The rich get smarter

A widening achievement gap separates children from high-income (90th percentile) and very low-income (10th percentile) families, concludes a report by Sean Reardon, a Stanford education professor.

The income achievement gap, which appears to have been increasing for the last 50 years,  is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. It starts in kindergarten and stays about the same as children move through school.

Poor children are doing a bit better academically than in the past, but falling farther behind children from affluent families. Parents who can afford it are investing in their children’s “cognitive development.”

Wealthy parents’ children are improving their academic edge, Reardon told EdSource.

When you look at poor 4th graders today they are doing better than poor 4th graders 30 years ago. But rich 4th graders are doing much, much better than rich 4th graders (over the same time period).  Most of the growth has been because  kids at the high end of the family income distribution level have pulled away from middle income kids, not because kids at the low end have fallen away from middle income kids.

Race isn’t a factor. “The achievement gap between rich and poor whites has gotten bigger over time,” he said.

The income gap between the richest and poorest families has grown over the past 40 years, Reardon says.

Income inequality has led to more residential segregation by income level rather than race, which in turns means that high income children have access to higher quality schools and other resources.

The Widening Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor was published in September 2011 in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances.

Stuart Buck suggests an experiment to see if family income leads to achievement via better teachers.  Assign 250 rich kids to schools with horrible teachers and another 250 to their regular schools. He foresees implementation problems, however.

About Joanne


  1. I’m not a big fan of big new government programs, but some of this strikes me as issues that churches/civic organizations could work to improve. My husband and I both come from families in which our dads grew up rural poor in families that expected you to do your school work. Rich or poor, there weren’t a lot of opportunities in their small towns and everybody in their small schools learned the basics. They raised their families middle class – public schools and state U for my husband and I. We did have extras, though – dance or music lessons, vacations, periodic museum trips – that not all of our classmates had.

    I’m currently homeschooling and we are more financially comfortable than we expected to be at this stage in our lives (he’s an engineer, I sometimes teach science at a CC). Our kids, 2 and 5, have experienced more things than we did before we graduated from college. Ethnic food, museums of all sorts, trips to national parks – there are lots of things that weren’t available in our smaller towns, and exploring them with our kids is both fun and a priority for us. Still, when I have tutored local kids, I’ve found myself realizing what an advantage my kids have over kids who have never been outside their hometown. It seems that addressing that part of the problem might be something that can be dealt with locally. Community/club/church-sponsored trips, visitors, etc might give kids some idea of the broader world, and it certainly makes teaching related topics a lot easier.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I don’t understand why people would be surprised that compound interest works for social capital, too.

    • Michael maybe not surprised but concerned? Is it justice? You’re of a philosophical bent, would John Rawls argue that we’re all better off because of this inequality?

      They’re pulling ahead on standardized measures, but we’re also seeing reports (anecdotal data mostly) of highly programmed and structured kids that are really poor on initiative and have a hard time dealing with ambiguity.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        As opposed to the totally unprogrammed and unstructured kids who are really poor on initiative and have a hard time dealing with ambiguity….

        • Got me there! But I’d hazard a guess that the kids from the upper end of the spectrum are more likely to become future senior management types and leaders in their fields- that means they’ll have a disparate impact; and not necessarily in a good way.

      • Does justice require equality of outcome? Or just equality of opportunity?

        • Opportunity. The relevant part is the Fair Equality of Opportunity principle and the difference principal – that folks with similar ability and motivation will have roughly similar opportunities and outcomes. Inequality of outcomes is OK, as long as it benefits the least advantaged. I liked reading his work, though it was loooong ago, kind of an update on Locke with some conscience.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Capital may earn interest, but it is often spent. A common story is the “founding father” whose children keep the family fortune going but just barely, and then the grandchildren–“the cousins”–who are more interested in “living well” or “giving back” or both. As the cliche goes, “rags to riches to rags in three generations.”

      Perhaps it is easier today to keep social capital “in the family.”

  3. The richest families today are not the same richest families of 40 to 50 years ago.

    As I look back at my children’s ancestors, at present, (best guess), I would expect about 5/6 th of the children in this generation to complete a college degree. In our parents’ generation, only 50% completed a college degree. In my children’s great-grandparents’ generation, only one in 8 completed a college degree by the age of 24. (Two received later degrees as adults, over time.)

