Will the President Say Something Meaningful in SOTU about Inequality and Public Education?

Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist has extensively documented the impact of neighborhood inequality on school achievement.

In a report released last fall, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, Reardon describes residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 in 2009).  These metropolitan areas are, according to Bischoff and Reardon, “home to 197 million people.”

Bischoff and Reardon study the segregation of families, not households, because, “Segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area.  Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”

Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime.

While the research report is dense, the conclusions demonstrate clearly that in America we are increasingly raising our children in pockets of extreme poverty or pockets of extreme affluence:

  • By 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income, although, “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor.”
  • Income segregation has grown significantly over four decades for black and Hispanic families, but particularly in the years since 2000.  While income inequality among black families did not grow significantly in the two most recent decades from 1990 to 2009, residential segregation by income did grow considerably among black families.  “Low-income black and Hispanic families are much more isolated from middle-class black and Hispanic families than are low-income white families from middle- and high-income white families.  The rapid growth of income segregation among black families has exacerbated the clustering of poor black families in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates.  And while middle class black families were less likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income black families, this does not mean that middle-class blacks gained access to middle-class white neighborhoods…”  Racial segregation continues even for the black middle class.

In an earlier 2011 study, Reardon demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The inequality achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

During the George Bush and Barack Obama administrations, support has been bipartisan for a political agenda that fails to address child poverty and that ignores growing economic inequality and accompanying isolation of the poorest children in urban neighborhoods defined by their concentrated poverty.  The bipartisan agenda, established in the 2002 federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and perpetuated in ongoing policies like Race to the Top, has operated through sanctions for the schools and teachers struggling to raise test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities. Today’s bipartisan public school “reform” philosophy is dominated by the principles of competition (ranking and rating schools), creative disruption (closing schools and firing principals and teachers), and privatization (assuming that charter schools  and even on-line schools can magically address the needs of children who struggle).  There has been little conversation about addressing inequality, ameliorating poverty, or even bringing school funding up to a level of equity between wealthy and poor school districts.

In a recent guest post published as part of Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column, Kevin Welner, the director of the  National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, asks those who listen to President Obama’s State of the Union Message on Tuesday night, which is expected to address the issue of income inequality, to look for substantive plans to address inequality and not merely  “unproven and ineffectual treatments.”  Welner decries the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations:  “We heap demands on those schools, deprive them of the resources they urgently need, and then declare them to be ‘failing schools’ when they don’t perform miracles.”

Welner suggests our nation’s children living in poverty (an alarming 22 percent of all children in the United States) deserve a serious answer to this question: “How do I design, pass, and implement a package of policies that have been shown to be effective at addressing wealth inequality and the damage caused by that inequality?”  He suggests that strategies aimed to lift families out of poverty are, in reality, policies to improve school achievement.  “We should honestly consider policies like a guaranteed minimum income, increases in the minimum wage, and a tax structure that shifts the burden toward the extremely wealthy.  The way to reduce wealth inequality is to do just that: reduce wealth inequality.  Our public schools can help, but they cannot do it alone.”

A Powerful Reflection on Inequality for This Thanksgiving

The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a teacher and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary.

His blog post for this Thanksgiving lifts up the research on widening inequality in America and the inequality he observes in Chicago.

Thomas explores the implications of growing inequality not only for those trapped in poverty but also for the sequestered affluent. What does it mean for all of us that the powerful—including an increasing number of our leaders—are more and more insulated?

Sean Reardon Confirms Further Widening of Segregation by Income

Near the end of their new book, Public Education Under Siege, educator Mike Rose and historian Michael B. Katz describe what they believe is the toughest problem for public education in America: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (p. 228)  Today the United States tolerates an alarming 22 percent child poverty rate, by far the highest rate of child poverty in any of the world’s so-called industrialized nations.  At the same time our society is experiencing ongoing segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich.  Growing economic segregation overlays segregation by race and ethnicity, and the trend is mirrored by a widening income inequality school achievement gap.

Documenting these trends in 2011, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods.  By 2007, fewer families lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

In a new report, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, Reardon has updated the work on residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 in 2009).  These metropolitan areas are, according to Bischoff and Reardon, “home to 197 million people.”

Bischoff and Reardon study the segregation of families, not households, because, “Segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area.  Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”  Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime.

