By Foluke Nunn
Professor of Education Sean Reardon recently published a controversial New York Times opinion piece titled "No Rich Child Left Behind," in which he detailed his research on the widening achievement gap between students from high- and low-income families. Reardon spoke with The Daily about the feedback he has received on the piece and his thoughts on how the achievement gap can be narrowed.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why did you decide to write an Op-Ed for The New York Times, and what did you hope to achieve through writing the article?
Sean Reardon (SR): They actually asked me to. They have this ongoing series called “The Great Divide” on various aspects of inequality… As academics, we do research about things we think are important and try to learn things that we hope will be important to other people, but often the community of people who hear about that is a relatively small community of other scholars interested in the same thing. So I thought the Op-Ed would be a chance to raise some of the issues that I’d been thinking about for a broader public conversation.
TSD: What kinds of research have you done in the past about the impact of income on educational performance?
SR: I’ve looked at the relationship between family income and students’ academic achievement measured by standardized test scores over the last 50 years, and to some extent by access to college or access to selective colleges, and things like that. The research shows that the relationship between family income and academic achievement has gotten much stronger over time and the gap between high- and low-income students in their achievement is much bigger than it used to be.
TSD: In your opinion, why is the achievement gap widening?
SR: It’s partly because income inequality has been widening and so high-income families have more money relative to middle-class or low-income families. But it seems to be much more than that. It seems to be that having money, or things correlated with having more money, like high levels of parent education, two-parent families versus single-parent families, where you live…matter more for academic achievement than they used to. So it’s not just that rich people have more money than they used to relative to the poor, it’s that money or things related to money matter more for academic achievement than they used to.
TSD: What could be done to give children from low-income families an equal chance of succeeding?
SR: I think a couple things. One is we could do more to reduce the growth in income inequality… it’s not just a matter of helping the children of low-income families, it’s a matter of helping children from low- and middle-income families get the same educational opportunities that the children of high-income families are getting. So how do we do that? One thing we could do is invest a lot more in early childhood, high-quality childcare, high-quality preschool that would be accessible and affordable to low-income and middle-income families. We can do more in the K-12 years, but the widening gap isn’t because of a problem in K-12 education, the widening gap seems to be there when kids get to kindergarten.
TSD: When it comes to issues like academic achievement gaps, what do you think is the biggest obstacle to change?
SR: I think we live in a society that believes very deeply that it’s a meritocracy, that hard work and effort and talent will win at the end of the day. At some level we think that everyone has the same opportunity, but there’s lots and lots of evidence that not everyone has the same opportunity. Lots of people say, “Well I grew up in a poor family and look at all that I’ve accomplished,” or people point to their favorite success story of someone who grew up in a low-income family or under disadvantaged circumstances… [but] there are vastly more stories where the people who are successful grew up in more advantaged backgrounds, or stories where people who grew up in disadvantaged backgrounds weren’t able to achieve that.
There’s certainly some social mobility and upward mobility in America, but there’s also a lot of barriers and a lot of reasons why it’s hard to move up if you come from a lower income background. And saying that it’s not true doesn’t make them go away, but until we acknowledge them it’s harder to figure out how to fix them.
TSD: What kinds of responses have you received to your Op-Ed?
SR: An enormous range. I got 100 emails in response to it. There were, I think, over 1,000 comments on The New York Times website… I got every imaginable range of response to it, from “this is a big problem and we’re glad you called attention to it” to “this isn’t a problem at all, and why are you inciting class warfare?” I think the nice thing is that there was a conversation that happened, I think a lot of people got engaged in talking about it as a result.
TSD: How can students who are concerned about these issues work to resolve them?
SR: I would love to see students talking about it and thinking about it. I mean, there are big questions here, there are questions about what fairness and equality are, and there’s lots of room to disagree, lots of room to have passionate, reasoned conversation about how much and what kinds of inequality a society should tolerate and what kinds society should not tolerate… if anyone’s good at figuring out how to change society, it’s young people, because they’re not so deeply invested in the way it is now and are intensely passionate about the future they have in front of them and want it to be a future that is just and fair. I’d love to see college students debate and argue and engage and read and think, but I don’t know what the answer that comes out of that is and I don’t think I should.