Almost fifty years ago, in 1966, the Coleman Report famously highlighted the relationship between family socioeconomic status and student achievement. Family socioeconomic characteristics continue to be among the strongest predictors of student achievement, but while there is a considerable body of research that seeks to tease apart this relationship, the causes and mechanisms of this relationship have been the subject of considerable disagreement and debate. Much of the scholarly research on the socioeconomic achievement gradient has focused largely on trying to understand the mechanisms through which factors like income, parental educational attainment, family structure, neighborhood conditions, school quality, as well as parental preferences, investments, and choices lead to differences in children’s academic and educational success. Still, we know little about the trends in socioeconomic achievement gaps over a lengthy period of time.
The question posed in this article is whether and how the relationship between family socioeconomic characteristics and academic achievement has changed during the last fifty years, with a particular focus on rising income inequality. As the income gap between high- and low-income families has widened, has the achievement gap between children in high- and low income families also widened? The answer, in brief, is yes. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier.