Speak and spell


WBEZ reports that while suburban schools are growing more diverse and less segregated—as would be expected, given demographic trends—achievement gaps persist:

As the state moves to new ways of measuring student success in the next two years, officials say the new measures of accountability will focus even more on closing those gaps.

Consider this: The number of “racially balanced” schools in Chicago’s suburbs has quadrupled in the last 20 years. Today, just four percent of all suburban schools are 90 percent or more white.

But according to state schools data out today, many of those increasingly diverse schools have some of the widest achievement gaps in the state. 

It's an uphill battle. The achievement gap has been going the wrong way for decades. Before I came across the WBEZ piece, I was reading some disconsolating research from Stanford's Sean Reardon on this same subject. The data gets better as it goes along, and more depressing:

Although the tests used are not exactly comparable across all the studies included, both figures show a clear trend of increasing income achievement gaps across cohorts born over a nearly sixty-year period. The estimated income achievement gaps among children born in 2001 are roughly 75 percent larger than the estimated gaps among children born in the early 1940s. The gap appears to have grown among cohorts born in the 1940s and early 1950s, stabilized for cohorts born from the 1950s through the mid-1970s, and then grown steadily since the mid-1970s. Although the trend in achievement gaps prior to 1970 is somewhat unclear, the trend from the mid-1970s to 2001 appears relatively clear—statistical models indicate that the income achievement gap has grown by roughly 40 to 50 percent within twenty-five years, a very sizable increase.

Well, not all bad news. During that period there's been a remarkable shift:

[T]he income achievement gap (defined here as the income difference between a child from a family at the 90th percentile of the family income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile) is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. Fifty years ago, in contrast, the black-white gap was one and a half to two times as large as the income gap.

He argues that we did some things right: desegregation, affirmative action, and fair housing laws narrowed racial achievement gaps. By the end of the 1970s, racial disparities were narrowing, but then income inequality began to increase dramatically, and with it, differences educational achievement.

Reardon acknowledges that income inequality, strictly speaking, has grown during that period. But that raises a question: how much do mere dollars matter?

These analyses, although not conclusive, suggest that the growth of the income achievement gap is not explained solely by rising income inequality. Rather, the association if achievement with family income (in logged dollars) has grown stronger over time, particularly among families in the upper half of the income distribution. That is, the average difference in academic achievement between two children from above-median income families whose family incomes differ by a factor of 2 has grown substantially (by 30 to 60 percent) over the last several decades.

Obviously wealthier families will have more resources to devote to their children. But they also know the importance of doing so, thanks to a massive societal shift that occurred during the middle of the 20th century:

Prior to 1930, fewer than one in six of the articles Wrigley addressed the issue of intellectual stimulation of babies, and many of these argued that intellectual stimulation was actually harmful. Children were seen in these articles as largely “vegetative” beings, and the primary role of parents was to keep them healthy and quiet. Wrigley found that a focus on the intellectual development of children became much more prominent beginning in 1960s. Almost half of all parenting articles published in popular magazines between 1960 and 1985 discuss the intellectual development of children, more than double the proportion in the 1950s.

What happened? In part, the War on Poverty. The kinds of research popularized and encouraged by programs like Head Start also emphasized to wealthier families the importance of early childhood education. It wasn't just the achievement gap; it was also the missile gap that pushed postwar America to improve its educational system, and the result was an explosion of pop science on childhood education. You can draw a (sketchy) line from Baby Einstein back to the War on Poverty:

In addition, in a recent paper using data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenburg (2010) find that families’ spending on children increased substantially from 1972 to 2007, particularly among high-income and college-educated families. Spending increases were particularly sharp among families with preschool-age children. Consistent with this is evidence that the relationship between family income and preschool enrollment among three- and four-year-old children grew from the late 1960s to the late 1980s (Bainbridge et al. 2005). These patterns are broadly consistent with the hypothesis that the rising income achievement gap is at least partly driven by the increasing investment of upper-income families in their children’s cognitive development, particularly during the preschool years, though the evidence is far from conclusive on this point.

In the WBEZ piece, you can see the legacy of civil rights and the War on Poverty, as schools take positive steps to decrease racial disparities in the classroom. But the headwind is stiff—and, history suggests, has at least some of its origins in the War on Poverty itself.


Photograph: Yusuf C (CC by 2.0)