End of the American Dream?

August 28, 2012

Income disparities are widening the achievement gap

It’s a well-established fact that the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer, and that there are fewer and fewer people in between. What’s not so well known is how that income gap may be translating into disparities in educational success––and what that might mean for the long-term future of individuals, economically challenged groups, and our entire nation.

A recently published study by Professor Sean Reardon is sounding alarm bells. Reardon has found that the gap in test scores between the highest and lowest-income students has grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s and is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

“That disparity is leading to a feedback cycle in which it's becoming harder and harder to achieve the American dream,” says Reardon, an expert on the causes and consequences of social and educational inequality. As he explains it, if family income is a predictor of how well people do in school, and if school performance determines how much people earn in the market, then economic inequality is only breeding more economic inequality. Education is no longer the pathway to social mobility in the United States that it once was.

Related studies have found that the college completion rate for children from high-income families has grown sharply in the last few decades, while the completion rate for students from low-income families has barely moved. “This rising gap in academic skills and college completion has come at a time when the economy relies increasingly on well-educated workers,” say Reardon. “Largely gone are the manufacturing jobs that provided a middle-class wage but did not require a college degree.” In today's economy, then, young men and women without college degrees are increasingly consigned to low-wage jobs with little opportunity for advancement. This is making educational achievement more and more critical.

Especially alarming, then, is Reardon’s finding that the gap in test scores means that the lowest-income children are lagging a crippling four years worth of schooling behind their more wealthy peers. Fifty years ago, they were lacking only about two and a half years behind.

Roots of the Growing Divide

“Schools are not the primary cause of the problem,” asserts Reardon. “If they were, the test-score gap would widen as students progress through school, but this does not happen. The test-score gap between eighth-grade students from high-and low-income families is no larger than the school-readiness gap among kindergartners. The roots of widening educational inequality appear to lie in early childhood, not in schools.”

Why? Parents who are struggling to make ends meet have little time to worry about their children's cognitive development, and they don't have the funds to pay for their enrichment, explains Reardon, whose research attracted national attention after being published as a chapter in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances (Russell Sage Foundation, 2011). In contrast, parents who are economically comfortable are able to spend more time reading with their children and have more money to buy stimulating games and pay for enriching activities. “It's not about a lack of parental skills. The problem is structural,” he says.

The good news is that, in terms of test scores, African American students are now closer to white students than low-income children are to high-income children. But the knowledge that the racial achievement gap has narrowed over the past few decades is cold comfort in the face of this new finding, which spans all races and ethnicities and speaks to a growing tear in the fabric of American society.

The solutions, then, Reardon posits, are economic and social. “The best way to reduce inequality and educational outcomes is to ensure that all students start on a more even footing. This would take a number of levers,” he says. “We need to make sure people have access to stable jobs that pay a living wage. We need affordable health care, and we need a social safety net to support families through the hard times between jobs. We also need high-quality child-care and preschool programs for low-and middle-income children. This would relieve their stress and allow them to help develop their children's potential.”

Striking a Nerve

Reardon took his case to Capitol Hill on April 19, where he spoke at a briefing sponsored by the Stanford Center on Opportunity Policy in Education and the Economic Policy Institute. The New York Times, The Boston Review, blogs, and other media have also picked up on the story, which, Reardon says, “has struck a nerve.”

“In preliminary meetings for our book, we thought that Sean’s plan to look at 17 data sets on test scores spanning 40 years was incredibly ambitious, but, remarkably, with the help of some very good graduate students, he did it,” says Greg Duncan, a professor of education at the University of California at Irvine and one of the editors of Whither Opportunity. “The results are dramatic. The extent to which educational opportunities and future labor market prospects of rich and poor children have diverged over the last 40 years is not something our country wants to believe about itself, but it's an undeniable fact that we have to come to terms with.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford, observes, “Because the broader social safety net is now more tattered for children, the effects of coming from a low-income background are now worse for kids than when we were more socially stable. Sean’s results show us that it's not simply a question of ‘getting schools to do better.’ Poverty does matter. This points to the need for wrap-around services for children before they even get to kindergarten, as well as while they are in school.”

“We can––and must––do more to improve our schools, of course, particularly those schools that enroll low-income students,” says Reardon. “But schools alone cannot save the American dream.”