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

In 1963, kids in the 10th percentile of income fell behind children in the upper echelon of wealth by about a year or so. Today, that gap is closer to four years.


On a weekday afternoon in July, Jessica Klaitman pulled her 16-month-old daughter Hannah out of a stroller in the lobby of the New York Kids Club, a "child-enrichment center" with four classrooms, a dance studio, and gym space in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.

Hannah was sleepy after a nap, but her face lit up as she was let loose with several other toddlers and their nannies. She grabbed some blocks and then headed to a table stocked with piles of a pink, play-dough-like sculpting material. For 45 minutes, the children wandered around wielding dolls and blocks, grabbing at each others' toys and taking turns on a miniature slide. When time was up, they sang along with the "Clean-Up Song" and helped put away the mess.

A drop-in class at the New York Kids Club costs about $47, according to an employee. Hannah's playgroup that day was free, but only because Klaitman, 40, and her husband, Jordan Small, 39, have enrolled their three children in package deals for classes in karate and preschool--which run about $650 per child for 17 once-a-week sessions. Klaitman estimates she's dropped thousands of dollars at the club over the years, not to mention what she spends on the private preschool her oldest son attends, additional classes in Spanish and music elsewhere, and the family's museum memberships.

The Klaitman-Smalls' considerable investment in their children is becoming the norm for families like theirs who are in the top tiers of the country's income distribution. The resources the affluent are pouring into their children are also driving a growing divide between academic outcomes of the children of the well-to-do and those of everyone else's kids. That widening academic divide means that kids who are born poor and kids who are born rich are increasingly likely to stay that way once they reach adulthood.

When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech a half-century ago, on Aug. 28, 1963, black children lagged behind their white peers in school by more than three years. For poor children, the picture was somewhat more encouraging: Those in the 10th percentile of income fell behind the children in the upper echelon of wealth by about a year or so. Poverty was a major obstacle, but not so large that it couldn't be scaled by the brightest and most ambitious.

Fifty years later, social class has become the main gateway--and barrier--to opportunity in America.

The country is far from fulfilling King's dream that race no longer limit children's opportunities, but how much income their parents earn is more and more influential. According to a 2011 research study by Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon, the test-score gap between the children of the poor (in the 10th percentile of income) and the children of the wealthy (in the 90th percentile) has expanded by as much as 40 percent and is now more than 50 percent larger than the black-white achievement gap--a reversal of the trend 50 years ago. Underprivileged children now languish at achievement levels that are close to four years behind their wealthy peers.

These days, middle-class children are also falling further behind their affluent peers. The test-score gap between middle-income (the 50th percentile of income) and poor children has remained stagnant; it's the gap between the top earners and the rest that is growing rapidly. And though more poor and middle-income children are completing college these days, they can't keep up with the growth in college graduates among the wealthiest families. A 2012 study by Reardon also found that "more and more seats in highly selective schools have been occupied by students from high-income families."

"Income has become a much stronger predictor of how well kids do in school," Reardon says. "Race is about as good a predictor as it was 30 years ago. It's more that income has gotten more important, not that race has gotten less important."

Jessica Klaitman's husband works in the finance industry, and she's a social worker who has worked part-time running support groups for new parents and teaching yoga. They do well enough to pay $4,400 a month in rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights, one of the borough's most-coveted neighborhoods, to pay for a full-time nanny in addition to their spending on preschool, and to take the family on regular vacations to see relatives out of state.

"I'm a middle-class New Yorker, and upper-class anywhere else," Klaitman says. "I know how astonishingly privileged we are, but at the same time we're dipping into savings for housing. I don't go out and buy shoes, but my kids have tons of classes."

Researchers say the expanding class gap in education is likely a byproduct of the country's widening income inequality. There's been an explosion in spending by well-to-do parents on their children: The amount has more than doubled in the last 30 years, according to work by Columbia University School of Social Work researchers Neeraj Kaushal and Jane Waldfogel and Katherine Magnuson of the University of Wisconsin.

Parents in the top quintile of income in the U.S. (households earning at least $102,000 in 2011, according to census data compiled by the Tax Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group) now spend more than double what parents in the second quintile (earning at least $62,000) spend on trips for their children-about $2,000 per year compared with $800, the Kaushal study found. They also spend significantly more on childcare, computers, books, and private-school tuition than their non-wealthy peers.

A 2013 study by sociologists Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg found that disparities in spending between the top and the bottom grew between the 1990s and 2000s, with parents in the bottom half of income distribution actually spending less on their children in the 2000s than previously--probably because of decreasing incomes.

"It's everyone trying to take care of their kids, but if you have a lot of money, you can do all of them, the Mandarin, the lacrosse, the SAT tutoring, the camps," says Richard Murnane, a Harvard University economist and editor of Whither Opportunity, a 2011 book that published the Reardon and Kaushal studies. "You can do a lot of extra things with extra money."

Money Matters

America's widening class gap shapes the hopes and prospects of families like the Lynches, who live just a few miles from the Klaitman-Smalls in Crown Heights, a mostly working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn where stately limestone townhouses and public housing projects stand side by side.

At first glance, the lives of Bryson Lynch, two, and his three-year-old brother London are not too different from the lives of the Klaitman-Small children. On a sticky afternoon in July, the two boys were busy in their shared room in the back of their parents' three-story home in Brooklyn. London was building a tower with Lego bricks. Bryson was toting around a plastic beach bucket and pretending to build a sand castle on the rug. A television set atop a dresser was tuned to a cartoon on Nick Jr., Nickelodeon's preschool channel.

Their quiet play didn't last long--after a while, they tumbled into the living room. London grabbed his scooter and did a circle around the room. Bryson found an iPad, turned on his favorite song, and began to dance. Their parents, Larry, 32, and Krystal, 29, seated nearby at the kitchen table, kept a watchful but patient eye on the boys' exuberant play.

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.

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.