The NAEP scores released in April set off a flurry of headlines about the sobering state of achievement gaps across the nation. The general consensus? Despite pockets of promise and slight declines in gaps by race, achievement data reveal that gaps by income have remained relatively flat, or uneven at best.

The news for young people on the wrong side of these gaps, however, may be worse. Measuring opportunity in terms of household income or school quality, as education reformers are prone to do, doesn’t paint the whole picture. Students today are competing on an even more complex playing field, one that’s often masked by statistics on income and achievement gaps. A well-resourced childhood introduces a whole new set of inequities between rich and poor students, and those whose parents have or have not earned college degrees: social gaps.

Gaps in students’ networks matter immensely in both immediate and longer-term measures. Research groups like the Search Institute have shown that developmental relationships drive everything from higher grades to persistence in school. Down the line, an estimated 50 percent of jobs come through personal relationships.

The best-hidden asset
Depending on their backgrounds, however, children possess vastly different webs of relationships that they can tap into. If diverging income levels remain the starkest drivers of unequal childhoods, then relationships are arguably becoming the best-hidden asset in the modern opportunity equation.

Slim but troubling data collected by a host of scholars illuminate the uneven terrain shaping young people’s social assets.

First, over the past three decades, the amount of time that college-educated parents spend with their children has dramatically increased, relative to that of their less educated peers. Second, these more educated parents offer their children an additional social asset besides time: a disproportionately professionalized social network of their own. More educated parents know more people working in the knowledge economy; in fact, according to Robert Putnam’s analysis in his book Our Kids, college-educated parents on average have social networks that include at least twice as many politicians, CEOs, and professors than those who received only a high school education or less.

About the Author:

Julia Freelance Fisher is director of education research at the Christensen Institute.


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