Let’s continue our online reading of Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.
In this post we move on to chapter four, simply titled “Schooling,” a topic central to this blog and my work. As with previous chapters I’ll summarize its content, then offer some reflections, followed by questions. Because this subject is so important, I’m going to spend more time and more than 1700 words on this chapter.
Warning: if you care about education, this is a rough chapter.
As the twenty-first century opened, a family’s socioeconomic status (SES) had become even more important than test scores in predicting which eighth graders would graduate from college.(189)
It’s educational apartheid, a caste system driven by economic class.*
This chapter argues that schooling does not provide a level playing field for kids from different economic classes, but reflects that divide. “The American public school today is as a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.” (182)
Once again Our Kids establishes a setting for stories, this time in California’s Orange County, where extremes of wealth and poverty can now be found in close proximity. The characters in this venue aren’t white, as with many in chapter two, or black, as in chapter three, but Latino. Once again Putnam sees economic difference trumping race: “economic inequality within the Latin community in Orange County has grown significantly during the past four decades” (136). Characters include Latinos wealthy (Clara, Ricardo, and their children Isabella and Michael) and poor (Lola and Sofia).
The upper-class family’s parents focused intensely on education, picking neighborhoods based on SAT scores (142) and sending their child to a very competitive magnet school (“15 students get 2400 on their SATs”, 144). The school was – presumably is – very intense, with long hours, challenging curricula, plentiful extracurricular activities.
The poor family’s schooling experience is enormously different. The older sister was not able to take high school seriously, since she had become, in effect, her younger sibling’s sole caregiver (151-152). Which made her typical for students in that school, in a way:
“What were academics like in your school?” we ask.
Lola: There wasn’t any.
Sofia: [Laughing] What’s “academics”? (154)
We learn that the high school poor teens attended was a nightmare of violence and substance abuse, presided over by uncaring and/or distracted and/or disdainful staff. While all the rich kids practice for the SAT staring their first year in their high school, in Santa Ana “[o]nly the smart kids knew [that it existed]” (155). There are few extracurriculars. Ivy League universities are not part of the picture, and Sofia manages the signal achievement of making it into (but not yet through) a local community college (157-8).
The rest of the chapter breaks down key features of the intersections between economic class and schooling. By one measure the academic gap between classes is like “the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts” (161). But schooling doesn’t initiate that gap, as it precedes kindergarten (162). One driver for that early difference is the growing physical separation of classes by housing, a/k/a “residential sorting” (163). Parents pick homes in areas with not just the best schools, but also the best parents: the ones most likely to be well-schooled, wealthy, and actively supporting their kids in school (164).
Those local micro-social differences produce very different child-rearing practices, as we saw in the preceding chapter, and also shape how kids learn once they get into school. “Whom you go to school with matters a lot.” (166) Anti-academic peers have huge impacts (169). And parents contribute to the school with money, curricular pressure, and time, if they’re wealthy (168).
Interestingly, this is a private-public nexus. Parents are less likely to send their kids to private schools than a generation ago (173). But parental wealth as a contribution to schools makes public schools semi-private, as Robert Reich observes.
Beyond academics, extracurricular activities vary strongly by economic class. This gives wealthier children advantages not just for college applications, but also for developing social skills, soft skills, and practical knowledge (174-183).
Summing things up, Putnam finds that “schools as sites probably widen the class gap” (182). The rising importance of college degrees mean poor kids’ relative lack of access to tertiary education hurts them more than it once did; “[t]hey’ve been struggling to catch up on a down escalator” (184). Working to improve schools won’t fix the problem, but can “narrow the gap” (183).
The higher education access divide is actually worsening. Putnam finds poor kids “increasingly… concentrated in community colleges” (185), and takes time to criticize community colleges for not taking students very far. He also sees poor adults tracked into for-profits, and criticizes them (186). Meanwhile, “more selective institutions… for better or worse offer the best prospects for success in America”, and for getting into them, “the class gap has actually widened in recent years” (186). “The worst news of all” is that the poorer a college student is, the less likely they are to actually complete college (187).
