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Equity & Diversity Opinion

‘Better to Be Born Rich Than Smart': Education Must Answer for Systemic Inequality

By Anthony P. Carnevale — June 04, 2019 5 min read
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In a fair society, people’s successes should reflect their talent and hard work. But that’s not the case in the United States today. Instead, a child’s likelihood of becoming a college graduate and achieving early career success depends more on his or her family’s bank account and social status than on talent. In short, in America, it is better to be born rich than smart.

Our research team at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce demonstrated just how dire the prospects are for disadvantaged youths in our report, “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose.” What is most striking is that the most talented young people from the least affluent families don’t do as well in college and careers as the least talented young people from the most affluent families. We found that a child from an affluent family with low math test scores in kindergarten has a 71 percent chance of working in a good entry-level job by age 25. Meanwhile, a child from an economically disadvantaged background with high math test scores in kindergarten has only a 31 percent chance of working in a good entry-level job by age 25.

Systemic inequality affecting Black and Latino youths adds another dimension to economic class disparities. Black and Latino youths who have high math test scores as teenagers are less likely to earn a college degree than White and Asian students with the same high scores.

The great sorting of the most talented young people into haves and have-nots starts early and continues into young adulthood."

The great sorting of the most talented young people into haves and have-nots starts early and continues into young adulthood, but fluctuation does occur along the way. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, students’ math test scores rise and fall.

Whether affluent or poor, regardless of race or ethnicity, any student can stumble along the academic pathway. That said, affluent students have the best odds of never falling behind: 74 percent never see their math test scores fall to the bottom half, compared with 30 percent of economically disadvantaged students. And if affluent students do fall, they are more likely to recover. More than half of the most affluent students whose high initial math test scores drop during primary school have high test scores again by 8th grade, compared with less than one-third of the least affluent.

These contrasts are stark—but the fact that advantaged students regularly fall and recover and that some disadvantaged students do make it despite the odds gives us reason for optimism. Education quality does make a difference.

There is also good news in the fact that students who still have good scores by the 10th grade have good chances thereafter. Most individual movement in math test scores occurs before the 10th grade, and a 10th grader who has high math test scores has a much better chance of being a relatively affluent adult than one with low test scores. Among students from economically disadvantaged families, Black and Latino students who still have high math test scores in 10th grade are almost as likely as similarly scoring White students to be in the top half of education, income, and occupational prestige at age 25.

Our data suggest several calls to action along the education pipeline. By the end of preschool, too many students are already behind: Only 26 percent of economically disadvantaged students start out in the upper half of the math score distribution in kindergarten. The K-12 pipeline is no better. Even after decades of standards-based education reform, we still aren’t very good at helping talented students, especially disadvantaged students, keep up or catch up when they fall behind.

National problems require national solutions. And that means direct federal mandates in state and local education policy. President George W. Bush and former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ big push for No Child Left Behind asserted an historical escalation of the federal presence in K-12 education. Whatever their intentions, the Obama administration signaled a classic case of federal retreat with Race to the Top, basically violating the responsibilities of the federal government to less advantaged students by pushing education reform back to the states.

The Obama administration triggered the multi-step dance that constitutes the classic political strategy for taking the federal government out of a policy domain: First, offer money and loose guidance to shift action back to the state and local governments. Then, after some time has passed and people have stopped listening, quietly let the money go away.

The Trump administration has taken this retreat a step further by working to put the money in the hands of local parents and charter schools, completely abdicating the federal responsibility.

K-12 education has effectively been out of sight and out of mind in the national dialogue in recent years. It’s time to put the continuing failures identified in our research back at the forefront of the national education policy dialogue. Instead, most national politicians are focused on higher education. Providing money for higher education moves middle-class votes, but it also creates a direct economic transfer from the disadvantaged who don’t complete college to advantaged students who graduate college and thrive in the labor market. Unless there’s more progress in K-12 education first, any attempts at free college will just end up funding postsecondary dropout factories.

Our report shows that the class and racial imbalances that existed when NCLB began have not gone away and still require strong federal intervention. By extending from early education to early careers, our data illuminate an additional systemic failure to connect the dots between high school, college, and career. There already are some promising reforms designed to break down the institutional silos between K-12 education, higher education, and labor markets—including AP and IB programs, dual enrollment, linked learning, early college, and apprenticeships. But more needs to be done, including offering better career counseling and exposure earlier in the pipeline.

Too many talented students from disadvantaged families are facing an uphill battle. By providing the right supports—and holding the whole system accountable—we can give more talented students much better chances of success.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as It’s Better to Be Born Rich Than Smart


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