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.

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

Archaeologists identify contents of ancient Mayan drug containers

Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.

A Muna-type paneled flask with distinctive serrated-edge decoration from AD 750-900.

Credit: WSU
Surprising Science
  • Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
  • They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
  • The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
Keep reading Show less

To the very beginning: going back in time with Steven Weinberg (Part 2)

What was the universe like one-trillionth of a second after the Big Bang? Science has an answer.

Credit: gonin via Adobe Stock
13-8
  • Following Steven Weinberg's lead, we plunge further back into cosmic history, beyond the formation of atomic nuclei.
  • Today, we discuss the origin of the quark-gluon plasma and the properties of the famous Higgs boson, the "God Particle."
  • Is there a limit? How far can we go back in time?
Keep reading Show less

Surprisingly modern lessons from classic Russian literature

Though gloomy and dense, Russian literature is hauntingly beautiful, offering a relentlessly persistent inquiry into the human experience.

Credit: George Cerny via Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Russian literature has a knack for precisely capturing and describing the human condition.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are among the greatest writers who ever lived.
  • If you want to be a wiser person, spend time with the great Russian novelists.
Keep reading Show less
Technology & Innovation

Do we still need math?

We spend much of our early years learning arithmetic and algebra. What's the use?

Quantcast