While the research report is dense, the conclusions demonstrate clearly that segregation by family income continues to grow:

  • By 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income, although, “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor. “
  • Income segregation has grown significantly over four decades for black and Hispanic families, but particularly in the years since 2000.  While income inequality among black families did not grow significantly in the two most recent decades from 1990 to 2009, residential segregation by income did grow considerably among black families.  “Low-income black and Hispanic families are much more isolated from middle-class black and Hispanic families than are low-income white families from middle- and high-income white families.  The rapid growth of income segregation among black families has exacerbated the clustering of poor black families in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates.  And while middle class black families were less likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income black families, this does not mean that middle-class blacks gained access to middle-class white neighborhoods…”  Racial segregation continues even for the black middle class.

The growing segregation by economics that Reardon documented two years ago and confirms here is pure social science research.  He and Bischoff are not prescribing policy.  We ought to ask, however, what are the implications for school reform?  Are not the neighborhoods where very low-income black and Hispanic families are concentrated the very neighborhoods that are currently the target of punitive school reform policies that fail to address the very factors Reardon and Bischoff identify: poverty, inequality and growing segregation?  Our policies target these communities for school closure, privatization through rapid growth in charters, and penalties for teachers who are unable to raise scores while our society has chosen to deny the significance of the trends Bischoff and Reardon confirm.

Bischoff and Reardon pledge to examine in future research another question their data suggests: “If socioeconomic segregation means that more advantaged families do not share social environments and public institutions (schools, public services, parks, etc) with low-income families, advantaged families may hold back their support for investments in shared resources.  Such a shift in commitment may have far-reaching consequences for the rest of society.”  One can only wonder whether austerity budgeting across the states and in Congress may reflect our society’s growing residential isolation by income.

Inequities in College Access Threaten the American Dream

Many of us have been watching our society separate by income— the wealthy moving to enclaves surrounding our cities while our poorest families are left behind, concentrated in ghettos from which they struggle to propel their children into places with better chances.  Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon has documented these trends, here and here, with numbers that stun even if we have been paying attention.  Many of us struggle, however to understand the factors that are converging to produce our growing inequality.  Although we are all caught up in the systems that ensure that we live near people who are pretty much like ourselves, the factors that reinforce inequality are as likely to seem as invisible as the air around us.

In an important report published this summer by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl document the ways that Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege.

The myth, of course, is that we live in a meritocracy where every April the smartest high school seniors who have worked the hardest receive acceptance letters and financial aid packages that will take them to the most selective colleges.  According to Carnevale and Strohl, however:  “Polarization by race and ethnicity in the nation’s postsecondary system has become the capstone for K-12 inequality and the complex economic and social mechanisms that create it.  The postsecondary system mimics and magnifies the racial and ethnic inequality in educational preparation it inherits from the K-12 system and then projects this inequality into the labor market.”

According to Carnevale and Strohl, “The postsecondary system is more and more complicit as a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations.  More college completion among white parents brings higher earnings that fuel the intergenerational reproduction of privilege by providing more highly educated parents the means to pass their educational advantages on to their children.  Higher earnings buy more expensive housing in the suburbs …. The synergy between the growing economic value of education and the increased sorting by housing values makes parental education the strongest predictor of a child’s educational attainment and future earnings.  As a result , the country also has the least intergenerational educational and  income mobility among advanced nations.”

While overall the number of African American and Hispanic students entering colleges and universities has grown, their enrollment in selective institutions has not grown significantly.  This means that the percentage of whites at the most selective 468 colleges has increased while the share of seats for black and brown young people has stagnated.  Graduation rates at the most selective institutions continue to grow, while dropping out of college is much higher in less selective institutions. As college costs have risen, higher income parents confer privilege by ensuring that their children can make it all the way to graduation.

According to the report, racial segregation compounds economic injustice as a separate variable: “African Americas and Hispanics usually remain concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, even as individual family income increases.  As a result race gives additional power to the negative effects of low-income status and limits the positive effects of income gains, better schools, and other educational improvements.  Hence, minorities are disproportionately harmed by increasing income inequality and don’t benefit as much as whites from generational improvements in educational attainment or income growth.”

“It is difficult to clearly mark the point where racial discrimination ends and economic deprivation begins, but the evidence is clear that both negatively affect educational and economic opportunity and are most powerful in combination.  The interaction of race and class disadvantages results in the spatial, social, and economic isolation that signifies persistent hardship.”

Public Schools: The Victims, Not the Cause, of Massive Inequality

A couple of years ago Paul Reville, then Massachusetts Education Secretary declared: “Some want to make the absurd argument that the reason low-income youngsters do poorly is that, mysteriously, all the incompetency in our education systems has coincidentally aggregated around low income students.  In this view, all we need to do is scrub the system of incompetency and all will be well…”

This is the idea, widely held, that it is all the teachers’ fault.  Extending this idea tells us that our problem is tenure or bad colleges of education training teachers badly.

