It’s a sad and intransigent truth that poor children don’t do as well in school as kids whose parents have money. During most of American history, few jobs required more than minimal education, and that fact didn’t cause much hand-wringing. But about 30 years ago, manufacturing jobs began to evaporate, median incomes stalled, and the expanding knowledge economy increased the number and type of cognitive skills needed for most middle-class jobs. Suddenly, the academic performance of low-income kids mattered a great deal. In an age when good jobs require advanced skills, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that education gaps are income gaps and income gaps are achievement gaps.

As dismay over economic inequality has grown, so has skepticism that culture has anything useful to tell us about how people do in school or in life. “Blaming poverty on the mysterious influence of ‘culture’ is a convenient excuse for doing nothing to address the problem,” Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Eugene Robinson has written. “If we had universal pre-kindergarten that fed all children into high-quality schools, if we had affordable higher education, if we incentivized industry to invest in troubled communities—if people had options for which they were prepared—culture would take care of itself.”

But skeptics like Robinson are missing something important. No one would argue that such things as hunger, homelessness, a mother’s job loss, a father’s imprisonment, and—sometimes forgotten in this familiar list—a parental breakup have no effect on a student’s ability to learn in school. It’s equally foolish to suggest that culture—the habits, meanings, and aspirations that parents bring to child-rearing—has no effect. America, with its diverse population, has had more than a century to learn this lesson. Now, with record immigration, Europe is learning it as well.

You don’t need to look far to find studies advancing the idea that income inequality explains the educational achievement gap. An influential 2011 volume called Whither Opportunity includes a number of essays showing the educational advantages of growing up rich. “In the early 1970s, the 20 percent of parents with the highest incomes spent approximately $2,700 more per year than bottom income quintile parents on goods and services aimed at enriching the experiences of their children,” write Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, the volume’s editors. “In the mid-2000s, the corresponding inflation-adjusted difference in enrichment expenditures was $7,500,” they contend, noting that most of it was spent on music lessons, travel, and summer camps. Stanford professor Sean Reardon concluded that the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is 30 to 40 percent higher for children born in 2001 than it was among children born 25 years earlier—in part, Reardon claims, because of “increasing parental investment in children’s cognitive development.”

Income is now more significant than race in explaining the educational achievement gap. Reardon examined 19 nationally representative studies going back more than 50 years and concluded that while the test-score and college-graduation gaps between blacks and whites were shrinking, the gaps between rich and poor were growing. The black/white test-score gap used to be about twice as large as the rich/poor test-score gap; today, the opposite is true.

For some, the close correlation between income and school achievement settles the discussion—but it shouldn’t. Inequality headlines drown out the reality that plenty of poor kids go to college and make it into the middle class. True, such stories are rarer than most Americans might like, but 58 percent of American children born into the lowest income quintile will move out of it as adults, and 40 percent will make it into the middle class (defined as three times the poverty line), according to Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill. We know some things about these successful strivers: first, they’re more likely to grow up living with both parents than their counterparts who remain in poverty; second, they’re disproportionately members of certain cultural groups. Chinese, Vietnamese, Russians, and Iranians often make it. Mexicans, Dominicans, and Haitians, among others, often don’t.

This is the point in the conversation when many people—sociologists and educators included—tend to balk. Culture doesn’t lend itself to rigorous, quantitative social science. How do we measure mores, norms, or habits? As economists have become more prominent in poverty and education research, this fuzziness has all but erased the word “culture” from many top journals. Fueling the squeamishness is a fear that generalizations will reduce our understanding of individuals to stereotypes. But while often well-intentioned, those who minimize culture’s significance ignore both ordinary observation and an impressive body of research.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP PHOTOThe home-learning environment is crucial to children’s intellectual development.

