Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Income inequality and educational outcomes

Widening income inequality is arguably one of the biggest challenges facing the economy and society in both developing and developed countries. Addressing it assumes greater significance given the dynamics of forces shaping global economic trends. For a variety of factors, these forces institutionally favor children from families with higher incomes.

Children from more well-off families have numerous socially institutionalized advantages that put them well-ahead of those from poorer families. One, they are most likely to attend the best or better schools. Two, their parents can afford to spend more time and resources with them and show much greater interest in their education. Three, their social and family environment is much less likely (than that of children from poorer backgrounds) to be detrimental to the child's learning process. Four, they attend good early childhood education centers and other learning institutions, which gives them a head start when they join school. Finally, they are more likely to have exposure to various other non-school based, formal and non-formal literacy related platforms.

The Times has an excellent article that points to a sharp spurt in learning achievement gap over the past few decades between children from rich and poor family backgrounds.

A Stanford University study has found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40% since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites. It analyzed 12 sets of standardized test scores starting in 1960 and ending in 2007 and compared children from families in the 90th percentile of income and children from the 10th percentile. It highlights the increased role of family incomes in determining children's learning levels,

"The relationship between parental education and children’s achievement has remained relatively stable during the last fifty years, whereas the relationship between income and achievement has grown sharply. Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement... a given difference in family incomes now corresponds to a 30 to 60 percent larger difference in achievement than it did for children born in the 1970s."


Another study by University of Michigan researchers that uses data from nearly 70 years finds the imbalance between rich and poor children in college completion — the single most important predictor of success in the work force — has grown by about 50 percent since the late 1980s.

"Wefind growing gaps between children from high- and low-income families in college entry, persistence, and graduation. Rates of college completion increased by only four percentage points for low-income cohorts born around 1980 relative to cohorts born in the early 1960s, but by 18 percentage points for corresponding cohorts who grew up in high-income families. Among men, inequality in educational attainment has increased slightly since the early 1980s. But among women, inequality in educational attainment has risen sharply, driven by increases in the education of the daughters of high-income parents. Sex differences in educational attainment, which were small or nonexistent thirty years ago, are now substantial, with women outpacing men in every demographic group."


Times points to the critical importance of early childhood education which gives children from better economic circumstances a head-start in the education race.

"Meredith Phillips, an associate professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, used survey data to show that affluent children spend 1,300 more hours than low-income children before age 6 in places other than their homes, their day care centers, or schools (anywhere from museums to shopping malls). By the time high-income children start school, they have spent about 400 hours more than poor children in literacy activities."


Economix points to this intuitive explanation from a behavioural psychology perspective about the relationship between income deprivation and parenting outcomes. The implication is that well-off parents, being less likely to be hassled by their daily chores, are therefore more likely to have enough emotional energies to concentrate on their child's educational needs. They write,

"Good parenting requires psychic resources. Complex decisions must be made. Sacrifices must be made in the moment. This is hard for anyone, whatever their income: we all have limited reserves of self-control, and attention and other psychic resources... Low-income parents... face a tax on their psychic resources. Many things that are trifling and routine to the well-off give sleepless nights to those less fortunate."

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