How does growing economic inequality affect student achievement? Here to discuss it is Mike Rose, a highly respected professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of several books. His latest book is “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.
By Mike Rose
Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon wrote an important opinion piece for The New York Times last week, “No Rich Child Left Behind,” and I would like to add a few thoughts to it. Growing economic inequality between the wealthy and just about everyone else has been in the news for some time now. What Reardon does is offer data that demonstrate how that economic inequality is being reflected in educational achievement.
Examining math and reading test scores over the past 50 years, Reardon found that “the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago.” Other researchers are finding 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.” And it’s not just low-income kids who are being left behind; one of Reardon’s striking findings is that “the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.” It’s not that poor or middle-class kids (of any racial or ethnic background) are doing worse; they’re inching up too. But the wealthy are accelerating at a faster pace.
Reardon believes that the wealthy are providing increasingly enriched environments for their kids before they enter formal schooling. “[E]ven 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 wealthy are investing in the early cognitive development of their kids as never before.
Reardon focuses his attention on the early years. One note I want to add is that the concentrated effort of both the middle and upper classes on academic success continues all through school and into college. Let me offer this excerpt from “Back to School,” the occasion when, as a young man, the profound difference in preparation for school became stunningly clear to me:
Because of where and how I grew up, I had minimal exposure to middle class homes, and it wasn’t until well after college, once I had been teaching, that my access to such households became more routine. On a visit to some college friends, I spent a little time with their two kids. Each boy had his own room, and each was seated before his computer. The rooms were appointed with bookshelves along one wall, and they were filled with fiction and nonfiction, some lightweight stuff, but good adolescent novels too, and a number of reference books. Alongside each computer were a sophisticated calculator, a standard college Webster’s Dictionary, and a thesaurus. (Today that computer would be supplied with a number of aids to literacy and numeracy and would have high-quality Internet access. The boys would have smart phones and most likely tablet computers.) The boys’ parents were able to help them with just about any subject, any assignment, and the boys were able to learn a lot about using the computer for academic purposes by watching their parents, who used their own computers (the third and fourth in the house) for a variety of work-related tasks.
As I found out early the next morning, the parents had arranged their schedules such that each child could be driven to music or athletic practice before school and tutoring or some other academic program after. The boys had traveled overseas. And each was slated to spend a part of the summer in an enrichment program, one in the arts, one in math sciences.
It was wonderful to see my friends, and the evening was full of laughs and reminiscence. But the boys’ rooms affected me as soon as I crossed their thresholds, immediate, more visual and emotional than analytic. How completely, utterly different from my childhood home. To see advantage so clearly, so stark, and in this benign setting, well intentioned, decent, two sweet kids…
Reardon focuses on the wealthy, for it is with the wealthy that the academic correlate of economic inequality is especially striking. But, of course, this inequality at the upper end puts even more pressure on a middle class that feels less and less secure, increasingly anxious and uncertain about their ability to advance and pass on their economic and social momentum to their children. This anxiety has led to an obsessive jockeying for educational advantage, the hope for maintaining privilege invested in ever-higher academic stakes. Twenty-five years ago, psychologist David Elkind wrote with alarm about the “hurried child.” That child is now hurtling, propelled through programs and technologies that were rare or nonexistent a generation or two ago. At the front end, kids are prepped for admission to kindergarten. (And the rich are enrolling their children in elite, quite expensive kindergartens.) At the other end, they’re navigating high school, adding up honors and advanced placement courses, their parents paying for tutors, private counselors, all sorts of special services to package them for admissions boards at the most selective colleges. At my institution, UCLA, not the most restrictive of universities, the typical admitted student comes in with eighteen honors and advanced placement courses, and, because of the way those courses are calculated, an astounding grade point average of over 4.2.
I don’t at all fault parents for trying to give their children whatever support they can. Poor parents would do the same if they could. And those students coming into UCLA had to work very hard for a long time to achieve their records. But I want to consider two things, and they’re in line with Reardon’s argument, I believe.
The first is how utterly unfair this state of affairs is for children at the lower end of the income distribution. No matter how hard their parents try and how diligent their teachers are and how much determination (or the new buzzword “grit”) they have, they do not have access to the material and social resources that are increasingly commonplace for more affluent kids—and available in abundance for the wealthy. I know of so many cases of well-to-do parents who are not only sending their children to the most expensive private schools, but are also providing every technological enhancement on the market, a stream of tutors, counselors, and coaches, and enrichment experiences beyond my parents’ imagination. In addition to all that, their children get the ongoing benefit of their parents’ and their parents’ friends’ knowledge and contacts.
A few months ago I was in a restaurant sitting close by a man and his daughter’s boyfriend, a college junior or senior preparing for law school. The man was a lawyer who, it seemed, was somehow involved in the accreditation or ranking of law schools. I didn’t have to strain to hear, for the guy was not shy, and his voice carried as he ticked off the top law schools, dissecting the rankings of and inside scoop for each, what they were looking for, who he knew. I couldn’t help but think of several students at a central city community college I’d been visiting, bright idealistic young people who want to go to law school. Those students and the young man alongside me aren’t even in the same city, let alone the same ballpark, of information about legal study. The rich have always gotten richer, privilege has always been passed to privilege, but Reardon’s point—and I’m merely extending it beyond early schooling—is that the wealthy in America are investing in their kids—and investing is the key word here—on an unprecedented scale.
Growing economic and educational inequality is clearly bad news for low income parents and their children, but I’ve been thinking for a while about the effect this high-pressure scramble for academic advantage has on all of us. If you’ll indulge me once more, I want to offer a passage from Lives on the Boundary in which I try to consider this broader picture.
As I talk with middle-class parents about the education of their children, I’m struck by the stress they’re under: the searching and searching for the best school, the calculation of what it will cost and the projected expense for a long time to come, the agonized weighing of this expense against one’s prospects, one’s job security, the mix of anxiety and anger—often just below the surface—that this set of circumstances engenders.
Also, I wonder what happens more generally in the culture as the unfolding of childhood gets so enmeshed with packaged acceleration programs and expensive educational environments and services. Cognitive development becomes commodified and fussed over, cultivated as deliberately and delicately as an orchid in a hothouse. The love and nurturance of one’s children gets confused with and determined by an anxiety over intellectual growth, defined in quite particular and capital-intensive ways.
The children, as many social commentators have observed, come to feel the pressure, the fear of one misstep, and the catastrophe that attends a B+ rather than an A. Now, no doubt, some come through this journey with remarkable educations, but some gain other things as well. There can be a focus on grades over content, a detachment from rather than engagement with knowledge itself, knowledge becoming a kind of token to be redeemed for advancement. There can be a narrowing of curiosity, an aversion to intellectual risk-taking, for too much is at stake. I have noticed in working with university freshmen how often the honors students, those with the highest entering g.p.a s, are wary of trying a new idea in a paper, taking a chance, seeing where a line of thought will lead them. (I am reminded here of the title of a recent book, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning.) And all of this, this orientation to school and knowledge, contributes to an isolated autonomy, reinforces an individualist rather than cooperative orientation to learning and the use of what one learns.
What about poor kids, what happens to them in a time like this? As a group, the children of the working class have always had a rougher go of it in our schools. This is the sorrowful educational outcome of living in an economically stratified society. But achievement against odds can be fostered or further curtailed by public policy, by educational practice, and by the spirit of the times. Unfortunately, we have been moving toward a perfect storm of bad conditions for working-class students. One element of the storm is the shrinking education budgets and the cutting back of programs and services. Another is the escalating cost of education. A third is the amping up of competition for selective schools and the emergence of pricy services to enhance one’s competitiveness. And a fourth is the ever-rising bar of admissions criteria, from private kindergartens to public universities. This is a pretty unforgiving swirl of forces.
What is additionally troubling is that the current public mood is, itself, pretty unforgiving. The level of competition, the state of the economy, the anxiety about social position, the successful shaping of opinion by the political rights—all this has contributed to a resolute ideology of individual advancement and a suspicion, at times hostility, toward policies that support equity and a common educational good. So we have backlash and lawsuits—framed in a rhetoric of merit and justice—against compensatory efforts and a retreat from the public sphere.
Over the past few years, there has been an increasing call from the federal government, state houses, think tanks, and philanthropies to increase the rates of college completion, for the United States is lagging behind other industrialized countries. There has been particular emphasis on science, mathematics, and engineering. If families in the bottom quarter of U.S. income distribution stay there—and that lack of mobility is more likely in our time—and if we’re serious about helping more students succeed in school, then we’ll have to provide the kind of ongoing support for low-income students that will give them at least a prayer of a chance of competing on the modestly level playing field we as a nation claim we value.
The kind of early intervention advocated by Reardon will certainly help the academic preparation of the less fortunate. But the relation between income and academic success cannot be comprehensively addressed through a childhood inoculation alone, for academic inequality, as I’ve suggested, is cumulative and sustained at many points along the way. This will mean increasing rather than cutting back on compensatory and enrichment programs, summer academic opportunities, and the like and curbing the austerity drive that leads colleges to cut staff and hours for tutoring and other academic support services. That’s how, over the long haul, we might have a better chance of leaving no unwealthy child behind.