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Class in the Classroom: Why Middle-Income Students Are Being Left in the Dust

It's well known that wealthy kids outperform poor kids in school, but now the rich are also pulling away from their middle-class peers. Why is that so?
 
 
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The following content originally appeared on City Limits

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

The richest students in New York do not show up on most education indicators. They attend private schools, where tuition hovers around $40,000 a year and many parents give upwards of $25,000 a year more.

What do they get for that? Small classes, teachers with advanced degrees and lots of frills. The web site for Léman Manhattan Preparatory School highlights its aquatics center, rock climbing wall and "café run by professionally trained chefs." Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn 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 odds

Many parents not in the 1 percent still have money to spend on their child's education; one thing they spend on is test prep—even for the youngest ones.

Ever since the city instituted a test to determine admission to elementary school gifted and talented programs, parents wanting to get their child in the elite and free classes have hired tutors and sent their children, as young as 4, to programs—one dubbed a "boot camp—aimed at improving their odds on the test. Last year, the Department of Education changed the test to one they said would be less vulnerable to test prep. Worried parents still scooped up copies of test prep material costing $149 and flocked to tutoring programs. "They can keep switching tests from now until doomsday and it's not going to make a difference," said James Borland, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, told the Wall Street Journal.

Borland and other experts generally believe that any single test tends to favor students from more advantaged backgrounds. Giving the test to such young children only magnifies that result as a child who has had test prep and gone to a high-quality preschool program will almost certainly score higher than a child who spent his or her toddler years with a babysitter who plunked the kids down in front of the TV.

Borland's prediction proved correct. As in the past, more children in affluent areas took the test, and a higher percentage of them then passed it. In District 2, which includes many of Manhattan's wealthiest areas, 28.2 percent of the children who took the test scored in the 97th percentile, the theoretical cutoff for the citywide gifted program, compared to 4.7 percent for District 8 in the South Bronx. Falling between these extremes was District 30, which includes middle-income neighborhoods, such as Astoria and Sunnyside. There 12.2 percent of the test takers passed.

Earlier this month the Independent School Admissions Association of Greater New York, which represents many of the city's elite private schools, announced it would no longer require that the schools use an exam called the E.R.B. to help determine which 4- and 5-year-olds they'll accept. The group reportedly 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.

The role of race

The income gap continues once children start school. On the 2013 state standardized math tests, admittedly a flawed measure due to the generally poor results, District 2 students fared the best, with 60.2 percent getting the 3 or 4 (on a scale of 1 to 4) to qualify as "proficient." Only 17 percent of District 8 students did that well, and its neighbor—District 7 in the South Bronx—had the lowest scores with only 9.5 percent "passing" the exam. Middle-income District 30 was in the middle—with 35.4 percent of children getting 3s and 4s. The English test scores followed a similar pattern.

If students are grouped by income citywide, 21.3 percent of those students who quality for a free or reduced price lunch (the shorthand schools use to indicate which students are low-income) scored proficient on the English exam and 24.8 percent on the math, compared to 50.0 percent and 53.1 percent of those who don’t qualify for assistance. In other words, the achievement gap between those who qualify for lunch and those who don’t is 28.7 points in English and 28.3 points in math.

The achievement gap between rich and poor in city schools is no doubt narrower than the actual disparities among income classes because the most affluent families in New York opt out of public schools—and the standardized testing found there.

It’s worth noting too that the free- and reduced-price lunch standard is a very blunt instrument, with almost 80 percent of city public school students qualifying for some help; the figures don't distinguish between middle- and upper income students.

In addition, striking racial gaps are as apparent as income-related disparities, with Asian and white students generally outscoring their black and Hispanic counterparts. On the English test, the achievement gap between whites and Asians on one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other was 31.3 points –fairly close to the income achievement gap. In math, though, the racial achievement gap was significantly larger: 38.6 points. In all likelihood that difference arises at least in part from a large number of low-income Asians performing better on the math exam than they did on the English test.

In 2010, Asians had the second-highest level of poverty among the four major groups in New York, with 25 percent classified as poor according to the city, compared to 26 percent for Hispanics, 21.7 for blacks and 15.2 percent for non-Hispanic whites. (The rate for Asian public-school students in the city school system may be somewhat different from the overall Asian population.) But on most measures of academic achievement, Asians score as well if not better than students in the other groups. For example, 79.1 percent of Asian public school students graduated on time in June of their senior year in 2012, compared with 75.1 percent of white students, 55 percent of blacks and 52.7 percent of Hispanics.

The Specialized High School Test, used as the sole determinant of admission at eight elite New York City High Schools, including Stuyvesant, reflects the disparities between races. Of the students who took the test in fall 2012, only 5 percent of black students and 6.7 percent of Latinos scored well enough to be admitted to one of the schools, while 30.6 percent of white and 35 percent of Asians received offers. The elite schools do have large numbers of low-income students, though. At Brooklyn Tech, for example, 61 percent of all students in 2011-12 were eligible for a free lunch; at Stuyvesant 31 percent qualified.

Although the city has tried to address some of the divisions between rich and poor schools, many high poverty schools still get less than they should under the city's Fair Student Funding Program, the Independent Budget Office has found.

Losing ground

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."achi

Gail Robinson is a Brooklyn-based writer specializing in education and other public policy issues. She is the former editor in chief of Gotham Gazette.