Reading Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 4, “Schooling”

Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_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.

1. Summary

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).


"Rough and Ready School"

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,

Tweet from Brittany Wagner: "‏@B_M_Wagner "It turns out that rich dumb kids are more likely to graduate from college than smart poor kids" #ourkids what's the answer? #schoolchoice"

“It turns out that rich dumb kids are more likely to graduate from college than smart poor kids” #ourkids what’s the answer?”

2. Reflections

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…

3. Questions

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:

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)

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26 Responses to Reading Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 4, “Schooling”

  1. valbock says:

    We have a narrative about U.S. culture — that our history is one of creating schools which would improve the quality of human capital, enriching not only the students but the society in which they operate. But I wonder, now, whether what that story is really about is a nation of immigrants, in which the citizenry, for most of our history, self-selected from among the dissatisfied and ambitious willing to leave behind a former life entirely. For a lot of our history, poverty co-existed with new immigrant status, and the striving that attended that status was a cultural value passed on which was more important than what was imparted in school. The affluent family in this story is a recently immigrated one. I don’t think we hear about the immigration story of the poorer one.

    I am sensing the same “don’t worry so much about the helicoptering” message in Putnam’s treatment of Troy High School, but the hairs on my neck stood on end as the kids talked about the competition at school. I know plenty of folks with kids in such schools. And it’s not as rosy as Putnam suggests. The rest of us shrug when a clearly accomplished kid does not get an acceptance to any of the Ivy’s, but we are not teens (who really do not have the perspective to understand that really, they can be Just Fine without that credential) and these highly competitive schools have a dark underside which is most dramatically expressed in the suicide rates they suffer.

    My kids attended a rural high school which was neither highly competitive nor embattled by crime. The student body is 96% white, 35% low-income. It does a little worse than the state average on the 11th grade state standards test. I’m beginning to feel we dodged a huge bullet in giving them this experience. They had a low pressure high school experience, taking only the handful of AP courses which were available. With the support we could provide as affluent middle class parents, they went to a selective college, with kids from the powerhouse high schools, but they were excited to be there, rather than burned out from an AP rat race.

    The class-based bifurcation we’re seeing in major metropolitan areas is not yet a feature of the landscape outside those areas. Elizabeth Warren has suggested that the bidding up of housing near the outstanding public schools is a leading cause of the economic distress faced by middle class families, and that they really might want to consider NOT paying the premium for the “excellent” schools. She may have a point.

    • Good thoughts, Val.

      Re: the intensity of that school, I had a similar experience reading about the high levels of work. It sounded awful, and also reminded me of the new mode of high school learning in much of East Asia: long school days, plus tutors, plus extra classes. In Putnam’s account the kids didn’t exactly seem happy in the moment.

      Re: immigrants and poverty, that plays a role in this Latino family chapter. Not for the kids, but their parents. Good point. I’m reminded of New York City schools, build to serve the fountainhead of European immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

      Re: Warren’s comment (“middle class families…really might want to consider NOT paying the premium for the “excellent” schools”) – that’s a classic “yes,but” situation. Yes, there are middle class families, but also upper class families. Yes, they should consider the alternative, but the arms race is ferocious. I have a hard time seeing many of the 1% agreeing to drop back – unless they set up home tutoring and/or send the kids to private (even boarding) schools.

      • valbock says:

        The thing is, the competition for the elite colleges (and the elite public schools which feed into them) is not at all confined to the 1%. Baby boomer and Gen X parents who got into good colleges back when competition was not as keen have produced a bumper crop of extremely well-coached kids who are bright and accomplished and turn in applications which qualify them to learn with the best of the best, even if they themselves have only had moderate economic success. The Latino family at Troy is affluent, but hardly in the ranks of those who could live off their investments. The kids who rise to the top at Troy and the other top high schools find that the Ivie’s will only take a max of 1 or 2 from these schools, so they are actually at a disadvantage in terms of winning that prize.

        (This also results in a sad attitude of “All that work and I landed in this dump” among kids who go to other very fine schools which do not have the Ivy cache.)

        All of which suggests that maybe it would be a lot heathier for “our kids” to grow up in economically heterogeneous neighborhoods and intellectually heterogeneous schools.

        That is at odds, of course with the “must strive to do better economically/live in better neighborhoods/send our kids to better schools than our parents could” ethos of U.S. culture, but it seems as if we’re running into diminishing returns on quality of life on that little race.

        Meanwhile, on the other end, we have people mired in poverty and hopelessness. Drugs/poverty/joblessness aren’t being alleviated by crappy schools — but even if the schools were good, there’s still that pesky question of just where the jobs are.

      • “economically heterogeneous neighborhoods and intellectually heterogeneous schools”: I think that’s what Putnam would like to see,
        I’m not sure his solutions come close to it, though.

  2. I just found this blog yesterday and am excited to see how Brian has created a chapter-by-chapter discussion and how thoughtful the comments are. It takes a lot of time to encourage and facilitate this type of discussion. Thank you.

