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“The Great Divide”: No Rich Child Left Behind

Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.

Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.

What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially.

One way to see this is to look at the scores of rich and poor students on standardized math and reading tests over the last 50 years. When I did this using information from a dozen large national studies conducted between 1960 and 2010, I found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago.

To make this trend concrete, consider two children, one from a family with income of $165,000 and one from a family with income of $15,000. These incomes are at the 90th and 10th percentiles of the income distribution nationally, meaning that 10 percent of children today grow up in families with incomes below $15,000 and 10 percent grow up in families with incomes above $165,000.

In the 1980s, on an 800-point SAT-type test scale, the average difference in test scores between two such children would have been about 90 points; today it is 125 points. This is almost twice as large as the 70-point test score gap between white and black children. Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race.

The same pattern is evident in other, more tangible, measures of educational success, like college completion. In a study similar to mine, Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, economists at the University of Michigan, found that the proportion of students from upper-income families who earn a bachelor’s degree has increased by 18 percentage points over a 20-year period, while the completion rate of poor students has grown by only 4 points.

In a more recent study, my graduate students and I found that 15 percent of high-income students from the high school class of 2004 enrolled in a highly selective college or university, while fewer than 5 percent of middle-income and 2 percent of low-income students did.

These widening disparities are not confined to academic outcomes: new research by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam and his colleagues shows that the rich-poor gaps in student participation in sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and church attendance have grown sharply as well.

In San Francisco this week, more than 14,000 educators and education scholars have gathered for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. The theme this year is familiar: Can schools provide children a way out of poverty?

We are still talking about this despite decades of clucking about the crisis in American education and wave after wave of school reform.Whatever we’ve been doing in our schools, it hasn’t reduced educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income families.

Part of knowing what we should do about this is understanding how and why these educational disparities are growing. For the past few years, alongside other scholars, I have been digging into historical data to understand just that. The results of this research don’t always match received wisdom or playground folklore.

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.

Before we can figure out what’s happening here, let’s dispel a few myths.

The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation’s Report Card, have been rising — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group.

The widening income disparity in academic achievement is not a result of widening racial gaps in achievement, either. The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites have been narrowing slowly over the last two decades, trends that actually keep the yawning gap between higher- and lower-income students from getting even wider. If we look at the test scores of white students only, we find the same growing gap between high- and low-income children as we see in the population as a whole.

It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. We know this because children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between kindergarten and high school. There is some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t important differences in quality between schools serving low- and high-income students — there certainly are — but they appear to do less to reinforce the trends than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

If not the usual suspects, what’s going on? It boils down to this: 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.

My research suggests that one part of the explanation for this is rising income inequality. As you may have heard, the incomes of the rich have grown faster over the last 30 years than the incomes of the middle class and the poor. 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.

But rising income inequality explains, at best, half of the increase in the rich-poor academic achievement gap. It’s not just that the rich have more money than they used to, it’s that they are using it differently. This is where things get really interesting.

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages. It may seem self-evident that parents with more resources are able to invest more — more of both money and of what Mr. Putnam calls “‘Goodnight Moon’ time” — in their children’s development. But even though middle-class and poor families are also increasing the time and money they invest in their children, they are not doing so as quickly or as deeply as the rich.

The economists Richard J. Murnane and Greg J. Duncan report that from 1972 to 2006 high-income families increased the amount they spent on enrichment activities for their children by 150 percent, while the spending of low-income families grew by 57 percent over the same time period. Likewise, the amount of time parents spend with their children has grown twice as fast since 1975 among college-educated parents as it has among less-educated parents. The economists Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, call this escalation of early childhood investment “the rug rat race,” a phrase that nicely captures the growing perception that early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong educational and economic competition.

It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.

We’re also slow to understand what’s happening, I think, because the nature of the problem — a growing educational gap between the rich and the middle class — is unfamiliar. After all, for much of the last 50 years our national conversation about educational inequality has focused almost exclusively on strategies for reducing inequalities between the educational successes of the poor and the middle class, and it has relied on programs aimed at the poor, like Head Start and Title I.

We’ve barely given a thought to what the rich were doing. With the exception of our continuing discussion about whether the rising costs of higher education are pricing the middle class out of college, we don’t have much practice talking about what economists call “upper-tail inequality” in education, much less success at reducing it.

Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

We need to start talking about this. Strangely, the rapid growth in the rich-poor educational gap provides a ray of hope: if the relationship between family income and educational success can change this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern. What changed once can change again. Policy choices matter more than we have recently been taught to think.

So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born. Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it.

