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Topic: No Rich Child Left Behind
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
No Rich Child Left Behind
Posted: May 17, 2013 4:40 PM
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From the New York Times / Sunday Review Section, April 28, 2013. See
NOTE: A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of
the Stanford Educator [Stanford Graduate School of Education] - SEE
NOTE: If you are interested in our schools and education, you will
want to read this article all the way to the end!
No Rich Child Left Behind

By Sean R. Reardon

Here's a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich
perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class
or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better
grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer
students; they also have higher rates of participation in
extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher
graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and

Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or
obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most
societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long
as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to
verify the answer.

What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades
these differences in educational success between high- and
lower-income students have grown substantially.

One way to see this is to look at the scores of rich and poor
students on standardized math and reading tests over the last 50
years. When I did this using information from a dozen large national
studies conducted between 1960 and 2010, I found that the rich-poor
gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30
years ago.

To make this trend concrete, consider two children, one from a family
with income of $165,000 and one from a family with income of $15,000.
These incomes are at the 90th and 10th percentiles of the income
distribution nationally, meaning that 10 percent of children today
grow up in families with incomes below $15,000 and 10 percent grow up
in families with incomes above $165,000.

In the 1980s, on an 800-point SAT-type test scale, the average
difference in test scores between two such children would have been
about 90 points; today it is 125 points. This is almost twice as
large as the 70-point test score gap between white and black
children. Family income is now a better predictor of children's
success in school than race.

The same pattern is evident in other, more tangible, measures of
educational success, like college completion. In a study similar to
mine, Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, economists at the
University of Michigan, found that the proportion of students from
upper-income families who earn a bachelor's degree has increased by
18 percentage points over a 20-year period, while the completion rate
of poor students has grown by only 4 points.

In a more recent study, my graduate students and I found 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

These widening disparities are not confined to academic outcomes: new
research by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam and his
colleagues shows that the rich-poor gaps in student participation in
sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and church
attendance have grown sharply as well.

In San Francisco this week, more than 14,000 educators and education
scholars have gathered for the annual meeting of the American
Educational Research Association. The theme this year is familiar:
Can schools provide children a way out of poverty?

We are still talking about this despite decades of clucking about the
crisis in American education and wave after wave of school
reform.Whatever we've been doing in our schools, it hasn't reduced
educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income

Part of knowing what we should do about this is understanding how and
why these educational disparities are growing. For the past few
years, alongside other scholars, I have been digging into historical
data to understand just that. The results of this research don't
always match received wisdom or playground folklore.

The most potent development over the past three decades is that the
test scores of children from high-income families have increased very
rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over
middle-class students in academic performance; most of the
socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and
the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as
the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the
affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class
over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in
educational success accrued to the children of the rich.

Before we can figure out what's happening here, let's dispel a few myths.

The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the
test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are
in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment
of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation's Report Card, have
been rising - substantially in math and very slowly in reading -
since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal
to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a
single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are
not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that
average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any
age or economic group.

The widening income disparity in academic achievement is not a result
of widening racial gaps in achievement, either. The achievement gaps
between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites have
been narrowing slowly over the last two decades, trends that actually
keep the yawning gap between higher- and lower-income students from
getting even wider. If we look at the test scores of white students
only, we find the same growing gap between high- and low-income
children as we see in the population as a whole.

It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don't seem to produce much
of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income
students. We know this because children from rich and poor families
score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter
kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between
kindergarten and high school. There is some evidence that achievement
gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the
nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.

That isn't to say that there aren't important differences in quality
between schools serving low- and high-income students - there
certainly are - but they appear to do less to reinforce the trends
than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

If not the usual suspects, what's going on? It boils down to this:
The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly
entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than
middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists
through elementary and high school.

My research suggests that one part of the explanation for this is
rising income inequality. As you may have heard, the incomes of the
rich have grown faster over the last 30 years than the incomes of the
middle class and the poor. Money helps families provide cognitively
stimulating experiences for their young children because it provides
more stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their
children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and - in
places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to
determine entry into gifted and talented programs - access to
preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors

But rising income inequality explains, at best, half of the increase
in the rich-poor academic achievement gap. It's not just that the
rich have more money than they used to, it's that they are using it
differently. This is where things get really interesting.

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. They are doing this because educational success is much more
important than it used to be, even for the rich.

With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or
even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and
money in their children's cognitive development from the earliest
ages. It may seem self-evident that parents with more resources are
able to invest more - more of both money and of what Mr. Putnam calls
"'Goodnight Moon' time" - in their children's development. But even
though middle-class and poor families are also increasing the time
and money they invest in their children, they are not doing so as
quickly or as deeply as the rich.

The economists Richard J. Murnane and Greg J. Duncan report that from
1972 to 2006 high-income families increased the amount they spent on
enrichment activities for their children by 150 percent, while the
spending of low-income families grew by 57 percent over the same time
period. Likewise, the amount of time parents spend with their
children has grown twice as fast since 1975 among college-educated
parents as it has among less-educated parents. The economists Garey
Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California, San
Diego, call this escalation of early childhood investment "the rug
rat race," a phrase that nicely captures the growing perception that
early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong
educational and economic competition.

It's not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that's
because much of our public conversation about education is focused on
the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the
poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income
inequality and the behavior of the rich.

We're also slow to understand what's happening, I think, because the
nature of the problem - a growing educational gap between the rich
and the middle class - is unfamiliar. After all, for much of the last
50 years our national conversation about educational inequality has
focused almost exclusively on strategies for reducing inequalities
between the educational successes of the poor and the middle class,
and it has relied on programs aimed at the poor, like Head Start and
Title I.

We've barely given a thought to what the rich were doing. With the
exception of our continuing discussion about whether the rising costs
of higher education are pricing the middle class out of college, we
don't have much practice talking about what economists call
"upper-tail inequality" in education, much less success at reducing

Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in
school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing
economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future
economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is
making our society more socially and economically immobile.

We need to start talking about this. Strangely, the rapid growth in
the rich-poor educational gap provides a ray of hope: if the
relationship between family income and educational success can change
this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern. What
changed once can change again. Policy choices matter more than we
have recently been taught to think.

So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is
not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a
lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our
children's educational opportunities from the day they are born.
Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal
dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care
and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It
also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool
teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we
have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to
implement and just get on with it.

But we need to do much more than expand and improve preschool and
child care. There is a lot of discussion these days about investing
in teachers and "improving teacher quality," but improving the
quality of our parenting and of our children's earliest environments
may be even more important. Let's invest in parents so they can
better invest in their children.

This means finding ways of helping parents become better teachers
themselves. This might include strategies to support working families
so that they can read to their children more often.. It also means
expanding programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership that have proved
to be effective at helping single parents educate their children; but
we also need to pay for research to develop new resources for single

It might also mean greater 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.
Fundamentally, it means rethinking our still-persistent notion that
educational problems should be solved by schools alone.

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. This in turn will enable us to let our
schools focus on teaching the skills - how to solve complex problems,
how to think critically and how to collaborate - essential to a
growing economy and a lively democracy.
SIDEBAR: The Great Divide is a 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 series moderator is Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate
in economics, a Columbia professor and a former chairman of the
Council of Economic Advisers and chief economist for the World Bank.
SIDEBAR GRAPHS: A Look at the Data Graphs highlight some of the
trends described in this article. SEE
Sean F. Reardon is a professor of education and sociology at Stanford.
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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