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Topic: End of the American Dream?
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
End of the American Dream?
Posted: Aug 13, 2012 1:23 PM
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From The Stanford Educator [Stanford University School of Education
Alumni Newsletter], Summer 2012, pp 4-5. See
End of the American Dream?

Income Disparities are Widening the Achievement Gap

By Marguerite Rigoglioso

It's a well-established fact that the rich are growing richer and the
poor are growing poorer, and that there are fewer and fewer people in
between. What's not so well known is how that income gap may be
translating into disparities in educational success- and what that
might mean for the long-term future of individuals, economically
challenged groups, and our entire nation.

A recently published study by Professor Sean Reardon is sounding
alarm bells. Reardon has found that the gap in test scores between
the highest and lowest-income students has grown by about 40 percent
since the 1960s and is now nearly twice as large as the black-white
achievement gap.

"That disparity is leading to a feedback cycle in which it's becoming
harder and harder to achieve the American dream," says Reardon, an
expert on the causes and consequences of social and educational
inequality. As he explains it, if family income is a predictor of how
well people do in school, and if school performance determines how
much people earn in the market, then economic inequality is only
breeding more economic inequality. Education is no longer the pathway
to social mobility in the United States that it once was.

Related studies have found that the college completion rate for
children from high-income families has grown sharply in the last few
decades, while the completion rate for students from low-income
families has barely moved. "This rising gap in academic skills and
college completion has come at a time when the economy relies
increasingly on well-educated workers," say Reardon. "Largely gone
are the manufacturing jobs that provided a middle-class wage but did
not require a college degree." In today's economy, then, young men
and women without college degrees are increasingly consigned to
low-wage jobs with little opportunity for advancement. This is making
educational achievement more and more critical.

Especially alarming, then, is Reardon's finding that the gap in test
scores means that the lowest-income children are lagging a crippling
four years worth of schooling behind their more wealthy peers. Fifty
years ago, they were lacking only about two and a half years behind.

Roots of the Growing Divide

"Schools are not the primary cause of the problem," asserts Reardon.
"If they were, the test-score gap would widen as students progress
through school, but this does not happen. The test-score gap between
eighth-grade students from high-and low income families is no larger
than the school-readiness gap among kindergartners. The roots of
widening educational inequality appear to lie in early childhood, not
in schools."

Why? Parents who are struggling to make ends meet have little time to
worry about their children's cognitive development, and they don't
have the funds to pay for their enrichment, explains Reardon, whose
research attracted national attention after being published as a
chapter in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and
Children's Life Chances (Russell Sage Foundation, 2011 - ). In
contrast, parents who are economically comfortable are able to spend
more time reading with their children and have more money to buy
stimulating games and pay for enriching activities. "It's not about a
lack of parental skills. The problem is structural," he says.

The good news is that, in terms of test scores, African American
students are now closer to white students than low-income children
are to high-income children. But the knowledge that the racial
achievement gap has narrowed over the past few decades is cold
comfort in the face of this new finding, which spans all races and
ethnicities and speaks to a growing tear in the fabric of American

The solutions, then, Reardon posits, are economic and social. "The
best way to reduce inequality and educational outcomes is to ensure
that all students start on a more even footing. This would take a
number of levers," he says. "We need to make sure people have access
to stable jobs that pay a living wage. We need affordable health
care, and we need a social safety net to support families through the
hard times between jobs. We also need high-quality child-care and
preschool programs for low-and middle-income children. This would
relieve their stress and allow them to help develop their children's

Striking a Nerve

Reardon took his case to Capitol Hill on April 19, where he spoke at
a briefing sponsored by the Stanford Center on Opportunity Policy in
Education and the Economic Policy Institute. The New York Times, The
Boston Review, blogs, and other media have also picked up on the
story, which, Reardon says, "has struck a nerve."

"In preliminary meetings for our book, we thought that Sean's plan to
look at 17 data sets on test scores spanning 40 years was incredibly
ambitious, but remarkably, with the help of some very good graduate
students, he did it," says Greg Duncan, a professor of education at
the University of California, Irvine and one of the editors of
Whither Opportunity. "The results are dramatic. The extent to which
educational opportunities and future labor market prospects of rich
and poor children have diverged over the last 40 years is not
something our country wants to believe about itself, but it's an
undeniable fact that we have to come to terms with."

Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education
at Stanford, observes, "Because the broader social safety net is now
more tattered for children, the effects of coming from a low-income
background are now worse for kids than when we were more socially
stable. Sean's results show us that it's not simply a question of
'getting schools to do better.' Poverty does matter. This points to
the need for wrap-around services for children before they even get
to kindergarten, as well as while they are in school."

"We can - and must - do more to improve our schools, of course,
particularly those schools that enroll low-income students," says
Reardon. "But schools alone cannot save the American dream."
PHOTO SIDEBAR: "The roots of widening educational inequality appears
to lie in early childhood, not in schools," says Sean Reardon.
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Reardon presents new research at a recent Stanford
conference on income, inequality, and educational success.
SIDEBAR: "Because the broader social safety net is now more tattered
for children, the effects of coming from a low-income background are
now worse for kids than when we were more socially stable." -- Linda
Read Reardon's study on the CEPA website at .
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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