Poverty and Educational Attainment, Part I

In recent week, several excellent publications have crossed my desk or shown up on the Internet resources I read regularly. In this first of several postings on poverty and it’s effect on educational attainment, I’ll continue to build on one of my regular themes in this blog–that the effects of poverty on children are the elephant in the education reform movement. Everyone knows poverty impedes learning, but the well-know reform leaders, ostrich-like, refuse to confront the realities that researchers have elucidated again and again.

The Income-Achievement Gap

The theme of the May issue of Educational Leadership is “Faces of Poverty.” I think this issue is among the best I’ve ever read, and is particularly important to those of us who are concerned that this fundamental impediment to educational progress is being overlooked or intentionally ignored.  If you don’t subscribe already, you can purchase this issue for $7.00 on the ASCD website.  The first article is entitled “The Widening Income-Achievement Gap,” from Sean Reardon. Sean has looked at 50 years of data on the relationship between achievement and family income, using data from 12 national studies in which the achievement measures were standardized reading or math tests.

The Income Achievement Gap is Growing

Reardon points out that in the 60’s the income achievement gap between the 90th and 10th income percentiles was 0.9 standard deviations on standardized test scores. Today it’s 1.25 standard deviations. Over the same period, the black-white achievement gap has gone in the opposite direction–from nearly 1.25 SDs to about 0.6 SDs. This, he suggests, represents considerable success within schools in addressing racial equality, but highlights the problems that increasing economic stratification has created. The income achievement gap is growing across all racial populations is now at an all-time high in American life.

Furthermore, these income gaps are showing up in other measures of educational attainment such as college completion rates, enrollment at selective colleges, and participation in ‘soft skills’ like sports, clubs, and participation in extracurricular activities and community life.

The Gap Starts Early and Continues Through School

Gaps are observable in early childhood and kindergarten programs, and as students progress into higher grades, the gap continues. It grows slowly, but not significantly, and Reardon suggests this demonstrates that the cause of the gap is not unequal school quality (emphasis Reardon). Further analysis of the data suggests the gap actually closes during the school year and widens in the summer.

Increased Economic Stratification

Several changes in American society are suggested as causes of the gap. In the 50’s, families at the 90th percentile of income earned 5 time that of families at the 10th percentile. Today that gap is 11 times. Upward social mobility has also decreased as middle class jobs have disappeared. Today, upward mobility in the US is lower than in almost every other developed country of the world.

High income families usually have two parent caregivers supporting their children and providing resources for their success. Low income families are far more likely to be headed by single women with low educational attainment.

At the extremes of family income, between 1977 and 2007, the income of families at the 90th percentile increased 90 percent, while families in the bottom 20th percentile saw increases of only 7 percent, falling farther and farther behind every year. (Duncan and Murnane, (Eds.), 2011, Whither Opportunity?, New York, Russell Sage Foundation.)

College and Career Ready as the Measure of Achievement

Today, we are laboring under increasing pressure to get children ‘college and career’ ready, with educational programs that claim to be designed to prepare kids to continue in higher education after high school completion. One can question whether new standards appropriately reflect career readiness, unless the career required academic training–we do an abysmal job of meeting the needs of young adults who want to learn a trade. Much of society has gone along with the notion that success in life requires an advanced college program of some kind, of 2 years or more.

With the decline of formerly middle class jobs, overall generic data suggests that many of the employment sectors that are expanding, and that pay middle class wages, require higher educational levels, thus justifying the push toward college standards. This ignores the kinds of jobs that keep the backbone of the nation running. The national infrastructure continues to erode, and the vast majority of construction jobs don’t require college level training. So too, many manufacturing jobs–assembly lines in the auto industry have a few highly skilled tasks, but most are not. In general, the construction trades are not technical jobs either. And we rely on low-skill jobs for our day to day operations–retail sales, care of the elderly, clerical work, … the list goes on and on.

As a nation, we are very close to defining college ready as the only measure that counts. This is short-sighted, and indirectly suggests that certain employment opportunities will increasing be filled only by the children of the bottom 20%, who simply, overall, do not have the resources to thrive in a society with an ever-increasing income opportunity gap.