Kids from upper-class backgrounds are once again widening their lead in the race that matters most. Kids from low-income backgrounds… are working more or less diligently to improve their prospects in life, but no matter how talented and hardworking they are, at best they are improving their play at checkers, while upper-class kids are widening their lead at three-dimensional chess. (187-8)
Putnam concludes the chapter by noting that wealthy kids who do badly at tests have a better shot at graduating from college than poor kids who test well. (190) As one Twitter commentator summarized,
“It turns out that rich dumb kids are more likely to graduate from college than smart poor kids” #ourkids what’s the answer?”
A counterintuitive and vital point is that public school funding differences aren’t that significant:
Most researchers have found… that school finances (including spending per pupil, and teacher salaries) are not significant predictors of school performance. (165)
[T]here is little evidence that the growing performance gap between low-income schools and high-income schools can be attributed to bias in the allocation of public resources. (166)
Putnam does see better teachers preferring schools in richer neighborhoods (172), which surely plays a role. But the social conditions of families outside of school and the kids within schools are the decisive factors in this chapter.
College debt is a major issue for the wealthy family. Fear of it impels them to send their youngest child to a non-Ivy (148). But Putnam doesn’t want us to pay too much attention to college costs: “The burdens on the poor kids have been gathering weight since they were very young. Rising tuition costs and student debt are the final straw, not the main load.” (189)
Crime continues to plague lower income families in this part of the book. The wealthy Latino family calls ethnic gangs “cockroaches”, with the mother saying “I am ashamed of [these gangs] as part of our culture” (140). The lower income family knows gangs intimately (149-150).
Putnam maintains his theme of changing levels of social inequality: “this class gap has been growing within each racial group, while the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing” (161).
School choice hasn’t had much impact on class separation (163).
Be sure to catch Putnam’s autobiographical note about he and his wife shopping for schools based on dental appliances (164).
Asian-Americans really are barely present in Our Kids. In this chapter we learn that they make up 46% percent of the magnet school (144), nearly one half, but nothing follows from this.
While reading this book I came across a presentation by Sean Reardon (Stanford) on “Income Inequality, Schooling, and Educational Outcomes”.
One key quote really speaks to this chapter:
[I]n some ways I think you can think of this as … sort of the story of the second half of the twentieth century in America… [I]n the 1950s and 60s, racial inequality in America is very high, ah, in every dimension of life… but income inequality… is really low in the 50s and 60s. And so, as a result racial gaps in education are very big, income gaps are smaller.
But we made lots of progress – there’s still lots of room to go… in terms of racial inequality in the 60s and 70s… while income inequality started to take off…
The race gaps are big, but the income gaps are much bigger.
That argument about inequality shifting from race to class is one Putnam has made throughout Our Kids. The whole presentation is very good, well worth the time:
Also from Reardon is a 2011 paper on the same topic, with this key finding:
The achievement gap between children from high- and low income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier. In fact, it appears that the income achievement gap has been growing for at least fifty years…
Does Putnam’s picture of how K-12 schools now work match your experience and observations?
Do you agree that while K-12 schools don’t cause inequality, they reflect and continue it?
Is Putnam right to see community colleges as not taking students very far? They are “the end of the line, educationally speaking… for most kids” (185).
As Geekymom observes, reading about such problems naturally makes us want to seek solutions. This chapter doesn’t offer many, beyond encouraging school boards to not cut extracurricular funding. What should we do within education to address this class gap?
In comments Valerie noted the importance of respect in child-rearing, and how race and class shape respect differently. How does that play out in schooling?
How is the town and character narrative structure doing at this point in the book?
Previously in our reading:
- Chapter 1, “The American Dream: Myths and Realities”
- Chapter 2, “Families”
- Chapter 3, “Parenting”
- Planning this reading
Next week, chapter 5: “Community”.
*Putnam uses those terms – apartheid, caste – earlier in the book.
(thanks to Garthster Lucerne for pointing out the Reardon lecture; tweet by Brittany Wagner); Rough and Ready School photo from the Orange County Archives on Flickr)