It has always been true that richer children surpass their poorer peers in grades and test scores, participation in extracurricular activities and leadership positions, as well as high school and college graduation rates. This is true regardless of race or ethnicity. What is news, however, is that this achievement gap is growing substantially and the solution may not rest with schools, but with families.
A New York Times article by Sean F. Reardon, called “No Rich Child Left Behind,” revealed a number of disturbing patterns in the achievements of poor and rich children:
- The gap in math and reading scores between poor and rich students over the past 50 years has grown by 40 percent.
- The gap between the top 10 percent and bottom 90 percent of students on SAT scores has grown from 90 points to 125 points since 1980. (This is almost double the gap between black and white students.)
- College completion rates grew 18 percent over the past 20 years for affluent children, while only increasing 4 percent for poor students.
Before 1980, the affluent did not have a big advantage over the middle class and the real disparity in education was between the middle class and poor children. “But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.” More importantly, the number of poor children has increased dramatically, with almost a quarter of all children growing up in poverty today and another 45 percent being raised in low-income families. As the incomes of the rich have grown, so have their educational gains.
The conclusion, however, is the gap in achievement is not because poor children are doing worse or that their schools have failed them. Neither is it because the gap between blacks and whites or Hispanics and non-Hispanics is growing; in fact, the gap has been narrowing slowly over the past 20 years. The gap is growing because wealthy parents are investing more time and money in the preschool years and their children are more ready to take advantage of elementary school. For instance, the amount of time spent with children among college-educated parents is increasing twice as fast as the amount of time spent by less educated parents. Another study found that children from high-income families increased their time in enrichment activities by 150 percent between 1972 and 2006, while time in these activities by children in low-income families grew by 57 percent. The Times article concludes with a sad reality: “We blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the results of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.”
The most helpful insight to draw from these patterns is that increased parent involvement and greater access to early childhood enrichment can lead to greater school success. Preschool and parenting should be the cornerstone of any educational reform initiatives.