The historical evidence that differences exist in the way cultural groups approach education couldn’t be clearer. In his magisterial series of books on migration among diverse peoples, Thomas Sowell chronicles how various ethnic groups carry educational aspirations with them across time, even as they immigrate to wildly disparate destination countries. German migrants, for instance, always made education a top priority. They built schools in nineteenth-century Brazilian jungle settlements and opened kindergartens on the Wisconsin prairie, despite the subsistence conditions they faced. The education-minded Japanese who settled in rural Brazil tried a different approach. To ensure their children’s future, they sent them away to boarding schools. By 1970, the Japanese made up a mere 3 percent of the Brazilian population but 10 percent of the country’s university students.

Jews, too, have been bookish wherever they put down roots. In the United States during the early twentieth century, for instance, poor immigrant Jews far out-studied their recently arrived Italian neighbors. In his seminal Beyond the Melting Pot, coauthored with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer observed that Italians didn’t see the point of education. It was a sensible position to take in an industrial era. Italian girls were expected to help with domestic chores to prepare them for an all-but-certain future as wives and mothers. Boys were expected to work from a young age. “One improved one’s circumstances by hard work, perhaps by a lucky strike,” Glazer wrote, “but not by spending time in a school, taught by women, who didn’t even beat the children.” In the early 1930s, only 11 percent of Italian-Americans graduated from high school, compared with the American average of 43 percent, and over 50 percent of Jews.

Today it would be hard to find a parent in the United States, whether Bill Gates or a burger-flipper at McDonald’s, who would shrug off education as immaterial for a kid’s success. Yet what sounds like agreement doesn’t work that way in practice. It’s a cliché—but one confirmed by ethnographers—that Asians, now the fastest-growing immigrant group in America, are uniquely zealous in their pursuit of education. In just one of many studies, sociologists Jennifer Lee and Ming Zhou interviewed 82 young adult children of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. For the respondents, “high school was mandatory, college was an obligation, and only after earning an advanced degree does one deserve kudos,” they wrote. This was “regardless of parental human capital, migration history, and class background.” (Like others who have studied the subject, Lee and Zhou find that Laotian and Cambodian families are exceptions to the generalization; culture critics may well be correct to question the usefulness of the overly broad “Asian” category.)

A blogger of Japanese descent who calls himself the “Financial Samurai” argues, counterintuitively, that what drives Asians is the reality of their outsider status and the inevitable discrimination they will face:

The only people Asian Americans can count on are our immediate family and education. . . . If there is one level playing field among all races, it’s in academics. If you study harder, you will likely get better grades. If you get better grades, you’ll likely get into a better university. If you get into a better university, you’ll likely get a better job and make more money. It doesn’t matter if you’re only 5 feet 1 inches tall, you’ve got the same opportunity as someone 6 feet 10 inches tall in academics. Even if you are poor, so long as you have a stable household you can still study as long as someone who is rich. There is nothing more important to the Asian American population than academics.

Researchers find a different set of priorities among another extensively studied group of outsiders: Hispanic immigrants. Hispanics also talk about getting their kids educated, but they have competing interests. In a 2009 paper in the journal Social Problems, Matthew Desmond and Ruth N. Lopez Turley noted that Hispanics believed strongly in the importance of children remaining at home during their college years—a choice that often leads to lower levels of achievement and a greater reluctance to enroll in higher education in the first place. Likewise, CUNY professor Philip Kasinitz discovered that Chinese children in New York City travel farthest in order to get to the top schools; Latino parents liked their kids to stay closer to home, even if that meant giving up the possibility of attending a prestigious school. (See “Brooklyn’s Chinese Pioneers,” Spring 2014.)

These are generalizations, of course: plenty of Latino parents move mountains to ensure that their children go to the best schools. In her book Opportunity and Hope, Naomi Schaefer Riley tells the story of Jason Tejada, the son of a Dominican couple who saw the disorder at their local public elementary school and sought an alternative. Their determination led them to the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which helped pay Jason’s tuition at a good Catholic school. Surely, the value placed on education by Jason’s parents was one reason he was among the few from his Bronx neighborhood to graduate from an Ivy League college. But surveys suggest that the Tejadas aren’t the Hispanic cultural norm. The Pew Hispanic Center found that while 89 percent of Latino young adults say that a college education is important for success in life, only about half that number—48 percent—say that they plan to get a college degree.

