When Class Became More Important to a Child's Education Than Race

Children in both families are lucky to have parents focused on creating a path to happy, successful adulthood for their children. But in making sure their children reach their highest potential, the Lynches have far fewer resources available to them.

The family would most likely count as solidly middle-class in any other city, but in New York money can sometimes be tight. "We're not rich, but we're not struggling," says Krystal.

Larry works for the city's medical-examiner office as a computer technician, and Krystal has stayed home with the boys since New York City laid her off from her job as an operator for its information hotline, 311, in August 2012. They bought their house through a city affordable-housing lottery, and the Lynches qualify for Head Start, the free federal preschool program for children living near the poverty line.

Both parents are happy with their standard of living. But they also want their boys to be more successful than they have been. "Whatever will make them happy, as long as it's not hanging out on the streets," Larry said. "Not everyone can be a lawyer or a doctor ... but I would actually love that."

Opportunities that would launch the boys on a path to being lawyers or doctors can seem elusive, however. Larry, a product of the New York City public schools, refuses to send his children to any of the poorly performing public schools in the neighborhood. They can't afford Catholic school tuition--about $5,000 a year, they say. Instead, Krystal has researched privately run charter schools in the area and picked out her top choice: an all-boys charter run by the network Uncommon Schools, which receives high marks on the city's grading system but chooses students through a lottery--meaning they won't necessarily get in.

To supplement Head Start, Krystal has both boys work on their letters and numbers every night. At age three, London can write his full name; lately he's been practicing writing it in a straight line. Bryson can count to 20. But Krystal Lynch has a harder time finding enrichment activities outside of the home to keep the boys busy and engage their growing brains. Research suggests that new experiences are essential to building children's vocabularies, and that a large vocabulary is in turn essential for a successful academic career.

"There so many places to take children, but they're so expensive," Krystal Lynch says. "They'll have trial [classes], but we can't go back for another class, because they're $80 for one session. It's a little frustrating."

Instead, she takes the children to the park and to free swimming classes offered by the city. The family went on their first out-of-town vacation this August, a day trip to the Sesame Place Family Theme Park, in Langhorne, Penn.

Race no doubt plays a role in the different opportunities available to the Klaitman-Small and Lynch children. The Klaitman-Smalls are white and the Lynches are African-American, and black families are still disproportionately represented among lower-income groups. But Larry Lynch says his own experiences and those of the other people in his neighborhood reflect what the trend lines show: that social class has become increasingly important in deciding outcomes for children.

"I think race is starting to be a little less of a factor," Larry Lynch says. "It just matters less these days."

The Information Divide

When Jessica Klaitman considers what it might take to even the playing field for families less fortunate than hers, one of the things she mentions are social networks. In-the-know affluent parents gather in play clubs and exclusive preschools, where they provide each other not only with support, but also with information, including ideas about child-rearing and tips on how to access opportunities for their kids that are likely to set them up for success later on.

"This isn't in and of itself educational," Klaitman says of Hannah's playgroup at the Kids Club, although she noted that the socialization and learning of classroom norms was probably helpful preparation for school. "It's more about the parents--to have a place to go and focus your day around," she says. "It probably helps to talk to people and get advice."

"I think isolation is one of the hardest things about having kids," she adds.

Krystal Lynch agrees. As the first among her friends to have babies, she says felt on her own while raising her children. "We didn't really have a go-to circle to ask questions. I wish I had," says Lynch. "I didn't have a social network."

She has a tight-knit family--the grandparents often help with babysitting, for instance--but when it comes to parenting strategies, or thinking ahead about schools, she has relied on her own and Larry's instincts. Both Krystal and Larry Lynch were the first in their families to go to college, and both graduated from New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York, a four-year school with a vocational focus in downtown Brooklyn.

They talk about their boys "going away" to school, but beyond that they say they'll have to do research online to find good colleges for their kids and to figure out what it will take for them to get in. They also aren't sure how they'll be able to afford a school with more elite status than their alma mater. Krystal Lynch says she'll begin looking for a new job this fall so the family can start putting money into a college fund.

"I wouldn't hope too far," she says. "As long as they go somewhere."

Closing the Gap

The factors that have fed the class divide in student achievement are complicated. One of the best ways to close the class achievement gap, according to many researchers, is somewhat simple, though. It's an idea that Martin Luther King Jr. pushed in his later years, while planning a second March on Washington in 1967 to support his Poor People's Campaign: Put more money directly into the hands of lower-income families.

According to the Kornrich and Furstenberg study, even though poor families spend much less money on their children, they put a higher percentage of their paychecks toward investments in their children (about 20 percent, compared with 5 percent among wealthier families). And Murnane points to evidence showing that when lower-income families have additional income, through the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, their children's test scores increase.

Jane Waldfogel, the Columbia University social-work professor, has looked at how low-income families spend additional income in two different studies in Britain and the U.S., and found they put extra cash either towards their kids, by buying books, toys and clothing, or their jobs--buying clothes for work or purchasing a car, for example.

"I'm pretty convinced that we know families are not going to squander the money on drugs or alcohol," Waldfogel says. "And the evidence is stronger than it used to be that if you give more money to families it's going to benefit kids."

But wealth redistribution is not popular politically. In its place, other efforts that show some promise have taken precedence. Home-visiting programs can provide to parents living in poverty the support and information that high-income parents tend to get from their education experiences and social networks. Intensive, high-quality preschool experiences where children have plenty of time to build social skills and bigger vocabularies through play improve test scores, at least in the short term, and reduce their chances of being poor as adults in the long term.

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Sarah Garland is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the forthcoming book Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community that Ended the Era of School Desegregation.

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