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Buying a head start

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | April 13, 2011

The widening gaps between Americans of average wealth and well-off Americans, and especially, super-well-off Americans over the last 40 years have now been fully documented and heavily discussed. But it’s not just about money. We are seeing, as well, growing economic, social, geographical, and cultural divisions between Americans of less and more education. (See, e.g., this earlier post.)

classroom with small children

Barnaby Watson via Flikr

Now, Sean Reardon of the Stanford School of Education has described another way that these two developments have increasingly combined to widen social class differences. More and more over the last four decades, affluent parents have leveraged their financial assets into better academic skills for their children. Having those greater skills, in turn, gives their kids an even larger head start in the race for higher education and its financial payoff.

Falling behind

Kids from well-off families do better on math and reading tests than kids from poorly-off families do. That’s well-known and has been true for as long as there have been such tests. Why this is so has been long debated and the answers have ranged from the genetic — rich parents are rich because they have smarter genes (see the infamous book, The Bell Curve) and their kids inherit those genes; to the economic — rich parents can buy the best schooling for their children; to the skeptical — the tests are rigged for the rich kids. What Reardon has found which sheds new light on this old debate is that the size of the rich kids’ advantage has grown considerably in just 40 years.

Reardon collected data from 19 nationally representative studies of children’s cognitive achievement for ages ranging from 1 to 18. The studies were conducted from 1960 to 2007. He compared the average scores of children who came from high-income families (those at the 90th percentile, which is about $160,000 in today’s dollars) to those from low-income families (those at the 10th percentile, about $17,500 today). The first group always does a lot better on age-appropriate reading and math tests than the second. But the key finding is that the test gap has been widening for a generation; it is about 35% larger for kids born around 2000 than for kids born about 1975.

Strikingly, over the same period the gap in test scores between black and white children, about which much has been written, shrank. The rich-poor gap is now one-and-a-half times larger than the race gap; 50 years ago it was just about the reverse.


What happened? Reardon considers a few possibilities. The data suggest that the score difference grew not simply because the income gap in America has grown. And the data suggest that widening does not simply reflect educational differences between rich parents and poor parents. What seems to have happened is that money is “buying” more and more cognitive development.

Reardon points to a phenomenon that many of us older middle-class parents experienced: the growing emphasis on purposefully, energetically nurturing your children’s academic skills earlier and earlier in their lives.

Sociologist Annette Lareau, in an important 2003 book, described the contrast between middle-class and working-class child-rearing styles. Working-class parents typically feel, she found, that children, as long as they are loved and well cared for, “naturally” grow up well pretty much on their own. Middle-class parents typically feel that children need, in addition, to be “cultivated” to be successful – to be talked to, taught, coached, exposed to learning experiences, and empowered.

child at computer via flikr

In recent decades, the academic expectations for the well-cultivated child have risen. And the things you can buy to cultivate their academic skills have boomed: educational software for infants, early childhood educational programs, pre-school enrichment classes, after-school lessons, tutors, summer camps with intellectual themes, and so on. Reardon cites research suggesting that professional child-rearing advice articles and books more and more stress intellectual cultivation. Also, middle-class parents have been spending more time with their children and spending more money on their children. Even among parents with the same level of education, the ones with more income seem increasingly better able than those with less income to raise their children’s test scores.

While some enrichment activities are free (if a parent has time — which is another thing money can sometimes buy for you), many require purchases – books, software, special classes, coaches, travel, and the like. If these things actually make an intellectual difference, then their proliferation in recent years can explain Reardon’s findings.

In any case, we are seeing here as we see in other spheres of American life — residential segregation, college access, job security, among others — a growing class division among Americans.