Friday, May 03, 2013

Rich Kids are Doing Fine... And its News?

A few days ago, Sean Reardon shared an observation which he suggested may not surprise you, "the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families."

So let me see... kids who on the whole have the most educated parents, the most affluent homes and best home environments, safe neighborhoods, good schools, and ready access to additional resources if they start to flounder, do better on the whole than the kids who do not have those advantages? Let me guess - the next thing that may not surprise me is that kids who have the least educated parents, the poorest homes and home environments, unsafe neighborhoods, schools that struggle to maintain order and perhaps even to maintain their basic facilities, and who have trouble accessing additional resources even if their parents attempt to find and utilize those resources, bring up the bottom?

The author notes that this is a phenomenon associated with wealth, not gaps in racial achievement or a decline in school performance. He argues that school quality is a small part of the difference.
The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich....

The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.
The author paints an idyllic picture of a typical wealthy family,
Money helps families provide cognitively stimulating experiences for their young children because it provides more stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and — in places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs — access to preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors themselves.
I doubt, however, that the phenomenon is explained by the small percentage of wealthy families who employ tutors to prepare their children for kindergarten admission tests. Also, let's note, being tutored for a test can make you perform better on that test, and that can be particularly true of aptitude tests, but what you end up with is not evidence that one group is outperforming another by any measure other than the test. Instead, you end up with an invalid measure. We can talk of, "support[ing] working families so that they can read to their children more often", but in some of those wealthy families the reading is done by the nanny, and I suspect that modeling remains a significant factor - if the only books (real or virtual) you have in your home are the ones you read to your kids, that may indicate both motivation and the possibility that your kids will engage with books in a way you do not; if you have a home full of books and spend a lot of time reading, the odds go way up that your kids will follow your lead.

That said, we already know that giving children an enriched preschool environment can significantly improve a child's performance as they enter school. Despite the anti-Head Start demagoguery (that after the child starts school and you end the enrichment, you see a reversion to the mean over the next few years), we know how to boost a child's academic performance. As various experiments have shown, both in public school and charter school settings, kids from impoverished community perform better in school when they spend more hours in the classroom and receive tutoring. Shocking, isn't it?

Rich people care about education, they can vote with their feet if they don't like the performance of their child's preschool or public school, and they can and largely will avail themselves of resources when their kids struggle. They are also positioned to help their kids pursue their interests, whether academic, artistic or athletic. Basically, if you're wealthy you're much more likely to care about education. "But middle class families value education," you protest? Sure, but our society largely cares about education in the abstract. Education matters, but teachers get paid too much, kids don't really need art or music, and a B is good enough - particularly if you're good at sports.

Although anybody's best laid plans can gang aft agley, there's a difference between hoping your child goes to college and gets a degree, and expecting that your child to attend a top university and proceed to graduate school. It's easy to find public schools that bring kids in several weeks in advance of the start of school for sports, and put significant resources into sports equipment, facilities and coaching. It's easy to find schools where past sports victories are trumpeted, and sports trophies and banners prominently displayed. You rarely find the same sort of priority being placed on academics. Its not an either or - you can push both sports and academics - but our society's choices reflect its actual values.

Let's remember also, the lowest performing children of the wealthy tend to earn more money than the highest performing children from poor families. Wealth has advantages, and those advantages affect motivation and outcome.

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