the educational enrichment gap

This is a graph from Duncan and Murnane’s Whither Opportunity?* It shows the average amount of money, adjusted for inflation, that families in the top and bottom quarters of the income distribution spend on “educational enrichment” for their own kids: lessons, summer camps, educational software, nannies, etc. In real terms, the amount has much more than doubled for upper-income families in one generation–but it is flat for people at the bottom of the income distribution.

I would propose three explanations.

The main driver could be the very difficult financial situation of people at the bottom of the income distribution: they can’t afford nannies, for sure.

A second explanation is the declining prevalence and value of free, public opportunities for kids. Extracurricular groups, for example, have shrunk. As schools face financial and accountability pressures and middle-class families exit, there are fewer opportunities to learn by (for example) playing clarinet in the school band.

The third hypothesis is a pretty significant difference in parenting styles. Annette Lareau found that middle-class families (irrespective of race) were using a strategy of “concerted cultivation,” investing time and money in 24/7 educational experiences. Working-class families were opting instead for “the accomplishment of natural growth”: letting kids be kids and not putting excessive pressure on them. I think back in my day–the beginning of the graph above–middle class families also preferred “the accomplishment of natural growth,” but they have decided that it will no longer suffice for their kids.

*From the introduction to Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane, eds., Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, (New York/Chicago: Russell Sage/Spencer Foundation) 2011.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.