A new study from Georgetown University reaffirmed an uncomfortable but familiar finding: Socioeconomic status has a significant effect on students’ long-term outcomes, regardless of their academic performance in kindergarten or the quality of the schools they attend in K–12.
Lead researcher Anthony Carnevale and his team did not look at specific students, but at long-term education trends in specific income quartiles. They started with data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: Kindergarten (ECLS-K) from spring 1999 to inform their demographic and socioeconomic analysis, and to determine children’s reading and math skills from the earliest point. Ultimately, they chose math scores as their main basis of academic achievement across all data sets. They also used the annual American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau to gather data on race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status (SES), jobs and occupations, educational attainment, and other status markers. Other data sources included the national Consumer Expenditure Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (buying habits, household income, etc.), the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (high school math performance, postsecondary access, and early labor market outcomes), and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (comparing differences in environment based on race, ethnicity, and SES).
In short, millions of data points were combined to build a picture of “typical” students at different points on their K–12 path. Researchers then compared the trajectories of different types of typical students starting at similar points of academic achievement in kindergarten—both high and low—to determine how their circumstances did or did not affect their trajectories into adulthood.
The key findings, extrapolated for today’s students: 1) Family resources matter. Among the affluent, even a kindergartener with test scores in the bottom half has a seven in ten chance of reaching high SES status as a young adult. But a disadvantaged kindergartener with test scores in the top half—across all racial and ethnic groups—has only a three in ten chance of reaching the same high SES level. 2) Where students start is often a function of outside factors. Only about a quarter of the lowest-SES kindergarteners have top-half math scores, compared to three-quarters of the highest-SES kindergarteners. Children’s early scores also vary by race, but mainly because black and Latino children are twice as likely as white children to come from the lowest-SES families. 3) All children can improve their academic standing through primary school, but their chances of improvement correlate to SES status. By the eighth grade, fewer than one in five of the lowest-SES kindergarteners with bottom-half starting math scores will move up to the top half, compared to more than two in five of the highest-SES kindergarteners. 4) Higher-SES students are more likely to maintain high scores than their lower-SES peers, and white and Asian children are more likely to do so than black or Latino children. 5) Achievement patterns are largely set by the time children enter high school, especially for the lowest performers. Most tenth graders who scored in the bottom math quartile will still score in the bottom quartile in twelfth grade. 6) High school achievement sets the stage for college attainment—but family class plays an even greater role. The highest-SES students with bottom-half math scores are more likely to complete a college degree than are the lowest-SES students with top-half math scores. 7) Education can be a lever for upward mobility. The lowest-SES tenth graders with top-half math scores are twice as likely to become high-SES young adults as their peers with bottom-half math scores. Disadvantaged students who show promise can achieve, but their chances are better with interventions—the earlier the better.
Carnevale and his team generally paint a depressing picture of the outcomes awaiting today’s kindergarteners, especially poor students and students of color. But they found hope amid the meager amount of mobility in their data. Their recommendations—expanding pre-K, strengthening academic interventions, early career counseling—are good but mostly “extracurricular.” That is, their model assumes that all educational settings are equal, or at least equally benign, and that help for typical students to break out of the identified patterns must be adjunct to regular schooling. Such interventions will also cost a lot of additional money.
But research has shown that the very best schools and teachers are already capable of boosting achievement for most students and that specific inputs within a school’s day, year, and budget are especially helpful for initial low-performers. Boosting pre-K support for disadvantaged children is one thing, but we already spend billions annually to move the achievement needle for all students within existing K–12 structures. We should be looking first and foremost for solutions that make use of what already works in our schools. And what doesn’t work should be ended or changed first.
SOURCE: Anthony P. Carnevale, et. al., “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose: Why Equally Talented Students Don’t Get Equal Chances to Be All They Can Be,” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (July 2019).