The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Education as a meritocracy? Report finds it is still better to be born rich than smart in U.S.


Billions of dollars have been spent over the past several decades on efforts to “reform” schools and try to elevate the achievement of students from low-income families, who traditionally have struggled in school. Despite all of that, a new report confirms what has long been the case: It’s better to be born rich than smart in this country.

The report is titled “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose: Why Equally Talented Students Don’t Get Equal Chances to Be All They Can” and was published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Here is the bottom line, from the summary of the report:

The American Dream promises that individual talent will be rewarded, regardless of where one comes from or who one’s parents are. But the reality of what transpires along America’s K-12-to-career pipeline reveals a sorting of America’s most talented youth by affluence — not merit. Among the affluent, a kindergartner with test scores in the bottom half has a 7 in 10 chance of reaching high SES among his or her peers as a young adult, while a disadvantaged kindergartner with top-half test scores only has a 3 in 10 chance.

The results raise important questions, including: How effective have the billions of dollars spent on schools been? Will improving the country’s schools really lift the poor out of poverty, or are other policy initiatives necessary, too?

The authors looked at data from hundreds of thousands of students and made policy recommendations to try to level the educational playing field. They found:

  • Families with the highest socioeconomic status (SES) spend five times as much on enrichment activities as families with the lowest socioeconomic status.
  • Almost all children from the highest-SES families have at least one parent with some postsecondary education, compared with less than a third of children from the lowest-SES families.
  • Compared with students from the highest-SES families, a smaller share of lowest-SES students say they want to attend college, and even fewer perceive themselves as likely to attend.
  • Black, Latino and Asian children are more likely than white children to come from the lowest-SES families.
  • Kindergartners from high-SES families are more likely than their low-SES peers to score in the top half on math assessments. And the more disadvantaged that children are, the less likely they are to recover if their test scores fall.
  • Tenth-graders in the lowest-SES quartile are relatively likely to stay there as young adults, while 10th-graders in the highest SES quartile are relatively likely to maintain high SES.

The report also listed these key findings:

  1. In America, it is often better to be rich than smart. Among the affluent, even a kindergartner with test scores in the bottom half has a 7 in 10 chance of reaching high SES among his or her peers as a young adult. But for similarly talented white, black, Latino and Asian children from low-SES families, the meager material supports available along the way to adulthood subvert nature’s generosity. Across racial and ethnic groups, a disadvantaged kindergartner with test scores in the top half has approximately a 3 in 10 chance of being high SES by the age of 25.
  2. Even at an early age, environmental disparities by class, race, and ethnicity are evident in measures of children’s achievement. Only about a quarter of lowest-SES kindergartners have top-half math scores, compared with around three-quarters of highest-SES kindergartners. Children’s early scores also vary by race, in part because black and Latino children are twice as likely as white children to come from lowest-SES families.
  3. As children progress through primary school, they can improve on measures of achievement, but their chances of improvement correlate to their class status. Becoming high achieving is less likely for low-SES kindergartners with bottom-half math scores. By the eighth grade, fewer than 1 in 5 lowest-SES kindergartners with bottom-half math scores will score in the top half, compared with more than 2 in 5 highest-SES kindergartners with bottom-half math scores.
  4. A child from an advantaged class is more likely to maintain high scores than one from a poor family, and white and Asian children are more likely to do so than black or Latino children. For low-SES students with top-half math scores, staying at the top throughout their academic journeys is difficult. In addition, black and Latino students with top-half math scores in kindergarten are less likely than their white and Asian peers to persist in earning top scores.
  5. Achievement patterns are largely set by the time children enter high school. This is particularly evident for students with the lowest scores: students with bottom-quartile scores have difficulty improving their scores once they reach high school. Most 10th-graders who score in the bottom math quartile will still score in the bottom quartile in 12th grade.
  6. High school achievement sets the stage for college attainment — but family class plays an even greater role. The highest-SES students with bottom-half math scores are more likely to complete a college degree than the lowest-SES students with top-half math scores.
  7. Class mobility in the United States is limited — but education can be a lever for change. The lowest-SES 10th-graders with top-half math scores are twice as likely to become high-SES (top-half) young adults as their peers with bottom-half math scores. Disadvantaged students who show promise can achieve, but their chances are better with interventions — and while lowest-SES 10th-graders with bottom-half scores can become high SES, their chances are very slim.

