Spending our way to greater inequality

According to a massive research study described in last week’s Education Week (May 11), the wealthiest school districts in our country have the worst inequality.

The Berkeleys, the Evanstons, and the Chapel Hills have the largest achievement gaps, while poor districts have the smallest. There are many causes — including student tracking, intra-district spending disparities, racism, family income/education level and the stereotype effect — but one of them caught my eye: the hyper-competitive nature of parenting in wealthier communities.

“When competition increases, black and Hispanic families often lose out,” the article states.

Why? Because higher income families have more money to spend on the children, and they use it to help their kids get ahead. And in most places in the U.S., income correlates with race.

In Minnesota, for example, the white median family income is $61,000, while the black median family income is $27,000. $61,000 will buy you a lot more books and tutors than $27,000.

Harvard Sociology Prof. Robert Putnam makes the same point in his book, Our Kids. According to his research, the typical upper-income American family buys “on average $6500 per year worth of camp, piano lessons, hockey skates and trips to Paris” per child — double what they spent in the 1970s.

Low-income families spend about $1,000 per child, the same as they spent in the 1970s. No surprise, since their wages have stagnated since then.

So what can we do with this information?

My school district has pledged its commitment to an “Equity Promise,” which states that all students will be prepared for post-secondary success “regardless of race, class or disability.” Like many districts, we want to be the ones who solve the achievement gap, and in theory, our community is supportive of this effort.

But are we really? If these findings are true, then we the parents in the community are actually guilty of sustaining and growing the achievement gap. It’s not that we don’t want all children to be successful — we just want our own children to be more successful.

We want every opportunity (read: advantage) for our children, so we play Baby Einstein tapes, buy organic veggies, stock our houses with books, art supplies and musical instruments, paint bedrooms in creative colors and send our children to CSI summer camp. When our children struggle, we pay for private tutors.

I didn’t do all of those things, but I did enough of them. I admit: I wanted to do the best for my kids, and I’ve watched all of my friends and relatives do the same. Educated parents with disposable income simply devour child-development research. Children’s brains develop better if they eat kale? Buy more kale!

Unfortunately, our insistence on providing “the best” for our own children is a luxury, and it’s not something everyone can afford. If all of this spending gives some children an edge — and clearly, it does — how will we ever make up for this gap within schools?

The research is depressing, but it’s not surprising. No one is going to advocate that parents stop providing their own children with opportunities and support. But if we’re serious about addressing the achievement gap, we have to figure out some way to offer the same to all kids.