    I came to Chicago in 1973 to be an advertising writer with the Montgomery Ward company. I grew up in small towns with very few minorities. I went to a small mostly White college in a mid size Midwestern city, where I began to see race discrimination, but also began to understand how leaving out talent from an organization, just because of a racial bias, weakens the organization. I served 3 years in the Army and this exposed me even more to race differences. However, what changed my life was that I became a volunteer tutor/mentor at a program led by volunteers at the Wards HQ in Chicago. The kids in this program were from the Cabrini-Green Hosing Complex, just across the street from the corporate HQ. I started meeting weekly with a 4th grade boy named Leo. I became the leader of this program in 1975 and for the past 40 years have led programs connecting inner city kids with adult volunteers. I’ve seen the lives of kids influenced by this, but also the lives of adults who were learning about poverty and big city issues for the first time, through the eyes and experiences of the kids they mentored. I’m still connected to Leo. He invited me to Nashville, TN last August to celebrate his 50th birthday. He paid my airfare and hotel.

    In my efforts to train and support volunteers I began to create a library of information they could draw from, ranging from “how to” tutor or mentor articles, to “why do we do this” research. I have been sharing this on the Internet since 1998. In this section of my we library you can find a sub sections on DropOut issues, Education issues, and social capital articles.

    I point this out because my empathy for this subject comes from over 40 years of direct involvement with youth and families living in big city poverty, and from reading a wide range of articles and news stories over that period of time. I did not come to this late in life, as Putnam has. When Putnam and others talk of mentoring, I think of organized programs that engage adults who did not grow up in poverty. Such programs can have a transformative impact on youth and adults. We need such programs to dramatically enlarge the number of adults who are deeply concerned and willing to give time, talent and dollars to solutions.

    I think the book does a decent job of pointing out inequalities, but much deeper learning needs to be done to really understand the complexities. This conversation really helps, but needs to be taking place in thousands of locations (churches, business, colleges, social clubs, etc.) While Putnam uses charts to show information and includes maps of Bend and Port Clinton, much more can be done using maps to show the separation between rich and poor. I agree with someone’s comment that smaller communities don’t have such acute race and class separation. In big cities like Chicago the distances are huge and the numbers large. In this section of my library are sub sections on poverty and crime mapping.

    What disappointed me most was that for all of his expertise in social capital, Putnam did not use social network analysis maps to show how kids in more affluent areas are surrounded by many positive influences and how kids in areas of concentrated poverty have fewer positives and more negatives. In this chapter of “Our Kids” Putnam writes about education funding and community wealth and how affluent kids come to school better prepared to learn, and leave school with more opportunities for jobs. I think more needs to be done to illustrate this. Just raising the per-capital spending in poor schools will not overcome the huge community wealth disadvantage poor kids face.

    I think hosting a discussion like this is great. I’d like to see someone map the complexity of this book, and this topic, using concept mapping tools, such as Here’s an example of a concept map used to show chapters of a book by Dan Pallotta, titled “Uncharitable” –

    I think it’s relevant to share the Pallotta map in this discussion of “Our Kids” because when you get to the chapter with recommendations, we need to be thinking of a) all the places where organized programs enable mentors and extra learning to connect with kids in high poverty areas; and b) how will flexible, on-going funding be generated for all of the needed programs, since the funding may need to be continuous for 10 or 20 years…in all of those places.

    • Daniel, many thanks for posting here. I appreciate your kind words and am in awe of your decades (!) of experience.

      Do you see mentoring growing at this time?

      Re: concept mapping, Putnam has always been fairly anti-internet, so I’m not surprised he skips that fine digital tool.

  3. Thanks for this. We talked about these issues in my poverty and social justice class (at an elite, private university) just today, in relation to the interface of technology and grade school education. There are so many factors that add up to make it challenging for students from lower SES backgrounds. It seems like death by 1000 cuts rather than one big blow, which makes it hard to address. For people who don’t live in that reality, it is challenging to understand all of the obstacles.

    • Well said, Amanda.
      Can you summarize (or ventriloquize) student thoughts on this topic?

      • So we talked about the idea of the Kulturetechnik in relationship to school. What aspects of school culture are low-income students excluded from? There was the socialization with peers through social media like Snapchat and Instagram. There was the pre-college culture for students who can’t get the text of the SAT question of the day and the like. Even in school, when good, innovative teachers are asking students to use their smartphones to access services like Poll Everywhere, low-income students either don’t participate or are given school devices in order to do so, which stigmatizes them. Students who have access to computers (and computer-capable adults) at home are better able to leverage these technologies in favor of learning. There are many places daily where students for whom technology costs are an impediment are told that they do not belong.

      • So technology both expresses and to a degree enhances the social divide.

