The academic achievement gap among children based on economic class has widened significantly in the U.S. even as the gap between white and black children has narrowed, an education professor told a packed ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel on Tuesday.
“What used to be a much bigger gap by race has become a much bigger gap by class,” said Greg Duncan, a professor at the University of California-Irvine.
Duncan, whose talk Tuesday was sponsored by the nonprofit Academic Distinction Fund, has devoted much of his career to examining the connection between education and poverty. The author of several books, he recently co-edited a 2011 collection of essays, “Whither Opportunity: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances.”
Duncan is the latest in ADF’s distinguished speaker series, which has focused largely on the importance of early childhood education.
Duncan said the upswing in income-based inequality in achievement developed between the late 1970s and today and runs counter to the earlier part of the 20th century, when academic gains of children for poor household kept pace with those in rich households.
In the late ’70s, Duncan said, the incomes of poor households plateaued, or even lost ground, while income growth slowed for everyone except the richest of the rich — those at the top 1 percent.
The problem is not that richest got richer, Duncan said, it’s that the poor went nowhere.
“I’m not talking about the top 1 percent. I’m talking about the 18 million families living in the bottom 20 percent,” he said.
Duncan said technological change over the past 30 years that favors high-skilled workers rather than low-skilled workers has contributed to the growing gap between rich and poor.
To illustrate the point, he showed the audience the U.S. Department of Labor’s job description for a “secretary” in 1976: “Secretaries relieve their employers of routine duties so they can work on more important matters.”
The federal agency’s definition of a “secretary” in 2001, which Duncan also showed, was much longer and called for a much wider range of skills.
Duncan said the United States used to lead the world in high school and college graduation rates but has fallen behind other industrialized countries around the world.
“Other countries have figured out how to produce these higher levels of education and this country has not been able to keep up,” Duncan said.
Duncan said that effective pre-K programs, school reforms and economic support programs, such as earned-income tax credits, are effective methods of to reverse the trends.
Improving early childhood is one of the most promising strategies for improving the future of poor children, Duncan said, but not all pre-K programs are of equal quality and too often good work done at the in pre-K level is squandered when kids get older.
Duncan said he has no preference when it comes to traditional versus charter schools.
“It’s not so important whether it’s a charter school or not,” he said. “It’s more important what’s going on in the classroom.”
Duncan offered examples of what he viewed as effective school reform in Boston, Chicago and New York City. The common thread is that they took a systematic approach, and provided support and training to teachers so that would be sustainable over time, he said
Duncan said school reforms that rely just on finding dynamic principals are unlikely to work because those individuals are too few and don’t tend to stay in the schools they transform.
“My bet will be more on a systematic installation of an infrastructure than whether or not you can get a charismatic principal,” he said.