Has Class Replaced Race as American Students’ Main Achievement Gap?

The 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the March on Washington has led to many to reexamine if the dream of equal opportunity so beautifully eulogized by King has been fulfilled. According Sarah Garland of The Atlantic, although race is not as much of a barrier to success it once was, the past fifty years have put another barrier in place for many children – income and class.

In a country that prides itself on its meritocratic ideals, the achievement gap between students coming from the poorest families and from the richest is now 50% larger than the achievement gap between white students and their minority peers.

When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech a half-century ago, on Aug. 28, 1963, black children lagged behind their white peers in school by more than three years. For poor children, the picture was somewhat more encouraging: Those in the 10th percentile of income fell behind the children in the upper echelon of wealth by about a year or so. Poverty was a major obstacle, but not so large that it couldn’t be scaled by the brightest and most ambitious.
Fifty years later, social class has become the main gateway—and barrier—to opportunity in America.

When it comes to academic attainment, kids from the richest families are also pulling away from those from middle-class families as well. While the gap between middle-class students and those from lower-income families has remained steady over the past 50 years, as Garland puts it, rich students have been pulling away from the pack at an ever increasing rate.

Even while college completion rates are improving for students for all income levels, in the best and most prestigious colleges top income earners have been pushing out other students.

The factors that have fed the class divide in student achievement are complicated. One of the best ways to close the class achievement gap, according to many researchers, is somewhat simple, though. It’s an idea that Martin Luther King Jr. pushed in his later years, while planning a second March on Washington in 1967 to support his Poor People’s Campaign: Put more money directly into the hands of lower-income families.

Poorer families might not spend as much as rich ones on their kids, but recent studies show that they tend to spend a larger percentage of their income on their children.

Jane Waldfogel, the Columbia University social-work professor, has looked at how low-income families spend additional income in two different studies in Britain and the U.S., and found they put extra cash either towards their kids, by buying books, toys and clothing, or their jobs—buying clothes for work or purchasing a car, for example.