But we need to do much more than expand and improve preschool and child care. There is a lot of discussion these days about investing in teachers and “improving teacher quality,” but improving the quality of our parenting and of our children’s earliest environments may be even more important. Let’s invest in parents so they can better invest in their children.

This means finding ways of helping parents become better teachers themselves. This might include strategies to support working families so that they can read to their children more often.. It also means expanding programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership that have proved to be effective at helping single parents educate their children; but we also need to pay for research to develop new resources for single parents.

It might also mean greater business and government support for maternity and paternity leave and day care so that the middle class and the poor can get some of the educational benefits that the early academic intervention of the rich provides their children. Fundamentally, it means rethinking our still-persistent notion that educational problems should be solved by schools alone.

The more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools. This in turn will enable us to let our schools focus on teaching the skills — how to solve complex problems, how to think critically and how to collaborate — essential to a growing economy and a lively democracy.

 

By: Sean F. Reardon, Professor of Education and Sociology,  Stanford University; Published in The New York Times, Opinion Pages, April 27, 2013

April 30, 2013 Posted by | Education, Income Gap | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Story Of Our Time”: The Most Crucial Thing To Understand Is The Economy Is Not Like An Individual Family.

Those of us who have spent years arguing against premature fiscal austerity have just had a good two weeks. Academic studies that supposedly justified austerity have lost credibility; hard-liners in the European Commission and elsewhere have softened their rhetoric. The tone of the conversation has definitely changed.

My sense, however, is that many people still don’t understand what this is all about. So this seems like a good time to offer a sort of refresher on the nature of our economic woes, and why this remains a very bad time for spending cuts.

Let’s start with what may be the most crucial thing to understand: the economy is not like an individual family.

Families earn what they can, and spend as much as they think prudent; spending and earning opportunities are two different things. In the economy as a whole, however, income and spending are interdependent: my spending is your income, and your spending is my income. If both of us slash spending at the same time, both of our incomes will fall too.

And that’s what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. Many people suddenly cut spending, either because they chose to or because their creditors forced them to; meanwhile, not many people were able or willing to spend more. The result was a plunge in incomes that also caused a plunge in employment, creating the depression that persists to this day.

Why did spending plunge? Mainly because of a burst housing bubble and an overhang of private-sector debt — but if you ask me, people talk too much about what went wrong during the boom years and not enough about what we should be doing now. For no matter how lurid the excesses of the past, there’s no good reason that we should pay for them with year after year of mass unemployment.

So what could we do to reduce unemployment? The answer is, this is a time for above-normal government spending, to sustain the economy until the private sector is willing to spend again. The crucial point is that under current conditions, the government is not, repeat not, in competition with the private sector. Government spending doesn’t divert resources away from private uses; it puts unemployed resources to work. Government borrowing doesn’t crowd out private investment; it mobilizes funds that would otherwise go unused.

Now, just to be clear, this is not a case for more government spending and larger budget deficits under all circumstances — and the claim that people like me always want bigger deficits is just false. For the economy isn’t always like this — in fact, situations like the one we’re in are fairly rare. By all means let’s try to reduce deficits and bring down government indebtedness once normal conditions return and the economy is no longer depressed. But right now we’re still dealing with the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. This is no time for austerity.

O.K., I’ve just given you a story, but why should you believe it? There are, after all, people who insist that the real problem is on the economy’s supply side: that workers lack the skills they need, or that unemployment insurance has destroyed the incentive to work, or that the looming menace of universal health care is preventing hiring, or whatever. How do we know that they’re wrong?

Well, I could go on at length on this topic, but just look at the predictions the two sides in this debate have made. People like me predicted right from the start that large budget deficits would have little effect on interest rates, that large-scale “money printing” by the Fed (not a good description of actual Fed policy, but never mind) wouldn’t be inflationary, that austerity policies would lead to terrible economic downturns. The other side jeered, insisting that interest rates would skyrocket and that austerity would actually lead to economic expansion. Ask bond traders, or the suffering populations of Spain, Portugal and so on, how it actually turned out.

Is the story really that simple, and would it really be that easy to end the scourge of unemployment? Yes — but powerful people don’t want to believe it. Some of them have a visceral sense that suffering is good, that we must pay a price for past sins (even if the sinners then and the sufferers now are very different groups of people). Some of them see the crisis as an opportunity to dismantle the social safety net. And just about everyone in the policy elite takes cues from a wealthy minority that isn’t actually feeling much pain.