Interestingly, one billionaire who has spent years supporting traditional forms of school reform, including the expansion of charter schools, has changed his mind. Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist who founded the public-policy incubator Civic Ventures, wrote in the Atlantic:

I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools — if we modernized our curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools — American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.
. . . What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid — and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me. Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers — at all levels of educational attainment — have seen little if any wage growth since 2000.

The researchers who did the study are Anthony P. Carnevale, Megan L. Fasules, Michael C. Quinn and Kathryn Peltier Campbell. Carnevale is the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Fasules is a research economist at the center, Quinn is a research analyst at the center, and Campbell is a senior editor and writer and postsecondary specialist at the center.

They examined data that follows students through primary and secondary education and into college and the workforce. The data comes from:

  • The American Community Survey, which is conducted annually by the Census Bureau, asks more than 3 million households about jobs and occupations, educational attainment, veteran status and whether people own or rent their homes, among other topics.
  • The Consumer Expenditure Survey, which looks at the buying habits of the U.S. population and is collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the kindergarten class of 1998-1999, which followed a nationally representative cohort of kindergartners, with follow-up data being collected in 2002, 2004 and 2007.

The researchers also used the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, which followed 10th-graders from 2002 to 2013. And they used newer versions of the surveys, which are ongoing, to test whether the trends remained the same — and they said they found they were.

The researchers made suggestions about interventions that could help change the dynamic, including:

  • Expand academic interventions that start before kindergarten. By the time students start kindergarten, they are already on different paths along which their advantages and disadvantages will continue to accumulate. Early childhood interventions are the most effective way to decrease the effects of adverse environments and improve educational outcomes. Increased access to high-quality preschool programs can increase school readiness and achievement and have long-term effects on educational attainment and earnings. Currently, programs such as Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund, as well as federal and state tax strategies, are available to help some families afford quality child care, but more could be done to increase access to all families.
  • Continue academic interventions throughout K-12. Later interventions, while not as cost-effective, are also important. Though they might not have much influence on cognitive ability, they have been shown to increase noncognitive ability, particularly grit. Another important aspect of later interventions is that they build on the progress of earlier interventions. Innovative schools have seen dramatic successes, as measured by high school graduation and college enrollment rates. These schools tend to take a wraparound approach that sets high expectations for students and provides the resources needed for them to meet those expectations. Although these successes can be challenging to replicate, they are promising models.
  • Improve and expand high school counseling. More students need better information and social supports to successfully transition from high school to postsecondary education and training. Workers with no more than a high school diploma are still able to obtain good jobs, but their opportunities to do so are few: Only about 20 percent of all good jobs in the economy go to people with a high school diploma or less, and these jobs are generally not occupied by women. The remaining 80 percent of good jobs require some form of postsecondary education and training. All students need better information when deciding whether and where to attend college, how to pay for it, which courses to take, and what majors to pursue. When making these decisions, they should know in what field they are most likely to find a job and how much they will earn with a postsecondary credential. Reforms to student advising at the high school level would go a long way toward preparing high school students for college and careers.
  • Integrate career exploration and preparation into the advising process. High school students do not have enough exposure to jobs, especially jobs that lead to middle-class careers. Today, only a quarter of teenagers have held any job, compared with more than half in the 1970s. To bridge the gap, we need to better connect education and careers while guarding against vocational tracking by race, class and gender. All programs should be available to all students, but they are particularly important for youths from socioeconomically disadvantaged families who have limited exposure to education and career pathways. Innovative approaches such as linked learning, career academies and early-college high schools already exist, but only on a small scale.
  • Career exploration beginning as early as elementary school could include activities such as counseling, career fairs and job shadowing. Students in high school and college should have access to internships, apprenticeships, mentorships and opportunities to acquire industry-based credentials. Every individual should be aware of the range of possible career preparation options, including postsecondary degree and certificate programs, apprenticeships, employer- or military-provided training and workforce development programs. At the same time, students in high school and college should receive both preparation for specific career tracks and a general education that includes exposure to a range of subject areas — a type of learning designed to convey adaptability and longevity in the workforce. With these changes in policy and practice, we can replicate some of the upper-class environment’s enriching characteristics so that all students are able to achieve their fullest potential.