Education and Wealth

April 28th, 2013 at 11:38 am

You want my advice, you should pour a tall cup-a-Joe and settle in to read this essay by Sean Reardon in this AMs NYT on education and wealth.  He covers a lot of ground, but the theme that resonated most with me is one I’ve stressed often in these parts regarding the growing evidence of linkages between increased income inequality and diminished opportunities.  A prominent channel through which this occurs is, of course, education.

It’s not just that rich kids do better in school than poor kids.  That’s an old problem.

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.

Moreover, these growing differences show up in college access and completion.

…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.

…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.

How, though, do these developments link up with inequality?  As Reardon sees it “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.”

–over the past three decades, the gaps between spending on “enrichment goods” have grown as the wealthy spend increasingly more on books, tutoring, sports, music and art lessons for their kids than do lower income parents.

–“…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.”

What I find so important about all the above is that it widens the target of education reform beyond just schools and teachers—note: that’s “beyond” not “instead of”—to include these economic imbalances in income, wealth, time, and consumption.

In fact, Reardon marshals some evidence suggesting that while differences in school quality faced by students of different income classes exist and are important, “they appear to do less to reinforce the trends than conventional wisdom would have us believe.”


…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.

To counteract these affects, we’ll need to offset the impacts of the income disparities by providing less-advantaged kids with access to the enrichment opportunities they’re increasing not getting.  Quality pre-school has got to be the right place to start (Reardon weirdly neglects to mention the President’s new proposal for universal pre-K for four-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families).  But Reardon also notes some promising programs designed to help parents themselves become better teachers to their young charges.

The key point is that we’ve got to approach this with a lot more urgency.  One doesn’t want to be overly deterministic, such that we write off those who lost out at the starting gate.  But early cognitive development is so determinative of what happens later that to continue the tired squabble about who to blame–teachers, schools, or the income distribution—is to waste valuable time.

That’s certainly Reardon’s view, and he views the fact that these relationships have evolved relatively quickly as indicative that they could be amenable to change:

 …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.

Word to that.

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10 comments in reply to "Education and Wealth"

  1. foosion says:

    In addition, we’ve cut public spending on education. This has little effect on the best off, who can send their children to private schools (or increase spending on the local level) and who can easily afford college. Meanwhile, everyone else is left with underfunded public schools and, at best, massive college debt.

    Cutting childhood nutrition programs, school lunches etc., obviously has disparate impact.

    The usual line by the anti-government types (aka lower taxes for me and a more profit through a cheaper workforce) is not wanting to burden our children with debt (government debt). Instead, we are not educating those children or leaving them with massive debt (student loans).

  2. Perplexed says:

    Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to look at those that have caught up with, and then passed by the U.S.:

    • Kevin Rica says:

      Education, and the education gap, is less the explanation for increasing income disparities than a rationalization for them.

      The implicit argument is that the way to eliminate poverty is to send EVERYONE (and his brother) to a selective college. Obviously, barring a phenomenal Lake Wobegon effect, that can’t happen.

      Furthermore, there are always jobs that require minimal education that need to be done. If everyone could graduate summa cum laud from a selective college, then maybe the medieval lit majors would have to clean urinals, flip burgers, unload trucks, and process chickens. And they will be just as poor unless those jobs pay a decent living.

      And as long as the Chamber of Commerce gets its way and insists on the right to pay a poverty-level wage for those blue-collar jobs, the people who do them will be poorly paid and poor. And they will succeed as long as the modern Democrat Party (FDR/HST led the “Democratic Party” which has now gone the way of the Whigs) insists on waging war on Archie Bunker and allows the Chamber of Commerce to have all the illegal immigrants and “Blue Cards” it wants to keep blue-collar wages low.

      • Procopius says:

        Furthermore, there are a great many jobs that now require a college diploma for entry than there used to be. Very often the requirement is bogus. Most people really learn how to do their jobs on the job. Do you really need two semesters of calculus to write a computer program? Or to be an accountant? I think two or four semesters of creative writing are more useful for the accounting candidate. Seriously, a generation ago candidates for these jobs typically did not have these credentials and did the work well. The requirement for credentials is just to make the job of Human Resources Manager easier.

  3. Kevin Rica says:

    Sorry, my fat fingers.

    I wasn’t responding to perplexed. I was responding to the Jared’s post.

  4. Dave says:

    I could not agree more. I’m tired of people blaming teachers for problems that are way beyond their control.

  5. Charles E. Lewis, Jr. says:

    Early cognitive development is essential to success as is proper nutrition and growing up in healthy environments. Better cognitive development alone will not solve the problem when a high proportion of kids in poor neighborhood suffer from trauma. Yes, it will help some and should be pursued as a policy, but without a comprehensive approach, it will leave too many behind.

    The real culprit is economic inequality and the fact that many children grow up in households without the resources necessary for healthy development. Dalton Conley’s research found that if you control for wealth, education disparities disappear.

  6. Paine says:

    Opportunity defined as ” packing a BA or BS ”

    Hardly translates into working class leadership
    Perhaps it’s best bright kids from near zero opportunity households
    Have ” class institutions” that reward raw talent initiative and effort
    Not spirit draining conformity and deference to the metrics of an imposed hierarchy

  7. Fred Donaldson says:

    The problem with elite schools is that they want elite students.

    I recall driving several hundred miles with my high school junior to interview at a prestigious Midwestern college some years ago, and after the admissions director talked to my son, I asked if she ever heard of his high school. She said no. I explained it was a suburban public high school that had won the overall statewide Academic Decathlon in recent years, and many of its grads that year had perfect SAT scores.

    Which schools in my metro area do you visit to recruit, I asked? She rattled off four schools, all very small private and extremely expensive preps. None of them even had a gifted program at the time, and all of them were more of a finishing school than a tough academic challenge.

    Why don’t you visit any of the 40 public high schools in the area, I pressed her? “I don’t know. It’s just the way we do things.”

    The truth is that you can find many very talented and intelligent students in public schools, but they aren’t “the right people”, and they have a flea’s chance of admission. Worst of all, most of these public applicants check off that dreaded “needs student aid” box.

  8. The OutSourced One says:

    The state that I live in implemented a very generous paid time-off policy for new mothers, new fathers and new gay couples who adopted. (To be paid for by the employer, not by the state.) They also implemented a universal pre-kindergarten program including free breakfast and lunch.

    So the firm I worked for outsourced half of its jobs to a low cost country and moved the remaining US-based jobs to imported visa-holders in a low cost state offering a sweet-heart deal on local property taxes – which pay for the local schools. (It seems low cost states have shortages of educated workers so our government grants visas.)

    They then implemented a PR campaign focused on providing better “Financial Education” through the non-profit charitable foundation affiliated with the firm. (A foundation which also allows the firm’s founder to pass his considerable wealth on to his heirs without paying the estate tax.)

    I believe that firms in the US need to have both employee and some sort of community and/or government representation on the board. They can’t exist without either and should not be able to game the system in this manner.