    Our society currently rewards the talents and skills which correlate with the probability a child will receive a college degree. Before 1970 it didn’t. College educated people are more likely to stay married, and they are more likely to marry other people with a college degree. They’re also more likely to control their fertility, so their families are smaller, allowing them to invest more resources in each child.

    In my parents’ generation, that wasn’t the case–witness all the upper income women who dropped out of college to get married.

    • In a 2009 story on the richest families in the country, Forbes stated:

      “Of the 25 families we’ve identified, 44% owe their fortunes to companies founded in the 19th century. Another 36% trace their wealth to businesses started in the first half of the 20th century. Three companies–Stryker Corp. ( SYK – news – people ), Estée Lauder and Fidelity Management and Research–were founded in 1946.”

      80% seems like a pretty high percentage to me. Do you have a source that paints a different picture of uber-rich families who are a below the top twenty-five threshold?

      • 90th percentile in income in the US is a category which includes millions of people. If we’re 350 million people, then the top 10% in income would be 35 million people. That’s a very large group, much larger than the handful Forbes profiles.

        There is also significant income mobility, even in the top quintile of income:

        The 90th percentile in income in the US starts at $172,000, according to the New York Times.

        As a family, two-career professionals can reach $172,000. Two programmers, or an accountant and a teacher, can reach those heights, according to They may not have much in the way of savings, but their income can qualify. If they live in areas with a high cost of living, such as New York City or Palo Alto, they will not feel wealthy at all. A career change, such as corporate downsizing, or a promotion, can move professionals into–and out of–the highest income categories.

        Such couples are very likely to pay close attention to their children’s education. I am personally not convinced that baby Yoga, or elementary Chinese lessons, increase the children’s cognitive capacity. There is a great deal of nonsense sold to competitive parents.

        • There have been more than a few stories about the non-benefits of new fangled edutainment … Baby Einstein for example had a huge refund/recall…


          The mobility aspect is interesting. There’s been work done that shows that at even higher income levels (top 5% and above), churn or income insecurity has grown even more. The principle reason seems to be the increased “securitization” of wealth – it’s tied to financial assets and not directly to physical assets. The variability of income would likely to produce even bigger hits there – it’s larger and hard to plan for; plus you become reluctant to cutting the fat.

        • First, the subject introduced was “richest families today “, not “top ten percent by wages earned, non-wage income and accumulated assets not to be considered”. If you are conceding that your point doesn’t hold in relation to the richest families in America, that’s fine, but otherwise let’s not change the subject.

          Second, if you look behind the data, income mobility is not particularly significant. Most of it occurs at the margins (e.g., going from the 89th percentile to the 91st percentile, then back again), so the relevant measure requires looking at a family’s income mobility over time. As the CBO puts it, “the movement of households involves changes in income that are large enough to push households into different income groups but not large enough to greatly affect the overall distribution of income.”

          Third, the fact that there are 35 million Americans in the top 10% is not in any way relevant to the issue of income mobility. It’s a tautology – there will always be 10% of something in the top 10% of whatever you’re measuring. If you have any data to back up your claims, please share it.

          • The first paragraph of the post: A widening achievement gap separates children from high-income (90th percentile) and very low-income (10th percentile) families, concludes a report by Sean Reardon, a Stanford education professor.

            Looks like we’re speaking of income. Also to the point, in the chapter by Professor Reardon, he writes, To begin with, consider the difference in achievement between children from high- and low-income families. One way to measure this difference is to compare the average math and reading skills of children from families with incomes at the 90th percentile of the family income distribution (about $160,000 in 2008) to those in families at the 10th percentile of the family income distribution (about $17,500 in 2008). Hereafter I refer to this as the “90/10 income achievement gap.”

            We are particularly speaking of those families who self-identified their income as falling into the 90th or 10th percentiles. Not the 91st, nor the 9th. Not the “richest families today.”

          • You stated, “The richest families today are not the same richest families of 40 to 50 years ago.” The word “richest” has a very clear meaning. But as I pointed out, even if I ignore that you’ve changed the subject you still haven’t rehabilitated your point.