The point is not that the Chinese are better parents than Mexicans or that Ecuadoreans don’t care about education. It is rather that parental priorities differ, and those differences tend to be shared by people with the same cultural backgrounds. Some priorities turn out to be better adapted to an education-demanding knowledge economy than others. A set of Georgian immigrants I know refused to let their son travel two hours every day from their home on Staten Island to Stuyvesant, the elite public high school in Manhattan. Meanwhile, the Chinese kids from his middle school class did just that.

Even in a globalized world, groups of people from similar regional backgrounds raise their children in distinct ways. Pamela Druckerman, an American who wrote about raising her young children in Paris in her 2012 memoir, Bringing Up Bébé, put it this way: “French mothers may not know exactly what they do, [but] they all seem to be doing more or less the same thing . . . [e]veryone from law professors to day care providers, to public school teachers, and old ladies who chastise me in the park.”

Likewise, middle-class American parents have their own unique approach to raising children. Compared with parents elsewhere, including those in other rich countries, Americans put a premium on stimulating, discovering, and fostering their children’s talents and interests from the earliest age. In her 2003 book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, an ethnographic study of white and black middle- and lower-class families with school-age children, Annette Lareau called the middle-class approach “concerted cultivation.” By contrast, low-income parents hew to what she calls “natural growth,” which, as the term implies, means that they don’t feel the need to fuss over their children’s spatial skills or cater to their interest in dinosaurs. Though overall, low-income kids are disproportionately black, Lareau, like Stanford’s Sean Reardon, finds that class trumps race. Black middle-class parents’ child-rearing practices resembled those of their counterparts in the white middle class much more than those of black parents of more modest means.

Poverty researchers and the policymakers who rely on their findings rarely use the word “culture,” but they’re well aware of these differences. By the time poor children arrive in kindergarten, their vocabularies are smaller than those of rich kids and their language less complex; they can’t count as high as the well-off kids can. Long before they begin to benefit from algebra tutors and trips to the Louvre, rich children have more general knowledge and self-control. A 2011 overview of relevant research by Jane Waldfogel and Elizabeth Washbrook concludes that “parenting style” and “home learning environment” are the biggest reasons for the gap—bigger than race, preschool attendance, mother’s age, and even maternal education.

Given the relative school success of middle-class children, experts have tried to develop programs to help poor parents behave more like their middle-class counterparts. Low-income parents spend less time reading and talking to their kids than affluent parents do—one widely repeated datum suggests a “4 million–word gap” by the time children reach the age of four. A Rhode Island program profiled on PBS provides children with word counters to determine how many words they’re hearing each day. Social workers graph the number of words each child hears to show parents how they’re doing.

These sorts of approaches have had, at best, modest success, though, and naiveté about the role of culture helps explain why. In the Rhode Island program, kids who typically hear about 5,000 words per day (compared with 16,000 in the more general population) did increase their exposure—by about 500 words. (Evidently, Providence officials are satisfied, since they plan to increase the number of program participants from 55 to 2,000.) In a literature review on a range of early childhood programs intended to change parental or family habits, Frank Furstenberg uses words like “modest” and “weak” to describe their impact, before concluding—modestly—that “such efforts might have a small, positive effect.”

It should be obvious why these approaches fail: when middle-class American parents talk to their young children, they’re not merely reciting random words. They are engaging in a culturally loaded enterprise, grounded in barely conscious assumptions about what children need to thrive. The same goes for reading to kids. A comparison of middle-class Dutch and American parents by cross-cultural researchers Sarah Harkness and Charles Super found that in the Netherlands, parents read to their children in order to soothe; for U.S. parents, the purpose is to stimulate and teach. With that same goal in mind, middle-class parents limit the amount of television their kids watch more than low-income parents do: even if they don’t read journals on the topic, they intuit, correctly, that hours spent in front of a television screen will harm a child’s achievement in school.

