The Achievement Gap: Income is More Important than Race

Parents who can afford it are spending more money than ever on their children’s education, further widening the achievement gap between affluent students and their low-income peers. This gap starts well before elementary school, even for babies and toddlers: according to a report released in May 2014, by the time children enter kindergarten, there is already a significant skills gap between children from low-income families and their wealthier counterparts. And, contrary to popular belief, enrollment in Pre-K programs does not impact this disparity, because higher-income children are more likely to attend high quality preschools even before they enter Kindergarten.

From the time their children are infants, middle and upper class parents are far more likely to enroll them in enrichment classes and preschools, propelling their youngsters ahead of their low-income peers. For example, the New York Kids Club offers programs for children 2 months through five years old, in the areas of fitness, dance, art, science and foreign language; each semester (5 months) long class costs between $399 - $595 per child. The YMCA in Providence offers a weekly hour-long Gym & Swim class for 3 – 5 year olds for $30 per month for members, $60 per month for non-members. Festival Ballet Providence has movement and dance classes available for children age 2 and up starting at $110 per quarter. Rock-A-Baby, which provides an interactive music program for infants and toddlers at multiple locations in both New York and Rhode Island, costs $155 for an 8-week session. These are all wonderful activities for a young child; they encourage exploration, motor skill development, and opportunities to build neural pathways. Unfortunately, they are cost prohibitive for low-income families. If you are struggling to make ends meet so that you can pay your rent or mortgage, put food on the table, and pay for childcare so that you can go to work, enrolling your child in enrichment activities isn’t an option.

Further, many families with means enroll their children in high quality preschool programs, often beginning at age 2 or 3. In Rhode Island, you can choose to enroll your child for three half-days each week in a cooperative nursery school (which requires parents to volunteer once a week) for about $3750/year; you can sign him up for a five full day program in an accredited preschool for roughly $15,860/year; or you can enroll her in a private school from $9960 (three half-days) to approximately $20,000 (five full days) per year. These options are simply unrealistic for many families. The Rhode Island Department of Education holds a lottery for the locations where Pre-K programs are offered; prior to age 4, Head Start is the only option for low-income families.

As children enter Kindergarten, families who are financially able often move to school districts with better performing schools. Homes (and apartments) in those school districts tend to cost considerably more. For example, according to Trulia, the median home price for the past year in Barrington, RI, a consistently highly rated school district, was $380,000; the median home price for the past year in Central Falls, RI, with some of the lowest performing schools, was $135,000. In other states, home prices can vary wildly within the same county based on the school boundaries: for example, the median home price in Bethesda, MD is $777,500 vs. $363,500 in Silver Spring, MD, even though both cities are located within the Montgomery County school system. Since wealthier families can enroll their children in better schools, the achievement gap continues to expand as children get older.

According to Stanford University researcher Sean Reardon, the income-related achievement gap has widened dramatically over the past 25 years; in fact, he asserts, “Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement.” In other words, we can predict that children of middle and upper class parents will do better in school than children of low income parents, just as we can predict that children of college-educated parents are more likely to attend college.

There are two things we can do as a nation to help close this widening income achievement gap. One is to provide high quality childcare and preschool for all children, regardless of their parents’ income level. If all children had the opportunity to attend enriching, stimulating early childhood programs, perhaps low-income kindergartners wouldn’t enter school already at a disadvantage compared with their higher income peers. Our state and federal governments could subsidize accredited childcare and early childhood education programs for all students, perhaps with a sliding scale for fees based on parents’ income. If we spent more money being proactive, we could spend less money on remedial classes as those children grow older and enter our public schools.

The second thing we can do is to rethink the way we assign students to school districts. If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we cannot have schools where the large majority of the kids come from the same socioeconomic background. Just as our society committed to racial integration in 1964, we need to ensure that our schools are socioeconomically integrated as well. We owe it to our children to make sure that each and every one of them has an equal chance of academic success, regardless of their parents’ income level.

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