Instead of deriding the one percent as being out of touch with the rest of us, maybe we can learn something from them–like how to improve our children’s educational success. Dr. Sean Reardon, a Stanford professor of education and sociology, believes that high-income parents are enriching their children’s educational opportunities, from the day they are born, in ways that no school or teacher can duplicate. And he’s right. Improving teachers and schools are undoubtedly essential, but what really seems to make a difference is improving the quality of parenting, because they affect children’s earliest environments.
What brought about this conclusion? The widening income gap. Dr. Reardon believes that this troubling trend reflects a deeper issue. He points to the increasing gap in SAT scores between the rich (90th percentile of income distribution) and the poor (10th percentile) — from 90 points in 1980 to 125 points today, which is almost twice as large as the 70 point test score gap between black and white children.
Overall, schools actually do their part to help. Math scores on the NAEP tests (“the nation’s report card”), for example, have trended upwards over the past few decades (even though reading scores are much less impressive). In fact, schools generally narrow the rich-poor achievement gap during the nine months that students are in attendance. During the summer, however, the gap is magnified. Wealthy students engage in stimulating experiences like volunteering, camping, and traveling that are significantly better than those even in middle class! Those in poverty, of course, have almost none.
Because affluence has grown rapidly over the last few decades, “the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor,” according to Reardon. This includes not just in academics, but also in extracurricular activities like sports, volunteer work, and church attendance. All because high-income families focus their resources on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. Social scientists often refer to this phenomenon as the “Matthew effect” or the “multiplier effect,” where certain advantages are leveraged to gain even more advantages. The result is an insurmountable gap.
So in the end, the readiness of poor (and middle class) children, or the lack of opportunities, is the real issue. The implications? Policymakers should focus more on what high-income families are doing and duplicate these efforts for disadvantaged children. Reardon specifically recommends investing in parents and helping them be better teachers themselves, a theme The Educated Society has long embraced. Only when parents understand the importance of reading to their children, cooking healthier meals, and giving children diverse experiences can we even the playing field. This, of course, is a societal issue.
The problem arises when an individualistic society becomes reluctant to part with resources to help the less fortunate. The fortunate can sometimes forget that the less fortunate are partly victims of circumstances. For instance, how can poor parents know the benefits of reading to their kids if they’ve never been read to? An individualistic society founded on the the Protestant work ethic and the Horatio Algiers story can afford to rely on individual gumption because they’ve been blessed with an environment that fosters it. Willpower is overrated. Losing weight or reducing crime, for the most part, is not due to higher levels of determination; but rather to the systems and supports in place that foster progress. In other words, we need to create the right culture. That’s why creating a culture of education should be be our highest priority.
In the absence of this culture, “pockets of excellence” exists that are unsustainable. Duplicating what the “one-percent” do (e.g., focusing resources on child’s development and educational success) by creating systems that build parental capacity will lead to lasting change. I’m curious to see what will become of President Obama’s early childhood initiatives.