The above-linked article comes to us from The Great Divide, a NY Times online series on inequality — the haves, the have-nots and everyone in between — in the United States and around the world, and its implications for economics, politics, society and culture. The author of the article, Sean F. Reardon, uses powerful language to explain that “whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic,” the children of the rich do better in life academically and beyond. Of course, we know it has been true in most societies, including the United States, for as long as data has been collected on this truth. But, Reardon goes on to reveal something new when he tells readers that “in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially.”
Reardon gives examples of how family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race. He tells us how standardized test scores on a SAT-type test scale now differ by more than 125 points between rich and poor kids, compared with about a 90 point difference in the 1980’s. The same pattern reveals itself in more tangible measures of educational success, like college completion. Reardon found in his research that “15 percent of high-income students from the high school class of 2004 enrolled in a highly selective college or university, while fewer than 5 percent of middle-income and 2 percent of low-income students did.” Recent research by Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam and his colleagues shows the rich-poor gaps in student participation (e.g., in sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and church attendance) have also increased.
Reardon reminds us, “despite decades of clucking about the crisis in American Education and wave after wave of school reform,” that schools don’t seem to be the ticket out of poverty for a child. He says, “Whatever we’ve been doing in our schools, hasn’t reduced educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income families,” and encourages us to look at how and why this is the case. He tells us that rising income inequality is only half the reason for the increase in the rich-poor academic achievement gap, and credits the other half of the reason as to how the rich are using their money.
According to Reardon, “high-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success.” We all know those parents who flock to Gymboree and Kindermusik classes for their infants and toddlers, invest in “teach your baby to read” programs and expensive videos such as those from the “Baby Einstein” series, involve children in music, art and sports programs (almost to the point of exhaustion for a child), and purchase expensive toys, games, electronics, and books to get “Johnny” or “Suzy” ready for school. Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, call this “escalation of early childhood investment ‘the rug rat race,'” which “nicely captures the growing perception that early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong educational and economic competition.”
Reardon encourages us to “start talking about this” as something that is changeable. He says “if the relationship between family income and educational success can change this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern” and wonders “how we can move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background.” He highlights taking “a lesson from the rich and invest more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born (which is where the Operation Ready By 3 Infant-Toddler Curriculum that I developed would come into play!).” It also means investing in programs that improve the quality of parenting. It means improving the quality of children’s early learning environments. He tells us that it means finding ways of helping parents by supporting working families and expanding home-visiting programs for single, teenage/young and poor parents. Reardon asks us to consider “increasing business and government support for maternity and paternity leave and day care so that the middle class and the poor can get some of the educational benefits that the early academic intervention of the rich provides their children.”
In the end, he knows, as I and countless others do, that “the more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools” and that schools, in turn, can “focus on teaching the skills — how to solve complex problems, how to think critically, and how to collaborate — essential to a growing economy and lively democracy.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.