Harvard Professor: Education Gap Has Unraveled American Dream

Evan Wilt Contributor
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The education gap in schools has undone the framework for the American dream, said Richard Murnane, the Thompson research professor of education and society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He said on Wednesday at the American Institute for Research, that the mechanism through which the American dream “happens, education, is severely threatened.”

The problem he noted is all-encompassing for American life, stemming from the substantial differences in upbringing between the top 20 percent income level and the bottom 20. Murnane stated that these differences can be calculated before children reach their first Pre-K classroom.

In the assessment of the engagement in the classroom from their teachers, the Harvard professor said that children from low-income families were shown to already be deficient in math skills, school engagement and showed greater tendencies of anti-social behavior as opposed to children in higher income brackets.

“These gaps do not get smaller as they progress,” said Murnane. “Assessing these same children years’ later shows that by the 5th grade the gaps are even larger.”

The education expert, who is also an economist, said that the roots for the educational failure of low-income children comes from the disparity of child enrichment expenditures: the amount of money that a family will spend on their children for non-standard activities ranging from child care, vacations, summer camps and even tutoring.

According to Murnane’s data, in 1972 top 20 percent income families would spend an average of $3,000 per year more on each child for enrichment expenditures than the bottom 20 percent. In 2006, that number jumped to over $8,000 a year more. These numbers are altered to take exclude the variable of currency inflation.

The numbers show that as time goes on, the gap between income levels directly affects the growing gap in educational proficiency. Less money spent means less learned in the class room.

However, with the present gap, a lack of education is more dire to Americans now than it was 40 years ago.  According to the Harvard professor, a high school dropout today makes significantly less money than someone who dropped out in the 1970’s.

In a study of 14-year-olds in the mid 90’s of students from both the top income bracket and the bottom, it was found that by the time they reach age 25, those in the top 20 percent completed a four-year college degree 54 percent of the time. Conversely, the study found that of the students assessed from the bottom 20 percent, only nine percent completed a bachelor’s degree by the same age.

Murnane explained that these statistics are unraveling the framework of the American dream.

“Some post-secondary education after high school is critical for Americans to have a chance of earning a middle-class living.

“The change in the American economy has dramatically reduced the opportunities for those without a quality education,” he said.

In an America without the poor being able to close the gap between the affluent, it eliminates the idea of upward mobility, said Murnane. 

“The idea of upward mobility is really the glue that America is held together,” he said.