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The Gravity of Inequality

Sean Reardon's research reveals a stark reality: Rich students keep climbing while poor ones are falling farther behind.

Illustration: Aad Goudappel

By Sam Scott

It’s hardly news that money matters in education. Scientists have recognized that affluent students do better than their poor peers for as long as anyone has had the curiosity and ability to measure the difference, says Sean Reardon, a sociologist in the Graduate School of Education.

But researchers generally assumed the gap was no better or worse today than decades ago, Reardon says. Certainly that was his sense when a colleague prodded him to take a deeper look.

A deft statistical researcher known for making sense of complex data, Reardon delved into a dozen sets of standardized test scores parsing how students at the 90th percentile of family income compared with those at the 10th percentile.

His findings took him aback. Far from a constant, the gap between haves and have-nots had yawned into a chasm. In the previous 30 years, the difference between rich and poor students had grown by about 40 percent—double the gap between black and white students, the far more familiar yardstick of inequality in American education.

The numbers didn’t suggest that the poor were stumbling, he says; rather, the rich were soaring ahead. In a period during which wealth has concentrated in the highest income brackets, the affluent are increasingly focusing their resources to give their young children a running start, with everything from more reading time to private tutoring. 

“With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages,” Reardon wrote in a subsequent essay. “But even though middle-class and poor families are also increasing the time and money they invest in their children, they are not doing so as quickly or as deeply as the rich.”

Perhaps, he continued, society should take a cue from the affluent and invest more fully in educational opportunities for children from the day they are born.

Published in 2011, at the tail end of the Great Recession and amid the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Reardon’s findings resonated inside academia—the paper has been cited more than 700 times—and beyond. An account of the findings landed atop the front page of the New York Times, helping mark Reardon as a keen observer of inequality and education in America.

“He’s had a huge effect not only on scholarship but on the way people in public life think about these problems,” says Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist best known for his influential 2000 book, Bowling Alone, on the demise of American civic life.

Putnam calls himself a latecomer to studying inequality—but once he dove into the area for work leading to his 2015 book, Our Kids, he was amazed by the ubiquity of Reardon’s research. “Everywhere I’d go there’d be another sign saying ‘Reardon was here.’ ”

Last spring, Reardon, with a team of collaborators, released his most detailed look yet at disparity across American schools, drawing on a complex patchwork of scores from more than 200 million reading and math tests taken over five years by more than 40 million children in third through eighth grade. 

It’s a mountain of data that could take lifetimes to fully mine, but perhaps one image gives its essence—a scatter graph plotting the performance of 11,280 districts against their socioeconomic status.

Reardon - wings
Illustration: Aad Goudappel

At first blush, the explosion of dots—each one a district—looks like a snapshot of the Milky Way, but a pattern is soon obvious. With depressing reliability, test results and socioeconomic status move in virtual lockstep. The richest and poorest districts have average performance levels more than four grade levels apart.

“That’s the equivalent of sixth graders in an affluent community understanding algebra, geometry and even simple statistics, while sixth graders in the poorest areas struggle to master fractions,” Reardon says.

Previously, such nationwide comparisons have been thwarted by the profoundly different ways states administer and measure tests, an obstacle Reardon’s team overcame by essentially conjuring ways to align state test results to a common national scale.

“The idea you can now say unequivocally across 11,000 districts that this is a pattern, to me that is what is so powerful,” says Prudence Carter, who recently left Stanford to become dean of the Graduate School of Education at UC-Berkeley and who counts Reardon as a good friend. “It’s not just a sample. It’s not just a case study. It’s the reality.”

The results, which the New York Times published in an interactive online graphic, also show the stubborn persistence of racial achievement gaps. The only district where blacks don’t trail whites is in Detroit, and that, Reardon says, is because there, everybody is flailing. Some of the largest gaps exist in prosperous university towns like Berkeley, Evanston, Ill., and Chapel Hill, N.C. 

The analysis isn’t intended as an atomically detailed confirmation of race and poverty as destiny. Despite obvious trends in the data, there is variation—and possibly clues. In Massachusetts, for example, where funding is adjusted to reduce disparities across districts, schools generally outperform their California counterparts. A few poor districts, like in Steubenville, Ohio, perform above grade level. And in more segregated areas, racial achievement gaps are exacerbated. 

Such insights aren’t solutions, though they might lead that way. “If you have 12,000 school districts, you can start to potentially tease apart the features of a community that are associated with better outcomes for kids,” Reardon says. “Are they things that happen in schools? Or are they things that happen in families? Or happen in the neighborhoods?”

Reardon’s younger brother is a solar astrophysicist. In his field, moving forward requires ever more powerful telescopes. In a way, the database marks Reardon’s attempt at a similar advance. In the next year, he expects his team to have scores broken down by race, gender, ESL and other groupings for every public school in the country.

