Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Growing Income Inequality Threatens American Education: Rising Economic and Social Inequality Has Weakened Neighborhoods and Families in Ways That Make Effective School Reform More Difficult

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Growing Income Inequality Threatens American Education: Rising Economic and Social Inequality Has Weakened Neighborhoods and Families in Ways That Make Effective School Reform More Difficult

Article excerpt

America has always taken pride in being the land of opportunity, a country in which hard work and sacrifice result in a better life for one's children. Economic growth has made that dream a reality for generations of Americans, including many people who started out poor. The quarter century following World War II was a golden era for the U.S. economy, as high-and low-income families shared the benefits of substantial economic growth. But storm clouds began to gather in the 1970s. In particular, computer-driven technological changes favoring highly educated workers, plus demographic shifts such as the rise of single-parent families, have produced sharply growing income gaps among families.

In the past, America's public schools have responded well to the challenges of a changing world. Indeed, America's world leadership in education has fueled much of its prosperity and made the 20th century the "American Century" (Goldin & Katz, 2008). But technological changes, globalization, and rising income inequality have placed great strains on the decentralized American approach to public education. We are constantly reminded that the math, science, and language skills of our children and young adults lag far behind those of children in other countries. In international rankings, our college graduation rate has fallen from first to 12th.

In this article--the first of two appearing in consecutive months--we describe the origins and nature of growing income inequality and some of its consequences for American children. We document the increased family income inequality that's occurred over the past 40 years. An increase in income disparity has been more than matched by an expanding gap between the money that low-and high-income parents spend on enrichment activities for their children.

Most distressingly, increasing gaps in academic achievement and educational attainments have accompanied the growth in income inequality. Differences in the reading and math achievement levels of low-and high-income children are much larger than several decades ago, as are differences in college graduation rates.

What accounts for these widening gaps? Drawing from the first part of our recent book, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education (Harvard Education Press and the Russell Sage Foundation, 2014), we explain that the evidence supports pathways operating through both families and schools. In addition to growing differences in the resources spent by poor and rich families on their children, declining real incomes for low-income families have affected maternal stress, mental health, and parenting.

Rising residential segregation by income has led to increasing concentrations of low-and high-income children attending separate schools. Peer problems, geographic mobility, and challenges in attracting and retaining good teachers have made it difficult to provide consistently high-quality learning experiences in schools serving a large proportion of low-income students.

Next month's article draws from the second part of Restoring Opportunity to describe ideas based on proven policy approaches that will enable the country to make progress on the enormous task of restoring the educational opportunities that children from low-income families need if they are to lead productive and fulfilling lives.

Widening gaps

Based on U.S. Census Bureau data, the left-hand bar in each set of bars in Figure 1 shows the average income in a particular year (in 2012 dollars) for children at the 20th percentile of the nation's family income distribution. This means that, in a given year, 20% of children lived in families with incomes below that level, while 80% had incomes above it. In 1970, the dividing line was drawn at $37,664.

The middle bar in each set shows the average family income in a given year at the 80th percentile of the distribution, which was about $100,000 (in 2012 dollars) in 1970. …

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