Universal preschool is by far the most popular idea for easing poor children’s early disadvantages. The theory behind it is similar to the argument for parenting programs: if we give low-income children a middle-class, school-relevant experience when they’re young and impressionable, they will be as prepared for school as middle-class kids are. Yet since the 1960s, when Head Start got under way, preschool’s effect on children’s academic futures has ranged from nil to modest. A notable paper by Brian Jacob and Jens Ludwig concludes that even when cost-effective, preschool programs don’t significantly reduce the achievement gap. The biggest problem is what researchers call “fade out.” In some of the best programs, children appear to be as “school ready” as middle-class kids. By third grade, however, they revert to the same academic levels as their non-preschooled, low-income peers. Experts have struggled to account for fade out, but one likely explanation is that whatever educational habits these preschools impart are not reinforced in the homes of low-income children and in the elementary schools that they go on to attend.

American culture skeptics often look abroad, particularly to more generous and (allegedly) tolerant welfare states, for answers to the problems of disadvantaged families. “Nordic-style social democracies are the only ones that have come anywhere close to eliminating poverty altogether,” Ryan Cooper writes in The Week. It’s looking less like that these days. “[T]here is no evidence that social mobility rates can be raised by more intensive public support of disadvantaged families,” writes Gregory Clark in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs. He’s right. At least when it comes to education and children’s labor-market prospects, Europe has no better idea of how to reduce the disadvantages that come with low-skilled poverty.

Throughout the OECD, poor, non-Western immigrant children do far worse in school than their native counterparts. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a standardized test administered to European 15-year-olds every three years to measure proficiency in mathematics, science, and reading. The test is scored on a scale. According to the OECD, the average PISA score is 500 points and the standard deviation is 100 points. About two-thirds of students across OECD countries score between 400 and 600 points. The performance gap in PISA reading scores between natives and immigrants is 80 points in Iceland—nearly a full standard deviation—and more than 72 in Italy. In Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and France, among others, the gap is 60 points or more, the equivalent of more than a year and a half of schooling.

The math gap isn’t much better. In a 2008 paper, Dutch researchers Mark Levels and Jaap Dronkers divided migrants by country of origin and found that second-generation children of South and Central American, North African, and West Asian backgrounds lag behind their native peers in math, even when taking into account “social and economic background characteristics.” In fact, the United States outperforms many of these countries. In an extensive study of PISA rankings, Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein conclude: “Disadvantaged and lower-middle-class U.S. students do better (and in most cases substantially better) than comparable students in similar post-industrial countries in reading.” (Math gaps are about the same.) They continue: “[T]he United States and Germany were the only nations in our study whose math and reading performance improved for the lowest social class . . . students from 2000 to 2009.”

The most sobering lesson about culture’s way of shaping children’s educational fortunes comes from Scandinavia. These countries generally provide all the welfare supports that culture skeptics believe should level the playing field for low-income families: months of paid parental leave, fulsome child allowances, state-supported day care, protections for part-time and flex-time workers, and extra help for low-income schools—all set in a Brigadoon-like landscape of relative equality. But the success of these nations looks more like a demographic and cultural story than a welfare-state story. For much of modern Scandinavian history, immigration was rare. Those who did move to Stockholm or Oslo came from neighboring or other European countries—places with relatively similar cultural habits and understandings. Prior to the 1980s, for instance, Swedes often viewed the word “immigrant” as meaning Finns who had left the Soviet Union. For the most part, Scandinavian populations were geographically rooted, with families living in the same village or region for generations and passing down long-entrenched cultural habits. An American mommy-blogger living in Norway notes how advantageous this predictability can be for educators: “[T]here is just one way, more or less: all kids go to bed at 7, all attend the same style of preschool, all wear boots, all eat the same lunch. . . . [T]hat’s the Norwegian way.” In terms of cultural unity, it sure helps that the entire country of Norway has fewer people than the state of Minnesota.

