportunities. Conditions of family life, according to Alexander, cast “long shadows” that moved youth along very different life paths, with characteristic differences along lines of family income, race and gender.

“These are longstanding interests among academic sociologists,” said Alexander, “and it pleases us to think that The Long Shadow has not only contributed usefully to that literature, but that these topics are of immense practical relevance as well.”