Achievement Gap Whack-a-Mole and The Stress of Parenting

We talk a lot about the racial achievement gap — the fact that Black, Latino and other historically disadvantaged minorities kids perform far worse, on average, than white children in the same classroom or school system.  But we don’t often hear about the income achievement gap, mostly because it is expected that students from higher-income families do better in school than those from lower-income families.

Breaking: turns out students from low-income backgrounds do worse in school than their high-income peers.

Actually, the real Breaking is that the income achievement gap has gotten much worse while the racial achievement gap, for all its perniciousness, has actually narrowed.

As the New York Times reported this week, a Stanford University study showed that since the ’40s, kids from high income families have lept ahead in their scholastic achievement relative to their low-income peers.   Meanwhile, the gap between black and white children has closed almost as rapidly as the income gap has widened.

As the chart at the left shows, a child born in 2000 into a family of economic means — the 90th income percentile, or a family making about $160,000  — scores four grade levels above a child born in the same year to a family in the 10th income percentile ($17,500).

That’s a ninth-grade reading level versus a fifth grade reading level.  On the same test.  For the same age kid.  

Which explains by another study showed that the income gap in college completion widened by 50% in the past twenty-five years.  And as we know, finishing college is a big deal.  Like three times less likely to be unemployed kind of big deal. Like, three quarters of a million dollars over a lifetime kind of big deal.

It is not difficult to imagine why children from higher income families might perform better in school than their lower-income peers — more money to spend on camps, private tutoring, and other direct academic support; more financial and location stability to keep kids in the same district; more parent energy to help kids do homework and attend parent-teacher conferences.  We could go on.

But what’s striking here is the trend.  Why, since about the early ’70s, have these well-resourced kids done increasingly better in school?

Probably because there are now more opportunities to spend money on helping kids do better in school, that money can buy a better educational experience, and because scholastic tests often reflect skills and abilities that are hallmarks of wealthier families.  As the Times reports,

In 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Dr. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

But it’s a mistake to conclude that it’s just the concrete things that money buys for the child — tutoring, ballet lessons, a nice house and safe neighborhood — that drives the wedge in achievement rankings.   It’s really the cognitive freedom that money buys parents that lifts their children to greater and greater success.  As Sendhil Mullainathan explains in this essay for the Kellogg Foundation (“Stress Impacts Good Parenting”),

Good parenting requires psychic resources. Complex decisions must be made. Sacrifices must be made in the moment. This is hard for anyone, whatever their income: we all have limited reserves of self-control, and attention and other psychic resources. In that moment, fretting about the deadline, your psychic resources were depleted. Facing pressure at work, you did not have the freedom of mind needed to exercise patience, prioritize and do what you knew to be right. To an outsider, in that moment, you would look like a bad parent.

Low-income parents, however, also face a tax on their psychic resources. Many things that are trifling and routine to the well-off give sleepless nights to those less fortunate. To take a simple example, everyone may face the same bank overdraft fees – but steering clear of them is pretty easy for the well-off, while for the poor it requires constant attention, steely reserve and enormous amounts of self-control. For the well-off, monthly bills are automatically deducted and there is still some slack left over. For those with less income, finding ways to ensure that rent, utilities and phone bills are paid for out of small, irregular paychecks is an act of complicated financial jugglery.

Everyone has a bad day at work.  Everyone has big-picture stress that makes it difficult to spend time coaching your kids through multiplication tables or motivating them to hang up their damn coat once in a while.  But low-income families must also worry about the small-time problems that wealthier families might not even notice:

Well-off people have the luxury of freedom of mind. Their psychic resources are reserved for “difficult,” “important” things that have a big impact on their well- being in the long run. But those with less income are not as fortunate. They have the same (limited) capacity for self-control and attention – but are forced to expend a large fraction of it on dealing with the ups and downs of everyday life. Simply managing the basics of life uses psychic resources.

So what’s really happening here is that as we’ve focused our resources on addressing the racial achievement gap, we crystalized the issue around income disparities.  These studies don’t point to one being more explanatory than the other.  They show how a.) race and income are two different concepts entirely and b.) how important it is to address them together, as a system.


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