Such ideas, foolish as they may sound to those of us who know something about inequality of educational opportunity, seem appealing because the problem can be fixed by merely firing our way into a better future.

We struggle to grasp and connect the web of issues that converge to drive inequality for children.  And if we can grasp the scope of the problem, it seems overwhelming.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz helps us this morning in The Wrong Lesson from Detroit’s Bankruptcy.  Stiglitz has a wonderful way of translating the real life implications of economic policy.  And he understands quality public schools as part of the common good that strong economies are supposed to support.

Stiglitz grew up in Gary, Indiana, and this morning he writes about the role of manufacturing in mid-western cities:  “Cities like Detroit and Gary thrived on that industry, not just in terms of the wealth that it produced but also in terms of strong communities, healthy tax bases and good infrastructure.  From the stable foundation of Gary’s excellent public schools, influenced by the ideas of the progressive reformer John Dewey, I went on to Amherst College and then to M.I.T. for graduate school.”  He continues: “Today, fewer than 8 percent of American workers are employed in manufacturing, and many Rust Belt cities are skeletons.”

The rest of this morning’s article connects the dots, summarized as, “underinvestment in infrastructure and public services, geographic isolation that has marginalized poor and African-American communities in the Rust Belt, intergenerational poverty that has stymied equality of opportunity and the privileging of moneyed interests (like those of corporate executives and financial services companies) over those of workers.”

The rest of the article explains thoroughly how these factors intersect and what we must start to change.  “Detroit’s bankruptcy,” Stiglitz writes, “is a reminder of how divided our society has become and how much has to be done to heal the wounds.”

One of those things we’ll have to do is figure out a way to support and improve the public schools in places like Detroit instead of closing and privatizing  the schools that struggle and punishing the teachers and children based on high-stakes tests.  The children and their teachers are the victims, not the cause, of the structural inequality Stiglitz describes this morning.

American Dream… American Delusion?

Reading Robert Putnam’s excellent article yesterday about widening inequality made me return to look at a growing body of material about the relation of family income inequality and school achievement for children and adolescents.

Certainly many of us have noticed the outmigration of wealthier families in some metropolitan areas and in other cities the concentration of gentrification in particular neighborhoods, along with the accompanying displacement of poor families and concentration of poverty in other neighborhoods.  The Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon has published striking numbers that document these trends, numbers that shock even though we might have noticed the patterns informally.  Here are links to two of Reardon’s research studies;  I urge you to check out at least their executive summaries:

Reardon  shared some of his conclusions in the New York Times earlier this spring in a shorter piece, No Rich Child Left Behind, to which UCLA professor, Mike Rose, who has been writing about educational inequality for a long time responds.

Five years ago sociologist Heather Beth Johnson published a fascinating book, The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, describing a  study of how Americans explain to themselves our society’s growing inequality .  Not surprisingly, Johnson discovered that a mass of people frame their thinking with the narrative of the American Dream, a story that credits inequality to the power of the individual. This is the idea that we live in a meritocracy where we all begin life with the power to succeed if we work hard; where we all play by one set of rules and if we are strategic and patient, we can all win; where we rise or fall pretty much on our own.

Here is a transcript of one of the interviews Johnson reports:  “Interviewer: ‘Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?’  Responder: ‘Yeah.’  Interviewer: ‘So you think there are certain  groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?’  Responder: ‘Sure. Definitely.’  Interviewer: ‘Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?’  Responder: ‘That’s a very good definition.’  Interviewer: ‘Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?’  Responder: ‘Yes. Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.'”

In interview after interview participants tightly hold both beliefs: some people have it much harder in America, and everyone has an equal chance.  Johnson attributes the contradiction to the blindness of privilege, the invisibility of the influence of intergenerational gifts—some even quite small but significant because they arrive at key times—by which those with some money can assist their children and grandchildren: help with a car payment, assistance with doctor bills, family vacations, college tuition, and even assistance with the down payment on a house.  Parents and grandparents with fewer assets and lower monthly income are unable to provide these boosts.  Johnson explains: because speaking about money is taboo, “the intergenerational transmission of it and the purposeful use of it are normally hidden from public view.”

Research like Reardon’s demonstrates that despite the strength of the story of the American Dream in our collective imagination, this myth does not describe today’s America, where child poverty is 22 percent, highest in the developed world;  where seven million of those 16 million poor children are trapped in extreme poverty with annual family income under $10,000; where social mobility has stalled, residential segregation increased, and inequality skyrocketed.