  4. One issue that Putnam (Mr Harvard) doesn’t point out is that the # of students who attend an elite college (or prep school) are statistically insignificant. I can’t spend a lot of energy sympathizing with or being appalled by depressed Groton School grads who didn’t get into Yale because there are (really!) so few of them. (Confession: I live in a high-stakes, upper-middle-class, largely white suburb and both of my kids go to “elite” (but not “Ivy”) colleges.) Sheer numbers say that we need to care/worry a lot more about students who are (or not) going to community colleges or state universities (often part-time), those who are the bulk of the American college student class. Those students come from a wide spectrum of public schools. I completely agree with Putnam that the relatively new “pay to play” fees associated with k12 “activities” need to be eliminated in some way. A public school student (‘s family) should not have to pay extra for participation in sports or band or science club (awareness of trends in my own community says that students who could take advantage of scholarships or waivers do not do so: they simply opt out and don’t participate). I have no idea how to fix this problem, financially or logistically, and I don’t think Putnam does either (thus tying into others’ points about wanting concrete solutions). How do we change an educational funding system based on local property taxes, where we are scrambling for dollars to fund basic academics and can’t force full funding for “non-essential” items like sports and band? In my town, senior citizens say that they can’t afford to stay because their taxes are so high. Putnam is delineating and putting data numbers on a problem that I can already define, but he’s not telling me how to fix it.

    • In big cities where there are large areas of concentrated poverty, the percent of youth attending private schools can be 16% to 25%, according to a 2014 article. That’s not an insignificant number. I found this information a

      Another article by the Federal Reserve Bank article says “In 2000, the City of Chicago
      ranked third among the ten largest cities in the United States in the percentage
      of high school students attending private schools, behind Philadelphia and New York City” . The article has a table showing this information.

      Both of these articles add extra information to discussions of #OurKids and illustrate that in different parts of the country the problem and solutions will be different due to population size, geographic size, and demographics..

      • Fascinating, Daniel.

        I’m struck by the politics of those private-school-centric cities: very Democratic in blue states. Reminds me of the opening scene of _Waiting for Superman_, where a liberal Democratic (Al Gore’s director!) drives his child past public schools on the way to their expensive private academy.

        I wonder where the opposite, lower numbers are. Countryside?

    • Mary, Putnam’s last chapter is about proposed solutions. I’d love to hear what you think.
      (I was very disappointed, but maybe I expected too much)

      Excellent point about relative numbers. I’m heartily sick of people assuming higher ed= Ivies, or at least the elite undergrad residential institutions.

  5. valbock says:

    Yes, in large cities, even families of minimal resources turn to the parochial schools as a way to opt out of the more dangerous public schools. The ability of the private schools to expel disruptive students is a prime attractor, though often the sense of calm and purpose which infuses a well run religious school is also a factor.

  6. Hi everybody — new NYT relevant article here: There’s a reference to Putnam at the end of the article, but most of it focuses on the benefits of college for all kids, rich and poor. Now the question is how to get the poor kids to stay and succeed once they’re there…. as D Bassill points out above, probably locally-specific programs and strategies will be the most successful (and the most expensive and cumbersome, but I’d say worth it in the end).

  7. Pingback: Reading Robert Putnam’s _Our Kids, chapter 5, “Community” | Bryan Alexander

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  9. My response is largely personal but I wonder if some thoughtful solutions might surface.

    As a graduate of the public school system, I wanted to say a few good things about how it can be, although I am not disagreeing with Putnam.

    I grew up in a farm suburb of Portland, Oregon, and we were made up of about 25% Hispanic students. In elementary school that meant some of my classmates were the children of migrant workers who would disappear for part of the year until the parents were able to become more permanent residents. We started learning Spanish in kindergarten because Spanish speaking was such a fact of our daily life. I remember how exciting it was when Juan, Mateo, Sheila, and then Leo joined our class permanently.

    My town had quite a few gangs and that did brush up against the place where my junior high and highschool were located, as well as the park next to the public library. It didn’t feel violent or dangerous, you just avoided being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m not sure my parents were aware of the violence or the drugs (I mean, the northwest in the 90s!) because they were busy trying to fight outcome based education, a topic which led them to pull my younger sisters out of the public school system and into private school.

    I still hold that my education up through high school was far stronger than the education of my sisters. I had access to tiered classes (prep, AP, TAG) and electives I could take out of sheer interest (Radio, TV, and multimedia production!), while my sisters had to be in afterschool sports just to cover physical education requirements! Based on her post-college work experience, pulling her out and “protecting her” by putting my youngest sister in private school only served to isolate her from her own community. She studied Chinese instead of Spanish, which made it harder for her to find a job.

    I think what I’m getting at, at length, is that the reason my education feels like it worked is that it trained us not only in academics but in ways of communicating with the world that surrounded us. It didn’t try to make everyone the same but helped us learn each others’ language, from Spanish class to the “Natural Helpers” program. It didn’t seem to have much to do with home situations as much as the environment once you got to school. This makes me wonder who controls this environment? The school board? The teachers? The parents? The tax payers?

    • Some of each.
      What a great story, Jen. Thank you for digging into your past and sharing. It sounds like a terrific experience.

      Question I have, is why aren’t there more of those?

  10. Pingback: Building an American caste system, part 1: rural folk | Bryan Alexander

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