Never too early to join the rat race …

He's late for algebra bootcamp
He’s late for algebra boot camp

Maybe it’s just middle-age nostalgia, but it feels like summer was once so simple for kids. The front door opened early in the morning, you ran out into bright sunshine, galloped around safe suburban streets, got hungry, and ran back home for dinner, tired but happy.

Things are different today. For one thing, few parents would dream of leaving children unattended for so long. And, among ambitious and well-off parents, fewer still would look on such aimless days as time well spent. Why waste the day kicking a ball around the park when you could be at algebra boot camp? Or learning Chinese in Shanghai? Or exploring self-expression through origami?

Enrolling kids in summer courses and programmes isn’t just a way of keeping them out of parents’ hair. More and more, it seems, this sort of “enrichment” is part of a year-round arms race aimed at ensuring kids get the best possible start in life. And, increasingly it seems, that race is being won by the well-off.

One sign of this is the difference in how much well-off and poorer families spend on their children. The data comes from the United States, and covers a period (from the early 1970s to the middle of the last decade) that saw rising income inequality. According to researchers Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg, in the early 70s, the poorest 10% of American families spent around $607 a year per child; by 2006/07, that had risen to $750, an increase of about 23% (the figures are adjusted for inflation). By contrast, the wealthiest 10% of families spent $2,832 in the early 1970s, rising to $6,573, an increase of about 132%.

It’s not as if the poorest families didn’t try to keep up: They more than doubled their spending on children as a share of their income, but that was nowhere near enough to match the investment – and “investment” is probably the right word – of wealthier parents.

Of course, parenting is not just about money. But, here again, better-off families – in the U.S. and, possibly, elsewhere – may have the advantage, as Sabrina Tavernise noted last year: “While wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children … lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.”

So, what’s the impact of all this on the kids? According to Stanford researcher Sean Reardon (pdf), it’s contributing to a widening social gap in American education. Today, he writes, “the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40% larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.” He also notes that research suggests these patterns are set early in life: “The income achievement gap is large when children enter kindergarten and does not appear to grow (or narrow) appreciably as children progress through school.”

In short, what appears to be happening is that – from children’s earliest years – the income levels of their parents are increasing linked to how well they do in education and that, in turn, determines how well they do in life. Or, as Nicholas Lehman wrote last year, “Opportunity is increasingly tied to education, and educational performance is tied to income and wealth.”

In the face of such research, it’s hard not to feel a little sad, not just for the kids who risk being left behind but also for those who are being “hothoused” for success. As Chrystia Freeland reported in May, some may be paying a price for their parents’ ambitions in terms of increased risk of substance abuse, depression and anxiety. But, as she also noted, you can’t blame families for wanting the best for their kids: “… the truth is that these parents are responding rationally to a hyper-competitive world economy”.

Can the opportunity gap be bridged? Probably not entirely, but many people believe government policies could do more to narrow it. As an OECD paper pointed out earlier this year, the U.S. is “one of only three OECD countries that on average spend less on students from disadvantaged backgrounds than on other students”. It also points out that, unlike in some other countries, the best teachers rarely work in the most disadvantaged schools. “These resource allocations,” says the OECD paper, “reinforce the disadvantages of social segregation, which results in children in poorer schools having lower educational expectations and outcomes.”

Useful links

Inequality and Poverty in the United States: Public Policies for Inclusive Growth   (OECD)

A Skills Beyond School Review of the United States (OECD)

OECD work on inequality and on education

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Making education more equitable Marilyn Achiron on OECD educationtoday blog

Brian Keeley

5 comments to “Never too early to join the rat race …”

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  1. Philip Hodkinson - 15/07/2013 Reply

    This was always true, the only difference being the greater level that it is now happening and being discussed.
    Aren’t all the UK’s cabinet (historically) filled with the servings from Eton and Harrow, plus a few others?
    One of the results of this, is the wealth and power stays roughly in the same hands. Unfortunately, in our straightened times, this has lead and is continuing to lead, to a much greater gap between the haves and the have nots.
    This need not continue into education. Certainly in UK, governments, over the last 50 years have messed around with different educational strategies, if you can call them that, resulting in a reduction in standards and achievement overall, despite what their figures would have you believe. Ask any employer.
    I started out from, well let’s just say, I was a Sec Mod boy, of the 50’s but, looking back, even though those were in reality, just a preparatory school for work, the one I went to provided me with a great basic education, that I was able to build on.
    I’m not sure that self expression and a willingness to “have a go” at anything, are things that can be taught, at least, not without very inspirational teachers, (parents) which, I suppose, is where these specialist tutors thrive. But at what cost nationally!

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