Sabrina Tavernise on the Income Gap in Educational Achievement

by Reihan Salam

Sabrina Tavernise reports the following:

“We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race,” said Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist. Professor Reardon is the author of a study that found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.

How might we have reacted if the result had been the opposite — i.e., if the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had become far smaller yet the gap between blacks and whites had increased dramatically?

This counterfactual would raise a number of interesting questions. In a world in which the returns to human capital have increased considerably, has the transmission of human capital from parents to children broken down among the affluent? And if so, why? Do schools now play a more powerful role in shaping study habits and verbal and quantitative reasoning skills than families? With regards to the racial gap, has racial discrimination intensified over the intervening years?

In some respects, I’d suggest that this counterfactual world would actually be quite alarming (on the racial front) and really hard to explain (with regards to the declining importance of parents). 

One is reminded of the work of Gary Ramey and Valerie Ramey: 

After three decades of decline, the amount of time spent by parents on childcare in the U.S. began to rise dramatically in the mid-1990s. Moreover, the rise in childcare time was particularly pronounced among college-educated parents. While less-educated mothers increased their childcare time by over four hours a week, college-educated mothers increased their childcare time by over nine hours per week. Fathers showed the same patterns, but with smaller magnitudes. Why would highly educated parents increase the amount of time they allocate to childcare at the same time that their own market returns have skyrocketed? After finding no empirical support for standard explanations, such as selection or income effects, we offer a new explanation. We argue that increased competition for college admissions may be an important source of these trends. We provide empirical support for our explanation with a comparison of trends between the U.S. and Canada, across ethnic groups in the U.S., and across states in the U.S.

If parenting didn’t matter much, this dramatic increase in the time college-educated parents devote to childcare would have been a tremendous collective waste. But something tells me that college-educated parents knew what they were doing. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.