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

"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.

School reformers have focused on evidence showing that high-quality teachers and schools also help close achievement gaps, although so far efforts to improve the teaching force and the quality of schools through opening more charter schools and putting teachers under the scrutiny of more intensive evaluations have had mixed results. A national study of charter schools has shown that a minority perform better than regular public schools, and many do worse, although students living in poverty tend to learn more in charters. And early adopters of new teacher evaluations, including Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., have seen both drops and gains in test scores.

Most of these efforts have come far short of closing the gap completely, and they don't address how to deal with the growing divide between the middle and the top. "It's not that you can't do anything," Murnane says. "But I think we way underestimate the magnitude of the problem."

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Presented by

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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