In recent decades, the arrival of immigrants from geographically and culturally distant countries in Africa and Asia has disrupted the cozy homogeneity long enjoyed in Nordic nations. For the first time, Scandinavians are being asked to educate children of low-skilled parents from the developing world. The United States has struggled with how to do this for a long time; so far, the Nordic-style welfare state has failed to work its magic.

Consider Sweden. In recent decades, Sweden has seen a large influx of immigrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other non-Western countries. The Norface Research Programme on Migration finds that the children of uneducated, non-Western parents have considerably less success in school than their native counterparts in Sweden (and Denmark); once again, the gap is wider than that between native and non-Western immigrant students in the United States. Worse, and unlike in the United States, things don’t improve over generations. Many immigrants have arrived too recently to trace their children’s trajectory, but the most recent poverty rates for children with a Turkish background born in Sweden are three times higher than they are for native children. Unemployment and poverty are much higher in the immigrant group. “Poverty in Sweden has taken on an ethnic dimension,” Björn Halleröd, a sociology professor at the University of Gothenburg, told the Local, an English-language Swedish newspaper. Sweden remains egalitarian by international standards, but inequality grew by a third between 1985 and the late 2000s—faster than in any other OECD country.

Finland offers a similar cautionary tale. With some of the highest PISA scores in the world, Finland has become the world’s education sweetheart. The country is the star of Amanda Ripley’s widely praised The Smartest Kids in the World and a top destination for education tourists from around the globe. Critics laud Finland’s universal preschool program, aversion to standardized testing and tracking, sensible hours of homework, and funding equity. No one has said much about demographics, but one reality behind Finland’s success is that it has historically been even more homogeneous than Sweden. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of Russians made their way to Finland, but their children tended to do fairly well in school (just as, it should be noted, the children of Russian immigrants do in the United States).

More recently, however, the arrival of immigrants from the developing world has begun to transform the country’s demography. Their numbers remain small—in 2009, only 4 percent of Finland’s PISA students were foreign-born, compared with 17 percent in Sweden. But their performance thus far is dismaying. Despite the country’s policy of subsidizing the schooling of immigrant children, these children are more likely to drop out and score significantly below native-born Finnish students on all PISA tests. Finland has relatively few low-performing students among its native-born population. The country’s proportion of low-performing immigrant students, however, is high: 29 percent. (Though Ripley doesn’t cite these numbers, she notes that Finnish parents are reluctant to send their kids to schools with immigrant populations of 10 percent or higher.) Experts disagree about whether Finland’s drop in test scores between 2000 and 2009 can be attributed to its rising number of poor immigrant children. Carnoy and Rothstein say that scores have dipped for well-to-do kids, too. But despite doing everything right, Finland is having a tough time educating the children of low-skilled immigrant parents.

All this doesn’t mean that policy can’t help reduce the achievement gap, at least for some kids. Innumerable poor children from every cultural background are able, for various reasons—native gifts, determined parents, luck—to defy odds and seize opportunities. They need decent schools that can guide them. Thus far, a small number of successful American charter schools have created an atmosphere of high expectations and predictable order to counter the damaging cultures in many poor neighborhoods. According to economist Roland Fryer, the success of the much-praised Harlem Children’s Zone is due almost entirely to its charter school; the HCZ’s Baby College parenting program, preschool, and other services, by contrast, don’t seem to have done much for these kids.

Fryer observes that many charter schools have tedious application processes. KIPP makes parents sign a pledge that “holds them responsible for their children’s attendance (including on Saturdays and during the summer), for their children’s adherence to the school dress code, and for their children’s behavior.” Good charters may be successful, in other words, because their applications sift out parents who are less education-obsessed.

If that seems unfair to the children who might be left behind, that’s because it is. But if there is a viable remedy that can completely undo the accident of birth, it has yet to be devised.

Top Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock


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