  4. First, parents at the top are BOTH likely to have very strong educational/career backgrounds, so the kids get both IQ and educational benefits.I can remember when many parents expected their sons would attend college but not their daughters; they might go to a CC or a diploma nursing program, but their career was expected to be marriage. Today, high SES guys typically marry equally-educated women they meet in college, grad school or later. They marry later, after establishing themselves professionally, so they have more financial resources when their kids are born. Many of the women continue to work, at least part-time, after the kids arrive. Even if they don’t, they have the intelligence, education and experience to provide constant enrichment, both at home and through outside activities. It’s not just that their kids start kindergarten ahead; the enrichment continues at an accelerated pace throughout their school and college years. As Michael says, compound interest.

    At the opposite end, parents tend to be much younger, much less-educated and often unmarried. They don’t know how to give their kids a better start and schools don’t explicitly teach the habits and behaviors of the middle class, the way they used to do and neither do they typically teach the cultural capital of the middle and upper-middle class.

    I recently read A Hope in the Unseen, mentioned on the Core Knowledge site, about a kid from one of the worst high schools in DC who eventually graduates from Brown. He does independent study with many of his teachers and works incredibly hard but is never exposed to the cultural literacy of the middle class. It’s not hard to understand that his mother wouldn’t see the benefit, but no teacher ever suggested that he should make regular visits to the free libraries, museums, gardens, concerts, monuments and public buildings with which DC is filled. I find that pretty discouraging. Brown was a cultural shock of cataclysmic proportions; he had no frame of reference for much of what he heard, even in casual conversation, and he had never read a literary work written by a white person. Schools can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do everything, but they are not doing well at academics; offering all kids the solid knowledge across all of the disciplines that would help them advance.

  5. The rich are much more likely than the poor to monitor/encourage their children’s progress/behavior in school. They are much more likely to model academic behavior and vocabulary. Successful people tend to raise successful people.

    This has only gotten more pronounced as popular culture has indulged/promoted unproductive and damaging behavior and attitudes.

    • Yes…. One can hardly imagine the corrupting influence of rich people like the Kardashians, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on the less fortunate. If more poor people start acting like rich people, we may be doomed. 😉

      • I bet all three families made sure their children graduated high school. Their post high school behavior is inconsequential to my point.

  6. “Stuart Buck suggests an experiment to see if family income leads to achievement via better teachers. Assign 250 rich kids to schools with horrible teachers and another 250 to their regular schools.”

    it has long been my contention that you can place a motivated and prepared student in a classroom with a bad teacher and he will learn easily. You could also place an unmotivated and/or unprepared student in a classroom with a great teacher, and he will struggle to learn.

    • The advantaged parents are not only more likely to monitor what the kids are doing, they are more likely to realize that their kids need more help in some areas and make sure they get it; tutoring at home, Kumon, paid tutors, online classes etc. My kids had some really bad teachers, particularly in ES (in one of the “best” schools in an affluent suburb) but my DH and I compensated at home. All the way through their schooling, I made sure they were exposed to good literature, history and science books, and red-penciled their written work because the teachers weren’t as tough as they should have been.

      • Also note that supplementation (through direct parent oversight or paid tutors) is even more important with the ever-changing curricula and educational theory that has dismantled our educational establishment over the past 20 years.
        Plus, from my experience with local districts, it is the districts who service the lower SES classes that rapidly and fully embrace each new educational fad to secure grant funding and counter bad press. The district with the highest SES in our area is still largely using the same curriculum that it used 20 years ago… it has only tweaked it to make it compliant with each layer of change that has been mandated by the state.

  7. What about wealthy families whose kids go to Waldorf schools, and are kept away from reading and other academic subjects until the age of seven? In my experience, although they tend to favor the arts and humanities, they catch up in reading and surpass their peers in the arts. I don’t have enough experience to speak to math.

    We are making a mistake in pushing material on kids who aren’t ready for it, in the name of “earlier is always better”, rather than making sure that good instruction is available when kids are ready. Maria Montessori figured that out, how many decades ago?

