An investment in early childhood development improves the chances kids at risk have for a good life, but the challenges are still daunting, as Jason DeParle describes in this amazing piece of reporting in Poor Students Struggle as Class Plays a Greater Role in Success – (NYTimes, 12/23/12).
He tells the stories of 3 young women from very poor families in Galveston, TX. Here are some of the points he makes:
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.
Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.
In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge.
“It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.”
Income has always shaped academic success, but its importance is growing. Professor Reardon, the Stanford sociologist, examined a dozen reading and math tests dating back 25 years and found that the gap in scores of high- and low-income students has grown by 40 percent, even as the difference between blacks and whites has narrowed.
While race once predicted scores more than class, the opposite now holds. By eighth grade, white students surpass blacks by an average of three grade levels, while upper-income students are four grades ahead of low-income counterparts.
“The racial gaps are quite big, but the income gaps are bigger,” Professor Reardon said.
One explanation is simply that the rich have clearly gotten richer. A generation ago, families at the 90th percentile had five times the income of those at the 10th percentile. Now they have 10 times as much.
But as shop class gave way to computer labs, schools may have also changed in ways that make parental income and education more important. SAT coaches were once rare, even for families that could afford them. Now they are part of a vast college preparation industry.
Certainly as the payoff to education has grown — college graduates have greatly widened their earnings lead — affluent families have invested more in it. They have tripled the amount by which they outspend low-income families on enrichment activities like sports, music lessons and summer camps, according to Professor Duncan and Prof. Richard Murnane of Harvard.
In addition, upper-income parents, especially fathers, have increased their child-rearing time, while the presence of fathers in low-income homes has declined. Miss G. said there is a reason the triplets relied so heavily on boyfriends: “Their fathers weren’t there.”
Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials, a problem that would trail Melissa and Angelica in their journey through college.
“Middle-class students get the sense the institution will respond to them,” Professor Lareau said. “Working-class and poor students don’t experience that. It makes them more vulnerable.”
Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution has found that low-income students finish college less often than affluent peers even when they outscore them on skills tests. Only 26 percent of eighth graders with below-average incomes but above-average scores go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, compared with 30 percent of students with subpar performances but more money.
“These are students who have already overcome significant obstacles to score above average on this test,” Mr. Chingos said. “To see how few earn college degrees is really disturbing.”
Among the perils that low-income students face is “under-matching,” choosing a close or familiar school instead of the best they can attend.
“The more selective the institution is, the more likely kids are to graduate,” said Mr. Chingos, the Brookings researcher. “There are higher expectations, more resources and more stigma to dropping out.”
The idea that education can be “selfish” — a belief largely alien among the upper-middle class — is one poor students often confront, even if it remains unspoken. “Family is such a priority, especially when you’re a Hispanic female,” Miss G. said. “You’re afraid you’re going to hear, ‘You’re leaving us, you think you’re better.’ ”