What has happened now, however, is that the drive for austerity has lost its intellectual fig leaf, and stands exposed as the expression of prejudice, opportunism and class interest it always was. And maybe, just maybe, that sudden exposure will give us a chance to start doing something about the depression we’re in.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 28, 2013

April 29, 2013 Posted by | Economy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Predisposed To Believing Nonsense”: From The Far-Right Fringe To The Halls Of Congress

Rachel led the show the other night with a look at conspiracy theories, once relegated to the fringes of American politics, now being embraced by growing numbers of conservatives, including elected lawmakers. The segment specifically noted ridiculous theories about the Boston Marathon bombing, spewed by activist Alex Jones, and touted by a GOP lawmaker in New Hampshire.

As best as I can tell, no member of the U.S. Congress has embraced Jones’ Boston-related nonsense, but it’s clear that many federal lawmakers are taking some of his other ideas seriously.

The right wing media’s promotion of a widely-debunked Alex Jones conspiracy theory about the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) ammunition acquisitions prompted House Republicans to hold a hearing to investigate. The theory, which assigns some sinister motivation behind the recent ammo purchases, first gained traction on the websites of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones before finding its way to Fox News and Fox Business and finally to the halls of Congress.

On April 25, Republican Reps. Jim Jordan (OH) and Jason Chaffetz (UT) held a joint hearing “to examine the procurement of ammunition by the Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General.”

At a distance, if we set aside the bizarre ideology that leads elected officials to believe nonsense, it’s fascinating to watch the trajectory — a fringe activist comes up with an idea, which is then picked up by a more prominent far-right outlet, which is then echoed by Fox News and Fox Business, which is then embraced by some of Congress’ sillier members who are predisposed to believe nonsense, which then leads to a congressional hearing.

This just doesn’t happen on the left. This is not to say there aren’t wacky left-wing conspiracy theorists — there are, and some of them send me strange emails — but we just don’t see prominent, center-left media professionals trumpet such silliness or Democratic members of Congress racing to take the nonsense seriously.

As for the underlying ammunition claim itself, it’s been shown to be baseless. Someone might want to let Jordan and Chaffetz know.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 26, 2013

April 29, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Nonsensical Overweening Power”: Virginia’s Assault On Abortion Claims Its First Victim

At abortion clinics, the presence of awnings, the width of doorways and the dimensions of janitorial closets have little to do with the health of patients. But by requiring that Virginia’s 20 abortion clinics conform to strict licensing standards designed for new hospitals, the state has ensured that many or most of them will be driven out of business in the coming months.

Just days after the state Board of Health approved the regulations this month, under pressure from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), they claimed their first victim. Hillcrest Clinic in Norfolk, which for 40 years had provided reproductive health services, including abortions, closed last weekend.

Hillcrest was partly a victim of its own success in providing women with ready access to birth control. Like most other clinics around the state, it saw demand for abortions dwindle as more women took advantage of options to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Still, even after years of protests, arson, a pipe bombing and an attack by a man wielding a semiautomatic weapon, Hillcrest performed more than 1,600 abortions last year, about 7 percent of the state total. The principal reason it closed its doors was that complying with the regulations would have saddled it with $500,000 in renovations — an unaffordable expense.

That’s precisely what Mr. Cuccinelli and other advocates of the policy intended. According to a survey by the state Health Department, just one of the 19 surviving clinics meets the requirements. Fifteen of the remaining facilities estimated their combined costs of compliance at $14.5 million.

Some of the clinics, including those operated by Planned Parenthood, which has a national fundraising network, will survive. Many others, which are run as small businesses, probably will not. Most have no means to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to widen corridors, install state-of-the-art surgical sinks and expand parking lots.

What’s more, the upgrades they face are arbitrary manifestations of the state’s overweening power. Other types of walk-in clinics, including those that perform oral and cosmetic surgery, are unaffected by the regulations.

As Dr. David Peters, owner of the Tidewater Women’s Health Center in Norfolk, told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper: “I can do plastic surgery. I can stick needles in babies’ lungs. I can put tubes up penises and into bladders and do all sorts of crazy stuff in my office with no regulations whatsoever. No government supervision. But for an abortion . . .it just becomes nonsensical.”

The Board of Health had sought to exempt existing abortion clinics from the regulations, which were never intended for ambulatory clinics. But board members caved when Mr. Cuccinelli, the most political attorney general in Virginia’s history, threatened to withhold the state’s legal help if they were sued.

Regulation is essential for all health services. But there is no evidence that unsanitary conditions or slapdash procedures are common at abortion clinics in Virginia nor that women who seek services from them are at risk. The state’s assault on women’s reproductive rights is an ideological crusade masquerading as concern for public health.

