The rich get richer — and smarter

Rich kids are widening the achievement gap, leaving middle class kids, not just the poor, farther behind, writes Sean Reardon, a Stanford education and sociology professor.

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

Is it intensive parenting? asks Megan McArdle in The Daily Beast.  All the people who are really good at school are marrying the other people who are really good at school (and) having children who are really, really good at school.

The rich pulling away from the middle class is also exactly what we would see if test-taking ability has a substantial inherited component, and the American economy is increasingly selecting for people who are very, very good at taking tests.

A fan of the Little House on the Prairie books, McArdle recently reread Those Happy Golden Years in which Laura Ingalls meets and marries Almanzo Wilder. While Laura liked school and was good at it, ”

Almanzo hated it” and quit as soon as he could. “

There’s no evidence that he reads or otherwise occupies himself with intellectual pursuits in his spare time.”

Apparently, it was a very happy marriage. Today . . .

Laura Ingalls would quite likely have gone to an elite school, and probably graduate school, then moved to a coastal city, and eventually married another bookworm.  Almanzo Wilder would be married to someone like him, a hard worker who nonetheless found school tedious and left as quickly as possible.  And when their two sets of children showed up at school, their test scores would be very different.

The educational barrier to high-paying professions tie income even more tightly to educational proficiency, she writes.

Maybe the answer is not a quixotic attempt to somehow replicate the experience of being raised by two professionals with advanced degrees. Maybe it’s to question the great educational sorting, and the barriers it has erected.

. . . every additional year of schooling we require makes it harder and harder for those who don’t enjoy school to compete in the wider world.

More women than men are going to college and earning degrees. There will be more Lauras marrying Almanzos in the future.

About Joanne


  1. Joanne,

    I asked Professor Reardon about his observation that “Schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students”

    and how that contrast with another of his points that the wealthy “increasingly focus… their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.”

    Rearon surely knows that his colleague David Labaree has long noted the efforts of the weathy to preserve their predominance via what he calls credentialism. He’s skeptical that ‘educational success’ is the same thing as ‘well educated’, but either way, those kids are seemingly more employable.

    I suspect the problem began when k-8 schools switched their focus from providing content-rich experiences for their students to training them on skills (‘finding the main idea’ being my current bete noir). My hypothesis, which is that rich folks get this, know the approach is wrong, and thus join the rugrat race, in part, to replace what their kids’ schools used to provide.

    Of course Alonso had the option to earn a decent living off the land – not easy, but he did raise a family. Not sure that route is available to the boys who chose to drop put today.

    • The gap started increasing about 10 years after the average US wage stagnated.

      One of the effects of that, plus other changes like integration of school districts, was to make life more stressful and chaotic for those without the means to buy isolation.  Stress and chaos do not lend themselves to academic achievement.

  2. Florida resident says:

    in the book “IQ in the meritocracy”, published in 1973,
    late Harvard university Professor
    Richard Herrnstein
    pointed to “Assortive Mating”:
    smart people tend to choose smart spouses.
    Selective universities were pointed at as
    one of the reasons of the phenomenon,
    but existence of the phenomenon was established
    independently of reasons.
    See also recent (2013) book
    “Coming apart” by Charles Murray,
    With most respectful greetings to Ms. Jacobs,
    your F.r.

    • momof4 says:

      Some of the assortive mating talk ignores the fact that, in the days when many women did not go to a 4-year school, they were often of the same social class as their more-educated spouses. The secretary who married her boss and the nurse who married a physician might well have come from families who expected sons to be highly-educated, but not daughters; the expectation was that they would marry early and stay home with the kids. My cousin’s wife, now in her late 60s, came from that background and I was in college (60s) with many girls who were the first girls in their family to go to college, although the family males had been doing so for several generations. Some of their mothers and grandmothers had gone to finishing schools.

      • Florida resident says:

        Dear momof4:
        First of all, I wish the best to your four children, and to all your family.
        Second, even in 1973, when Herrnstein published his
        book, the statement
        “many women did not go to a 4-year school”
        was not true in the USA.
        “Assortive Mating” is not just talk,
        it is observable phenomenon.
        Causes of Assortive Mating
        could vary within 100-year period,
        but the phenomenon itself is well established.
        Your sincerely, F.r.

      • Florida resident says:

        Sorry, did you mean college,
        when your wrote “4-year school” ?
        If so, then my apologies for misunderstanding.

        • Yes, I meant college. Many women went to secretarial programs, two-year colleges and diploma (hospital-run, non-college) nursing programs.

          As far as graduate/professional schools, my cohort (college grad 71) was on the leading edge of women going this route in much larger numbers; the relatively early dawn of assortive mating, in the sense of lawyers and doctors marrying each other.

      • palisadesk says:

        It does affect these children’s preparation for school. This is not a new phenomenon but it is more prevalent now than in previous decades. My district has noted a significant decrease in language development and general knowledge among some of the most affluent children (who are, as you described, mostly raised by low-wage servants).

        When I taught in an exclusive D.C. area private school the same thing was true of a few very privileged kids (financially) who were almost entirely looked after by employees and who rarely interacted with their parents. I felt sorry for them, they were nice kids but seeing their parents was akin to a visit from Santa.

        Some very wealthy families however hire full-time employees like the ancient Greek “pedagogues” who accompany their children to school, pick them up and take them to tutors, martial arts, music and clubs, take them home and work with them on their homework and feed them dinner, until their parents come home around 9 pm and put them to bed. These kids achieve quite well.

  3. momof4 says:

    On recent visits to one of the very affluent areas surrounding DC, I observed that the preschoolers on playgrounds during the week were almost all accompanied by nannies, who talked either among themselves (in Spanish) or on the phone. There was little interaction with the kids, other than simple directions. On the weekends, kids were accompanied by parents, whose interactions with their kids were more “typical” of their social class, but they also spent significant time on the phone or blackberry (some clearly work-related). I wonder if this pattern will change the level at which these kids enter school.

  4. lurker says:

    This is exactly what Murray and Herrnstein predicted in “The Bell Curve.” Nowhere are their arguments mentioned or even alluded to in the NYT piece, not even to refute them. Maybe for a sociologist it is crime-think to consider anything but a complete blank slate.

    • Florida resident says:

      Dear lurker:
      I like your “Blank Slate” comment and agree with it.
      Your F.r.

    • lightly seasoned says:

      Blank slate is not currently in vogue.

      I (and my colleagues) have noted a distinct change in our affluent students since the Great Recession. They are far more aggressive in making sure they take the right courses to get into the right schools, they are highly competitive with each other, and they quickly decide what teachers will give them what they want — and make sure they manipulate the system to get that teacher. Our children of affluent families used to be far more laid back and assured of their future (and trust funds). Now they are clawing for that shrinking piece of the pie. I don’t know what that means for Laura Ingalls.

  5. It is an interesting speculation that we have here an emerging caste system based on genetic differences between inbreeding groups – somewhat akin to the caste system which has developed in India over many millennia.

  6. cranberry says:

    The essay throws so many things together. In our area, a family headed by two married teachers would qualify as “rich”. The cost of living is so high, though, they wouldn’t have much to show for it. They might be so fortunate as to have paid off their student loans before their children take out loans. That depends on how long a commute they’ve chosen to take on. Given their income, the family would not qualify for financial aid for college, although merit scholarships might help. The same holds for other professions.

    Highly selective college admissions are determined by many factors. Many wealthy families spend large sums on their children’s athletic careers. The outstanding athletes have much better college admissions chances. Stanford accepts many athletes.