Is Social Mobility Ending in America?

Is Social Mobility Ending in America?
by Varun Anand

As a college student, I have successfully navigated the sometimes-treacherous American school system. While my elementary and high school years were both colored by public school experiences, I spent my middle school career in a private school. Even though I began my education in India and ended it in suburban Augusta, Ga., there was always one thing that remained constant — if I worked hard and studied hard, I could succeed in life, regardless of my family’s position in society. Although I was blessed enough to be born into a financially stable family, does that maxim hold true for those less fortunate? As sad as it is to say, social mobility through education is definitely declining in America today.

Let’s first examine an issue that doesn’t get enough attention in today’s media — summer learning loss. Summer learning loss is essentially the loss of academic knowledge over a student’s summer vacation. It’s not that poor children are any less intelligent than their wealthier counterparts, but rather that summer learning loss unfairly sets them up for underachievement throughout their educational career. Low-income children, by the end of fifth grade, are about 2.5 years behind their more affluent peers, primarily due to summer learning loss. During the summer, high and middle-income students increase their reading performance, while low-income students experience a two-month setback. This is because, traditionally, higher-income households are not only more encouraging of reading, but they also have better access to reading material. Kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds usually have the resources to engage in mentally stimulating activities. Thanks to my parents and a stable financial background, I was fairly active during my summers. I went to chess camp, tennis camp and piano camp — all sorts of camps. The fact that I was involved during my summers is not the central determinant to how my life has fared thus far, but it is reflective of the lack of negative factors that are critical in putting me, and other students as well, in the situation I am in today. In contrast, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have few such options. However, the worst is yet to come; when students return to school in the fall, teachers in schools from low socioeconomic backgrounds spend approximately four to six weeks re-teaching the material that was lost in the summer, and that is when the achievement gap really starts to widen. That’s when the system begins to lose children.

Summer learning loss disadvantages poor children until they enter middle school, but from then on, external negative influences take over. Kids only spend 10 percent of their time in school; the other 90 percent of their time is spent outside of school — with friends and family. Possible factors that negatively influence poor students are that their parents don’t have the time, due to strained finances, to help their children in school. Students themselves may have to take a job, even two, in order to support their family. These are stresses economically stable students, like myself, are fortunate enough not to have. The economic disparity is epitomized by the fact that a high-scoring poor student has the same chance of completing college as a low-scoring wealthy student. Moreover, children living in poverty suffer the worst outcomes in education, with lower rates of high school and collegiate completion. Unfortunately, their situation gets worse because their comparatively poorer schools receive less funding than wealthier neighborhood schools.

Even more astoundingly, a mere $1,000 increase in total parental income results in higher math and reading scores of 2.1 and 3.6 percent, respectively, effectively showing the immediate impact of a family’s economic situation on a student’s academic performance.

By no means am I claiming that a student from a low socioeconomic background cannot succeed in life. Yes, it’s true there are impoverished students who break the trend and do well; however, those students are the exception, not the rule, because they take on an unreasonable number of burdens in order to overcome the many obstacles in their path to success. Unfortunately, unless serious reform is enacted, don’t expect anything to change. Education is no longer the great American equalizer, and in order to effectively level the playing field, those for whom the odds were in their favor should give back to the school system and assist the disadvantaged in breaking the odds that are so dauntingly stacked against them.