In Educational Achievement, the Rich are Pulling Away From the Middle Class

Is education turning into a caste system?

There used to be a big educational gap between poor children and everyone else. And not just because they were in failing schools; poor kids showed up at school less prepared than the other kids, and the gap widened over the years.

Now, according to Sean Reardon, there is also a gap between the middle class and the elite. American society is increasingly stratified, he says, because elite parents are investing so much in the cognitive enrichment of their kids.

But is that really the right explanation? 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. The latter is undoubtedly true, and there's some fairly strong evidence for the former, in the form of studies of adopted kids. Such studies tend to show that adopted kids bear a much stronger resemblance to their biological parents in terms of lots of things, from weight to income to test scores, than they do to their adoptive parents. Once you've hit a fairly basic parenting threshhold--food, health care, touching and talking to your kid, and not physically or sexually abusing them--the incremental benefits of more intensive parenting seem at best small, at worst unclear.

I have no doubt that Reardon is right, and wealthy parents are investing more in their kids because they can. But how do we know that this, rather than the fact of having parents who are great at taking tests, makes the difference. If you take a newly married graduate of the Naval Academy with strong SAT scores, do their kids show up at kindergarten meaningfully less prepared than the children of a hedge fund manager who makes many times more?

Maybe the answer is "yes". But maybe the answer is that as we have increasingly selected for academic ability, education has become less of a springboard to success, than a barrier to it. All the people who are really good at school are marrying the other people who are really good at school, having children who are really, really good at school . . . and paying lip service to the idea that somehow, we should make all the other kids really good at school too, while reinforcing a selection mechanism that advantages their kids over all the others.

Recently, I came across a copy of These Happy Golden Years (the final book of the Little House on the Prairie Series) in a used bookshop. I couldn't resist buying it; I spent so many happy hours with those books as a kid.

You read it differently as an adult, of course, and one of those things that struck me is that Almanzo Wilder doesn't seem to be nearly as smart as his wife. Laura obviously liked school, and was good at it, from an early age. Almanzo hated it, and wanted to finish as quickly as possible. There's no evidence that he reads or otherwise occupies himself with intellectual pursuits in his spare time. Laura doesn't seem to find that strange, or to resent it; both contemporary reports and the way she writes about her husband makes it clear that she still loved him, all those decades later.

But today we'd find it hard to believe that those two could marry and be happy; what on earth would they talk about? 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.

Instead they had one child, Rose Wilder Lane, who became a very talented short-story writer (her collection, Old Home Town, is a very fine and somewhat brutal study of the Missouri town where she grew up.) They could just as easily have had a child like Almanzo, whose talents lay in other directions. But the more that the educational elite clusters together, the less likely that is. And the higher the educational barrier to high-paying professions, the more tightly high income will seem to be linked to the educational proficiency of your kids.

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. Of course, I am not suggesting that we should give up on educating our kids, or that education is irrelevant to preparing people for the workforce. But we should ask whether incremental requirements are actually adding value. Because 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.