 

By: The Editorial Board, The Washington Post, April 26, 2013

April 29, 2013 Posted by | Abortion, War On Women | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Party Of Nothing”: Republicans, An Immovable Wall of Nays

So far, it doesn’t look like the story of the Tsarnaev brothers is killing Republican support for immigration reform. John McCain and Lindsey Graham insisted that their identity makes reform all the more important. But Boston aside, if you pay a little attention you see signs that the right is getting a bit restive about all this reasonableness. There’s a long and winding road from here to there, but if the GOP does drop immigration, then it will essentially be a party of nothing, the Seinfeld Party, a party that has stopped even pretending that policy is something that political parties exist to make.

Yesterday in Salon, political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote up the following little discovery, which has to do with the numbering of bills. Historically, the party that controls the House of Representatives reserves for itself the first 10 slots—HR 1, HR 2, and so on. Usually, the majority party has filled at least most of those slots with the pieces of legislation that it wants to announce to the world as its top priorities. When the Democrats ran the House, for example, HR 1 was always John Dingell’s health-care bill, in homage to his father, a congressman who pushed for national health care back in the day.

Today, nine of the 10 slots are empty. Nine of the 10. The one that is occupied, HR 3, is taken up by a bill calling on President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Even this, insiders will tell you in an honest moment, is completely symbolic and empty: the general expectation among Democrats and Republicans is that Obama will approve the pipeline sometime in this term, but that eleventy-jillion lawsuits will immediately be filed, and the thing won’t be built for years if at all, and nothing about this short and general bill can or is designed to change that. One other slot, HR 1, is provisionally reserved for a tax-reform bill, so at least they have settled on a subject matter, but if you click on HR 1, you will learn that “the text of HR 1 has not yet been received.”

This wasn’t true of even the GOP in earlier vintages. Newt Gingrich had an aggressive agenda, as we remember all too well, and even Denny Hastert filled most of the slots. (The Democrats of 2009 didn’t, for some reason, but obviously the Democratic Congress of 2009 was the most agenda-heavy Congress since 1981 or arguably 1965.) Today’s GOP can’t be bothered to pretend.

I became a grown-up, to the extent that I am one, right around the time Ronald Reagan took office. Lots of people say things like, “Gee, the Republican Party was really a party of ideas then.” I argue that that assertion is vastly overaccepted today. The central conservative “idea,” after all—supply-side economics—was and remains a flimsy and evidence-free lie that has destroyed the country’s economic vitality and turned our upper classes into the most selfish and penurious group of people history has seen since the Romanovs. Other conservative ideas of the time were largely critiques of extant liberalism or gifts to the 1 percent dressed up in the tuxedoes of “liberty” and “freedom.” I’ll give them credit for workfare and a few other items. But the actual record is thinner than most people believe.

Still, there was some intellectual spadework going on. And still (and this is more important), there were people in the Republican Party who tried to bring those ideas into law. The Orrin Hatch of the 1980s and 1990s was a titan compared with the Orrin Hatch of today. When I look at Senate roll-call votes and see that immovable wall of nays on virtually everything of consequence that comes before them, I wonder what someone like Hatch really thinks deep down, but of course we’ll never know. He is doing what the party’s base demands of him, and those demands include that he clam up and denounce Obama and not utter one sentence that could be misinterpreted as signaling compromise.

This brings me back to immigration. The Tsarnaevs may not have derailed things, but other cracks are starting to show. Last Thursday—before we knew who the Boston bombers were—Rush Limbaugh speculated that immigration reform would constitute Republican “suicide.” A Politico article yesterday made the same point—an analysis showed that if 11 million “undocumented residents” had been able to vote in 2012, Obama might have won Arizona and would even have made a race of it in Texas. This did not go unremarked in right-wing circles yesterday. The Big Bloviator himself weighed in: “Senator Schumer can taste this. He’s so excited. All the Democrats. Why would we agree to something that they are so eager to have?”

Immigration is the one area today on which a small number of Republicans are actually trying. Limbaugh’s position last week is a change from a couple of months ago, when Marco Rubio had him admitting that maybe the GOP needed to embrace reform. It’s not hard to imagine him and Laura Ingraham and others turning surlier as the hour of truth on the bill approaches.

I will be impressed and more than a little surprised if the day comes and a majority of Republicans back an immigration bill. Passing such a bill is undoubtedly in their self-interest, as everyone has observed. What fewer have observed is that doing so is just not in their DNA. And life teaches us that genes usually get the better of reason.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 24, 2013

April 29, 2013 Posted by | Immigration Reform, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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