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Class in the Classroom: Why Middle-Income Students Are Being Left in the Dust

It's well known that wealthy kids outperform poor kids in school, but now the rich are also pulling away from their middle-class peers. Why is that so?

Photo Credit: spirit of america /


The following content originally appeared on City Limits

While America's rich are getting richer, evidence seem to indicate they are getting smarter—or at least better in school—as well.

Nationwide, until around 1980, middle- and upper-income students performed at around the same level in schools. The gap that existed then was between them and students from low-income families.

Now, though, rich students have pulled away from the middle-income ones—as far away as middle-income students are from their low-income counterparts.

"Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains of educational success accrued to the children of the rich," Sean Reardon, a Stanford professor who's documented this trend, has written.

Reardon lays much of this squarely on the increase in income inequality, which has left rich parents with "far more resources, relative to low-income families, to invest in their child's development and schooling."

"We're expecting some kids to start on a broken stairwell, others on an escalator and some on a bullet-like elevator" and all of them to reach the top, Prudence Carter, also of Stanford and co-editor of a book entitled "Closing the Opportunity Gap," said last spring.

It’s a familiar story in New York where affluent families spend lavishly on educational services barely heard of a generation ago: tutors earning in the triple digits an hour, pricey test prep programs and private school and college admissions coaches, to say nothing of thousands of dollars for special classes, summer programs and foreign tours.

Many experts say income, more than race, now accounts for the so-called "achievement gap" in the U.S. But the picture in New York City is a bit more complicated. Although former schools chancellor Joel Klein often said students' success should not be determined not by "the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income," race, residence and income inequality all overlap to create huge differences in how well—or how poorly—children fare in the classroom

What $40,000 buys

The richest students in New York do not show up on most education indicators. They attend private schools, where tuition hovers around $40,000 a year and many parents give upwards of $25,000 a year more.

What do they get for that? Small classes, teachers with advanced degrees and lots of frills. The web site for Léman Manhattan Preparatory School highlights its aquatics center, rock climbing wall and "café run by professionally trained chefs." Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn  reportedly has an information technology department with three people who do nothing but fix broken laptops. Attempting to explain why tuition has reached such rarified levels, the  New York Times  described one school with "three theaters, six art studios, two tennis courts, a pool and a diving pool" and another with a $2 million learning center with "six full-time employees offering one-on-one help with subjects as varied as note-taking and test-taking."

While the children of the 1 percent have guidance counselors negotiating with college admission offices on their behalf and sample classes such as Zen dance and advanced Mandarin, the city's poor and middle-class students spend their days in a different universe. Even the best public high school in New York City has classes with about 30 students. Halls can be noisy and even chaotic as classes change, and with the move to smaller schools, academic offerings may be limited to a single foreign language, say, or chemistry but not physics. Musical instruments and arts supplies can be scarce, if they exist at all.