    • All of my kids attended Montessori preschools, which started reading instruction immediately (age 3), using explicit phonics. Admittedly, the schools dealt with advantaged kids, but all learned to read early and all started immediately with math, as well. I think it’s less a readiness issue than a curriculum/instruction issue, at least for most kids. A lot of kids struggle with balanced literacy, Readers’/Writers’ Workship and Everyday Math because they’re inherently flawed curricula. Discovery learning and groupwork only make it worse; essentially pooling ignorance.

      • Check out the book The Leader of the Lost People, for an inside look at what happens at economically disadvantaged schools. Also, The Last Racist in America, a novel about racism, will be out in February. First chapter on,

      • Isn’t it something, that a program that was designed to help kids from disadvantaged homes is pretty much ignored by the “reform” movement, but its value is seen by more affluent, educated families? The most famous “Montessori kids” in the nation are probably Sergei Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google.

        In order to have a public Montessori school in a unionized district, you need to make a special deal with the union to limit the assignment of non-Montessori certified teachers to the school. In the present era of overtesting, you also would have issues with kids being immersed in a curriculum that is not oriented toward maximizing performance on standardized tests. It’s also more costly to teach Montessori-style than it is to teach a “traditional classroom”, which no doubt plays into why there are no prominent charter schools adopting the Montessori model – but plenty of private schools serving wealthier parents.

        I have a niece who attends a public Montessori school in Iowa, and it’s nice that it’s available, but when I hear her mother describe the operation of the school it does not offer the same type of continuity and multi-grade relationships (as opposed to interaction; the kids are moved between classrooms each year) that I associate with the Montessori model.

  8. I’d like to see a study of the historical difference between the children of wealth and that of the poor. Of course you would have to account for the inability of poor children to attend school for social and economic reasons in most places at most times.

    People forget that even here in the United States within three generations most people did not graduate high school in this country. It seems to me that while we have been successful in forcing children to attend school, we haven’t managed to educate them very well.

  9. Zeev Wurman says:

    In my opinion momof4 and SuperSub hit the nail on its head.

    Every child used to get a good and a bad teacher every so often but, eventually, schools were focused on equalizing achievement through academic instruction and it worked to a large degree. Today, however, the overwhelming focus of public schooling was diverted from academic expectations to personal and emotional well being. Affluent families (and East Asian immigrants) notice it at certain point, and work around it — paid tutoring, private schools, parental tutoring, whatever. Less affluent families trust the misguided system. (Not “failing” really — it produces exactly what it claims it wants to — unschooled and happy kids.) And the results speak for themselves.

    Clearly, this is not true for every child and every school. But it is true enough for many of them.

  10. There is also the factor of heritability of the talents that may help to make rich parents rich.

    Cognitive ability is a major factor in determining if people succeed in the career track of college, professional school, etc . It is well known that the SAT and ACT tests are in essence the same as IQ tests in that they measure cognitive ability.

    Cognitive ability is a strongly heritable human trait. Thus smart upscale parents give their biological children the advantage of genes that code for higher IQ.

    So in a meritocracy where professional success is dependent upon having higher levels of IQ, and where successful higher IQ men tend to marry successful higher IQ women (assortative mating) of course we will find that their children will tend to be innately smarter than the children of poor lower IQ high school dropout mothers who are collecting welfare or “disability” checks.

    Poor children do not do worse in school because they have “terrible teachers”, they do worse in school because they tend to be innately less intelligent than the children of parents who were smart enough to earn enough money to live in elite neighborhoods.

    • Factors that affect school performance go well beyond cognitive ability and, while we should not discount cognitive ability, we do need to avoid pretending that household stress, violence, parental drug use, child neglect, dangerous neighborhoods and cultural attitudes have a significant impact. Comments like yours, to me, suggest that you’re somebody who has never worked with the population you’re describing, let alone lived in one. If you have no substantive knowledge, it’s easy to skim “The Bell Curve” and turn off your brain, but that doesn’t mean you’re informed.

  11. I teach at a school with over 70% of the students eligilble for free or reduced lunch.

    I have many students who are quite smart, but unwilling to put forth the effort to learn anything that does not interest them.