Why mass inequality is unlikely to be overcome by kids studying hard

A sobering look at the prospects for kids not wealthy enough to fail upward.

Photo credit: Brad Neathery on Unsplash
  • A study by Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce demonstrates how much easier it is for upper-class children to attain successful adulthoods.
  • Test scores tend to drop for even the smartest kids from the lower economic percentiles.
  • By following kids through their education with support, the odds can be evened-out.

In America, work hard, get good grades, and you'll be well on your way to success. That's the story, anyway. According to "Born to Win, Schooled to Lose," a new study from Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), it's little more than a fairy tale. These days, "To succeed in America, it's better to be born rich than smart," says CEW director Anthony P. Carnevale. The authors found that "people with talent that come from disadvantaged households don't do as well as people with very little talent from advantaged households."

"People tend to blame the schools, and they are at fault for not saving people who start out smart," he tells CNBC. "But there are also a variety of factors that have to do with race and class and gender and everything from books in the home to how many words you know when you're in the first grade, too. Disadvantage and advantage are very complex."

CEW’s definition of success

Even CEW's modest standard for success — getting a college degree, and then an entry-level job — is difficult for many kids of lower socioeconomic status (SES) to achieve. The odds are even worse for Black and Latino kids. It will come as no surprise to families from a lower SES that their children have to work harder and simply be better to stand a chance of competing with kids handed educations and opportunities, not to mention money. The deck is stacked against them.

"Stunningly, a child from the bottom quartile of socioeconomic status who has high test scores in kindergarten has only a 3 in 10 chance of having a college education and a good entry-level job as a young adult, compared to a 7 in 10 chance for a child in the top quartile of socioeconomic status who has low test scores," says the study.

Even for brighter children from poorer families who start out strong, "the chances of keeping those high scores are relatively slim." Fortunately, the fact that a child's test scores are likely to change over time suggests an upside: An opportunity for intervention with additional support. As Carnevale says, "When we follow these kids over all those years, grade by grade, what we find out is they all stumble. The difference is between who stumbles and gets back up again and who stumbles and doesn't." Children of wealthy families typically enjoy a softer landing when they fall, since any help they need is within their families' economic reach.

Image source: Freedomz / Shutterstock

Kindergarten

CEW's research indicates that many non-wealthy children with good grades in kindergarten are no longer among the best-scoring students by the time they get to high school. Therefore, CEW tracks students across this period.

Even in kindergarten, disparities already exist between the tracked SES quartiles, and these ratios remain throughout the period studied. The lowest scores are always found with the lowest SES, and the opposite is also true. Still, an impressive 43 percent of children in the next group up, the second SES quartile, attain high scores.

Image source: Center on Education and the Workforce

8th grade

CEW's data shows that by the time students are in junior high, a clear shift has occurred, and 43 percent of the best students now come from the upper SES quartile, with the previously promising second quartile's high scores having dropped back to just 28 percent of its children. About 60 percent of that group never reaches the upper academic ranks at all, and others only briefly.

Image source: Center on Education and the Workforce

High school

By high school the lifelong trend is pretty clear. By then the lowest quartile gets 63 percent of the bottom scores, and of the 37 percent who do maintain good grades, only 25 percent get a college degree by age 25, and just 31 percent wind up above the median SES level as adults. Of that same 37 percent, 75 percent don't get a degree by 25.

For the well-off, however, this is all flipped: Their bottom scorers have a 60 percent of getting a degree, and 71 percent end up in the above-median SES.

(Click image to enlarge)

Image source: Center on Education and the Workforce

What's to be done

CEW has four recommendations for leveling the playing field and giving the non-advantaged a better shot at success.

Image source: Center on Education and the Workforce

You can view the full report here.

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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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