Class in the Classroom: The Income Gap and NYC’s Schools


While America's rich are getting richer, evidence seem to indicate they are getting smarter—or at least better in school—as well.

Nationwide, until around 1980, middle- and upper-income students performed at around the same level in schools. The gap that existed then was between them and students from low-income families.

Now, though, rich students have pulled away from the middle-income ones—as far away as middle-income students are from their low-income counterparts.

"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 of educational success accrued to the children of the rich," Sean Reardon, a Stanford professor who's documented this trend, has written.

Reardon lays much of this squarely on the increase in income inequality, which has left rich parents with "far more resources, relative to low-income families, to invest in their child's development and schooling."

"We're expecting some kids to start on a broken stairwell, others on an escalator and some on a bullet-like elevator" and all of them to reach the top, Prudence Carter, also of Stanford and co-editor of a book entitled "Closing the Opportunity Gap," said last spring.

It’s a familiar story in New York where affluent families spend lavishly on educational services barely heard of a generation ago: tutors earning in the triple digits an hour, pricey test prep programs and private school and college admissions coaches, to say nothing of thousands of dollars for special classes, summer programs and foreign tours.

Many experts say income, more than race, now accounts for the so-called "achievement gap" in the U.S. But the picture in New York City is a bit more complicated. Although former schools chancellor Joel Klein often said students' success should not be determined not by "the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income," race, residence and income inequality all overlap to create huge differences in how well—or how poorly—children fare in the classroom

What $40,000 buys reportedly has an information technology department with three people who do nothing but fix broken laptops. Attempting to explain why tuition has reached such rarified levels, the New York Times described one school with "three theaters, six art studios, two tennis courts, a pool and a diving pool" and another with a $2 million learning center with "six full-time employees offering one-on-one help with subjects as varied as note-taking and test-taking."

While the children of the 1 percent have guidance counselors negotiating with college admission offices on their behalf and sample classes such as Zen dance and advanced Mandarin, the city's poor and middle-class students spend their days in a different universe. Even the best public high school in New York City has classes with about 30 students. Halls can be noisy and even chaotic as classes change, and with the move to smaller schools, academic offerings may be limited to a single foreign language, say, or chemistry but not physics. Musical instruments and arts supplies can be scarce, if they exist at all.

Improving the oddsreportedly decided that widespread test prep had made the results all but meaningless. Of course, the applicants to kindergarten at the likes of Chapin and Dalton are playing on a level field: They all can afford test prep. When it comes to the public school gifted program, many applicants cannot.

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The income gap could widen in coming years. After the introduction of the Common Core in schools and plummeting scores on state tests, tutoring companies have zeroed in on preparing students for the standardized English Language Arts and math tests. Affluent parents have rushed to pay from $40 to well above $100 an hour for someone they think can help their child do well next spring—and improve his or her chance of going to a top public middle- or high school.

Test prep isn’t the only advantage that separates some students from others. Students also seem to benefit from going to schools with more affluent students. In an analysis of the 2011-12 standardized tests, the Independent Budget Office found 70.3 percent of students getting a free lunch who attend a low-poverty school were proficient in math. This was far better than the 48.1 percent of free-lunch students in high-poverty schools but it also exceeded the scores for higher-income students (those not getting any lunch assistance) who attend high-poverty schools. In that group, 62.2 of the students were proficient in math.

Indeed, experts, such as Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, identify a number of characteristics of poverty that make it hard to do well in school: poor healthcare, lack of affordable housing, poorly educated parents and single parent families. In New York, homelessness affects thousands of students, who often miss many weeks of school and, not surprisingly, find it difficult to concentrate. Students with disabilities or from families that do not speak English often struggle academically. A number of these problems affect some middle-income children as well.

Reardon, though, thinks a key factor in the gap between the rich and everyone else is their money, and how they spend it. "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 economic success," he has written, adding "Though middle-class and poor families are also increasing the time and money they invest in their children, they are no doing so as quickly or as deeply as the rich."

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