Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Widening Income Achievement Gap

I have just read this enlightening article by Sean F Reardon who is an Education Professor at Stanford, California. It appeared in a back-number of the American teachers’ magazine, EL -Faces of Poverty. Vol. 70 No 8 of May 2013 and although focused on America, I suspect that much of what he says would apply to Zambia, Scotland and anywhere else in the world of neo-liberal economics.


Reardon looks at the increasing income gap between rich and poor and the resultant decline in social mobility. He highlights the decrease in middle class jobs in manufacturing and the competition faced by individuals and the costs for families for their off-spring to achieve academic success. High-earning families spend seven times as much on child development as low income families. This spills over into participation in extracurricular clubs and free-time activities. As well as differences in examination results there are fewer and fewer students from poorer backgrounds accessing tertiary education.


Comparing academic achievement and family income, there were three significant findings for Reardon. The first was the growth of the income achievement gap in these past 30 years. In reading achievement in the1950s, 60s & 70s the standard deviation between rich and poor was around 0.9. By the 90s and 00s this had risen by 40% to 1.25.

Income inequality rose dramatically over the same period making the gap between rich and poor much greater.


The second was that income gaps in other measures of education success in its wider sense had grown too. This included tertiary education completion rates where high income students are an increasing proportion of the matriculated students at elite colleges and universities. A related issue was the differing degrees of civic engagement through extracurricular activities, sports, academic clubs, voluntary organizations and participation in community life, so while Thandi juggles with piano, choir, Girls’ Brigade, ballet and netball in her busy life, all Masiye has to look forward to, is preventative maintenance with a hoe on a Wednesday afternoon!


Thirdly the attainment gap is already there on entry to Pre-School and does not grow significantly throughout the schooling period. This suggests that the gap is not due to unequal school quality, in fact schooling may actually narrow the academic achievement gaps rather than widen them. School holidays were also found to widen the gap when schools were not in session, causing the ‘summer setback’ especially, in the lower Primary years.


Reardon then looks to the social history of the past 50 years to help explain the causes and reasons for the growth in the income achievement gap. In 1970s the income gap between rich and poor was a factor of 5, today a high income family earns 11 times more than a poor family. So the rich have even more resources to invest in education than before, relative to the poor.


Upward social mobility is now more difficult because of income inequality and the decline in Western economic growth since the 1970s. This has led to a large increase in low-skill, low wage service or routine production jobs with minimum wage and zero hours contracts, on the other hand there are a much smaller number of high-skill, high- wage jobs in financial services, information technology and engineering design. Gone are the jobs that provided a respectable living without a university degree and so now education is vital for economic success. In Zambia it is now almost impossible to get even the lowliest of Government jobs such as a hospital cleaner, without good Grade 12 results


Popular notions too of what constitutes educational success have returned to the normative and quantitative with marks, grades and tables playing a dominant role. High- income children are more likely to have two tertiary-educated, parents both of whom work, whereas low-income children are more likely to be raised by a single mother who left school with few qualifications. These factors too have an important bearing on child development.


Schools have in the past played a role as a social equalizer where children of all backgrounds would have equal opportunity to learn and develop. This could be done with the support of government, both national and local and with family and community support that promoted cognitive and social development to try and close these gaps.


Reardon stresses the importance of resources being devoted to early education, by intervening early, the more likely it is that the gaps can be effectively tackled and eliminated. The recent Early Childhood Care, Development and Education Syllabus is testimony to Zambian Education taking this seriously. Reardon also suggests extending the school day and year and providing after-school and summer-school programmes to help narrow the gaps. The extra time gained has to be used effectively. Equal access to high-quality teachers is important as is a stimulating curriculum in well-resourced schools. Otherwise schools will reflect these gaps with schools being high-income or low-income, segregated by the type of housing and homes the pupils come from and the income of the parents. This will do nothing to promote socio-economic diversity or cohesion within schools or to show that through education and hard work anyone can rise to any position in society.




  USA              SCOTLAND                          ZAMBIA


Poverty Threshold       $US23 000 p.a.    GBP21 000                                    $730 or K4400 p.a.    

                                    (Family of 4)        (Family of 4)                      ($2.00 a day)

Extreme Poverty         $11 680                GBP18 600                                    $460 or K2740 p.a.

                                    ($32 a day)                                                      ($1.25 a day)

Suburban Poverty Rate 11.3%                             14%                        22% (Lusaka)

                                                                                                            34% (Copperbelt)

                                                                                                            70% (Rural)

                                                USA                            SCOTLAND       ZAMBIA

Living below poverty line       46 million (15%)         950 000(18%)      7.9 million (60%)


In extreme poverty                  20.4 million (6%)        710 000 (14%)                  5.5 million (42%)             


Worldwide 21 000 children die every day from hunger. 1 every 4 seconds.



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