From the November 14, 2007 WashingtonPost.com
November 27, 2007
by Ryan Streeter
Except for a few outliers, observers and analysts agree that income inequality in America has grown markedly in the past generation. Since 1979, household income in America has grown 29 percent in the 80th percentile and 37 percent in the 90th percentile, while families in the 20th and 50th percentiles have seen have seen growth of only 10.5 and 13 percent, respectively. Perhaps the least doubtful of the many theories about what drives this growing gap is the role of education. The difference in earnings between a college and a high school graduate is greater now than it has been in 90 years. And as our economy continues to create jobs that reward post-secondary education with higher pay, the odds are that faster upward mobility will continue to be linked with education.
Congress has posited solutions involving minimum wage increases, expanded income subsidies, universal healthcare, and an end to outsourcing. Whatever the effects of these policies, it is difficult to find evidence that they would reduce income inequality by much. What will lessen inequality over time is an improvement in the educational prospects of young people in middle and lower income families.
The urgency of this reality is underscored in a report recently released by Civic Enterprises and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. It shows that high-achieving students from lower-income families -- the most likely group of poorer students to improve their economic condition through education -- are falling through the cracks of our educational institutions.
They are not a small lot: 3.4 million students fit this description. They are diverse, spread out across America in numbers proportionate by race and gender to the nation's population as a whole. Also, they live in urban, suburban, and rural areas in roughly the same percentages as the general American population. They achieve academically in the nation's top 25 percent while their families earn less than median income of about $48,000.
And for most of these students, more than race or geography, their economic starting point will influence their fate. As the report shows, nearly 70 percent of high-achieving first-graders from higher-income homes remain top performers through the end of elementary school, compared with only 56 percent of their peers from lower-income homes. Also, higher-income students are more than twice as likely as lower-income students to rise into the top academic tier during their K-12 experience. Then, in college, the condition worsens. Only 59 percent of these lower-income achievers who go to college actually graduate, compared to 77 percent of their more affluent peers.
The report challenges the conventional wisdom that cream will always rise to the top. And because the federal No Child Left Behind Act focuses on raising the performance of the lowest achievers to a baseline level known as "proficiency," there is little help for high achievers who fade over time. As this report shows, the odds are that such a "fader" student comes from a lower-income household. Little accountability exists under federal law for the academic performance of these high-achieving lower-income students. This needs to change.
Federal education policy honors a felt duty among all of us to raise the performance of even the lowest achiever. And we should fulfill the expectations this duty places upon us. However, it seems incongruous that in a nation marked by growing income inequality, we would treat as invisible the most likely cadre of lower-income Americans to experience upward mobility. In addition to the reporting requirements that federal policy places upon schools for the number of students performing at proficiency, it should also require that they report on how high-achievers by income group are doing.
We should not place the burden of responsibility for high-achieving lower-income students on federal policy alone, however. Little evidence exists that the educational establishment as a whole, including higher education, is doing much to understand, track and assist this important and underserved population. As universities and other postsecondary institutions implement new recruitment strategies and standardize how they track their students' performance, they should intensify their efforts to focus on high-achieving, lower-income students.
Now that we know more about these students, we need both federal education policy and higher education policies to start providing more data about them, how they are doing over time, and what works for helping them fulfill their academic hopes.
Ryan StreeterRyan Streeter is Vice President of Civic Enterprises, LLC, a public policy development firm in Washington, DC. Streeter was a research fellow of the Welfare Policy Center at Hudson Institute from 1998-2001.
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