Economic Inequality is the Root Cause of Education Inequality

A groundbreaking new book demonstrates that increasing inequalities in education outcomes are associated with growing income inequality. It shows that rising economic inequality is undermining one of the most important goals of public education—the ability of schools to provide children with an equal chance at academic and economic success.

The book shows that as the gap in the incomes of affluent and poor families have increased over the past three decades in the United States, so too has the educational performance of their children. Inequality in reading and mathematics achievement, college graduation rates, and spending on enrichment activities such as music or art lessons, or travel have all increased.

Between 1978 and 2008, the gap between the average mathematics and reading test scores of children from high- and low-income families in the US grew by a third. This growing test score gap has been reflected in a growing gap in completed schooling. Over the last 20 years, the rate of affluent children who completed college increased by 21 percentage points, while the graduation rate of children from low-income families increased by only 4 percentage points.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune, the editors of the book state that the market-based reforms in education have ignored the core problem behind these gaps:

Debating the merits of teachers unions, charter schools and test-based accountability all fail to address the core problem, which is that growth in family income inequality has eroded educational opportunities.

The book Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances is one of the most ambitious studies of educational inequality to date and analyses how social and economic conditions surrounding schools affect school performance and children’s educational achievement.

One chapter by contributor Meredith Phillip shows that from earliest childhood, parental investments in children’s learning affect reading, mathematics, and other attainments later in life. In the early 1970s, the gap between what parents in the top and bottom quintiles spent on enrichment activities such as music lessons, travel and summer camps was approximately $2,700 per year (in 2008 dollars). By 2005-2006, the difference had increased to $7,500. Between birth and age six, wealthier children will have spent as many as 1,300 more hours than poor children on child enrichment activities such as music lessons, travel, and summer camp.

Greg Duncan, George Farkas, and Katherine Magnuson demonstrate that a child from a poor family is two to four times as likely as a child from an affluent family to have classmates with low skills and behaviour problems. As a result of such disparities, contributor Sean Reardon finds that the gap between rich and poor children’s math and reading achievement scores is now much larger than it was fifty years ago. And such income-based gaps persist across the school years, as Martha Bailey and Sue Dynarski document in their chapter on the growing income-based gap in college completion.

Children from poor families are also especially likely to attend schools with high rates of student turnover during the school year. Stephen Raudenbush, Marshall Jean, and Emily Art find that students learn less if they attend schools with high student turnover during the school year.

David Kirk and Robert Sampson show that teacher commitment, parental involvement, and student achievement in schools in high-crime neighbourhoods all tend to be low. Schools serving high concentrations of poor, non-white and low-achieving students find it difficult to attract and retain skilled teachers. When teachers leave after only a short period of time, there is little payoff to investments in improving their skills, and it is difficult to coordinate instruction among teachers, a feature that characterizes effective schools.

The editors call for policies that address the consequences of rising inequality and poverty and improve the life chances of the children from low-income families. They say that promising policy responses include early direct investments in children, particularly through high-quality preschool programs that teach the basic cognitive skills and socio-emotional skills that children need to thrive in schools, and income supports such as the earned income tax credit that raise the income of low-wage workers and have been shown to strengthen poor families and boost children’s school successes.

We do not mean to imply that school policies do not matter; they do. But only by enacting policies that address the underlying problem of economic inequality will our country remain a place where education opens the door to opportunity and upward social mobility — the kind of society in which all Americans can take pride.

Trevor Cobbold

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