Reardon’s path to his endowed position at Stanford as a professor of poverty and inequality was a winding one. As an undergrad at Notre Dame, he majored in a great books program studying the Western canon, published poetry and minored in honors mathematics. His intention was to get a doctorate in comparative literature.

But the summer after graduating, he began to crave something more engaged with the “real world.” Too late in the year to apply for the Peace Corps or other service organizations, he looked for advice from his old Jesuit high school outside Cincinnati.

They offered him a list of some 30 other Catholic schools around the country where his skills might be needed. His eyes zeroed in on one that sounded nothing like the rest: Red Cloud Indian School.

And so Reardon soon found himself at a Catholic school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., located in the poorest county in the United States. For $100 a month, plus room and board, he taught English, physics and photography, and drove the school bus.

It was a wonderful experience, he says. The students at Red Cloud were eager, the community welcoming, and the school, despite nominal tuition of around $25 a year and the surrounding poverty, well-stocked. An outgoing priest had made a habit of descending on distant government surplus sales to build a darkroom, printing press and large telescope. 

But the reality of lives far harsher than his was also obvious. One time he took students on a field trip to the nearby cemetery, an excursion planned in connection with poetry readings on death and mortality. It was soon clear they knew much more about the topic than he did.

In his own life, death hadn’t yet come closer than the loss of a grandmother, but his students were pointing out graves of uncles and baby siblings. That night he got an angry phone call from a mother of a student outraged at his insensitivity. “I clearly didn’t know what I was doing.”

After two years, Reardon was ready to move on, this time to a PhD program on the history of consciousness. But late- blooming anxiety about walling himself off in academia again led to a last-minute search for a teaching job, this one ending at a well-heeled Quaker school in Moorestown, N.J., outside Philadelphia.

His leafy new surroundings weren’t unlike his hometown of Wyoming, Ohio, but he was seeing the area with new eyes. In Pine Ridge, with staggering unemployment, there were scant examples of the path he had taken for granted—studying hard, going to a good college and getting a good job in your own community. In Moorestown, there hardly seemed a path that didn’t lead in that direction.

He would wander some more. He returned to Notre Dame to get a master’s in international peace studies and then headed to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

While other factors figured in, too, his experiences in Pine Ridge and Moorestown shaped his awareness of the vast differences in America, which continues to motivate him. “Those are really different worlds, and the kinds of opportunities kids have in those places are dramatically different.”

His interest remains very much at the poles. People often assume the roots of society’s problems lie with what’s happening—or not happening—among the poor, he says. But as the increasing socioeconomic gap suggests, the cause can just as easily be at the top. 

Case in point: Studies by Reardon and Kendra Bischoff, MA, ’08, PhD ’11, reveal spiking economic segregation in America. In 1970, 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods judged either affluent or poor. By 2009, that share had more than doubled. 

As a consequence, the mixed-income middle has been disappearing, and with it, a shared destiny that once made it more likely the advantages of the rich—like better services and schools and greater access to educated role models—spill over to the poor. It is a trend caused in no small part by the rich removing themselves to wealthy enclaves.

“We do a lot of pointing at the problem, the problem must be there, let’s fix those communities,” Reardon says. “If we didn’t have those communities because we had more integrated places, there’d be no fixing to do.”

Such dramatic changes in society and schools are troubling to him, but they are also strangely comforting. If something like the relationship between family income and educational success can transform in a generation, he says, it can also be changed back.

Indeed that may be happening. In a study released last summer, five years after his acclaimed paper on the growing socioeconomic gap, Reardon and collaborators from the University of Virginia and Columbia University found that, contrary to the researchers’ expectations, low-income kindergartners were entering school with stronger “school readiness” scores.

Sean Reardon
Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

From 1998 to 2010, the school readiness gap between low- and high-income children narrowed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading. At the same time, both the white-black and white-Hispanic gaps narrowed by roughly 15 percent in the same period.

Given that economic inequality had only increased in the same period, Reardon had expected to see the opposite. One possible explanation for the improvement, he says, is better access to public preschools. The percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in state-funded preschools has doubled since 2002. 

But part of the change may also lie in the home. The researchers found that low-income parents are catching up with more affluent parents on how much time and energy they spend on reading, working with computers and other educational activities, like going to the library.

And that, the researchers suspect, reflects a growing awareness of early childhood as a crucial period of cognitive development. “Thirty years ago, it wasn’t necessarily the way working-class families thought about their kids,” he says. “Now everyone thinks about their kids that way much more than they used to.”

But even if the rate of improvement continues, it would take another 60 to 110 years to fully close the school readiness gap. In a country spread between Moorestowns and Pine Ridges, parenting alone isn’t enough to overcome inequality.

“Figuring out how to sustain it or build on it seems crucial because it suggests you could really do something about this,” he says. “If you can narrow the gap in readiness, you have a much better chance of keeping the gap narrow as kids go through school.” 

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