Why rich kids do better in school than poor kids

Why do rich kids do better in school than poor kids? Daniel Willingham provides two answers in an American Educator article.

First, wealthier parents can invest more in their children. They can afford “enrichment experiences in the summer, more books in the home, a tutor if one is needed, better access to health care, and so on.”

Wealthier parents are also likely to be higher in human capital–that is, they know more stuff. Wealthier parents speak more often to their children, and with a richer vocabulary, with more complex syntax, and in a way that elicits ideas from the child. Wealthier parents are also more likely to read to their children and to buy toys that teach letters and the names of shapes and colors.

Children who grow up in poverty are prey to “stress caused by crowding, by crime-ridden neighborhoods, by food uncertainty, and other factors.”  Warm, supportive parents can counteract this, but stress may affect parents’ ability to raise their children well, Willingham writes. “Stress also leads directly to brain changes in children. Both of these factors lead to emotional and cognitive disadvantage for kids.”

What can teachers do? Teach academic knowledge and skills that kids won’t get at home, but also teach “how to interact with peers and adults, how to interact with large institutions like a school or a government agency, how to interact with authority figures, how to schedule one’s time, strategies to regulate one’s emotions and so on,” Willingham writes.

A “calm atmosphere” is important for kids who come from noisy, crowded and thratening neighborhoods and homes, he adds. “Kids in more chaotic classrooms show higher levels of stress hormones.”

About Joanne


  1. You know, he says that those studies sort for IQ (in the comments to me) but I sure don’t see it. I’ve never seen a study that says “controlling for IQ, wealthy kids do better than poor kids in demonstrated ability”–particularly anything wider than the racial achievement gap.

    Furthermore, all that talk about “calm environment”–who is he kidding? How would you enforce it without disproportionately penalizing the very kids who supposedly need the calm environment, for we all know they will be frequently found among the noisier kids.

  2. Ted Craig says:

    And then there’s genetics.

  3. What do adoption studies say? Do children adopted by rich families correlate more with their adoptive parents or their (presumably poorer) birth parents? All the adoption studies I’ve seen seem to indicate a higher correlation with the birth parents, showing nature trumping nurture…

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    How do you maintain a calm environment when Arne Duncan’s favorites are running around without let or hindrance (which would be racist)?

  5. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    No doubt the rich simply impose their own ethnocentric, culturally biased definitions of “intelligence” and “success in school” on the poor — those marginalized by the dominant power structures — and label the Other-as-Deficient so as to justify their predatory, exploitative social institutions.

  6. Veiled Anonymity has a strong point. The people who enact school policy, prescribe curriculum, and write textbooks look the same: business attire and soft hands. They spent their waking hours between age 6 and age 26 in school. They are good at school and imagine that the highest form of life onEarth is the college professor.

  7. @Cal: yeah, I already provided one cite on this, but another point; some researchers treat intelligence as the *outcome* measure. @Ted @Crimson: no one is claiming that genetics plays no role. .. rather, genetic factors surely interact with the environmental factors I discussed in the article. @ThinlyVeiled: Here’s the flip side of your argument: school success is highly correlated with financial success. By rejecting standard definitions of school success *you* are trying to prevent the poor from access to wealth and power.

  8. Tom Linehan says:

    The more advantaged kids have always had a leg up on the rest. The purpose of public schools is to make up the difference. This has always been true.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      <i.The more advantaged kids have always had a leg up on the rest. The purpose of public schools is to make up the difference. This has always been true.

      We agree that is what the purpose of the public schools should be. However, nowadays, the effect of the public schools seems to be to reinforce the difference.

  9. The soft bigotry of low expectations.

  10. I’ve read various excuses for why the public education system does such a lousy job with poor kids and all of them seem to have in common that they’re straining to find some means of absolving the public education system, either in total or some part of the public education system, of any responsibility for that lousy job. So we’ve got kids being hungry as an excuse and kids on drugs or with parents on drugs or violence or just the fact that there are rich people in the world aka the income gap. The sort of “reasons” that the likes of CarolineSF and Mike in Texas would fiercely defend.

    But they’re all nonsense. There are numerous examples of poor kids doing well in school, even the occasional district school, so the reasons given in defense of the public education status quo are proven false. In the right environment poor kids who’d otherwise end up nowhere get decent educations and work hard to absorb those educations.

    Among the credible reasons for poor kids doing poorly in school that I haven’t heard revolves around the circumstances of being poor and the assumptions being poor inevitably forces upon poor kids. One such assumption is that the long-term view is for suckers. If you don’t get it now you probably won’t get it at all so why bother? More simply, poor kids have a lower threshold for bull sh*t then rich kids.

    Take that assumption about life together with the indifference to the value of education which permeates district schools and what’s astonishing isn’t that so many kids don’t do well or drop out but that the few kids as struggle through manage to do so.