“Studies show widening gap between rich, poor students,” says today’s New York Times, reporting that although the gap between the races has been narrowed in recent years, the educational gap between rich and poor has widened.
I see this as a result of children’s different levels of access to forms of capital – not just economic, but also social and cultural capital (for a detailed explanation, take a look at French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s “Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture”).
So, for example, a kid in a middle-income home might know a relative, or a parent’s friend, who is a doctor, a lawyer or a professor, who can give advice about the most strategic ways of applying for college, and who can make going to college an unquestioned reality for the kid. Low-income kids have far less access.
Are there solutions?
Across different school districts in the U.S., there have been experiments with “economic integration” of schools. The results have been powerful – low-income students perform much better when they are in schools which are predominantly middle-income. They gain access to the kinds of social and cultural capital that their school mates have, and their schools benefit from the kind of support that middle income parents are able to afford the school. See: “Study of Montgomery County schools shows benefits of economic integration”.
However, there are challenges. First, the opposition from middle-income parents who feel that they have paid high prices in order to access more exclusive schooling communities. It is important to note, however, that the research shows economic integration demonstrates no adverse effect on the academic achievement of middle to high income students. In other words, their kids don’t lose anything when they hang out with poor kids. I would even argue that it is, in fact, educationally beneficial to interact with people different from ourselves.
Second, it is simply a logistical and numerical impossibility to truly mix rich and poor kids because they live so far apart from each other and there are far more low-income kids and kids in poverty than there are One-percenters or those who are closer to the One-percenters.
Perhaps the key to education reform is in the economic integration of housing (radical!).
Whether we are middle or high income, we all get hurt when poor kids don’t get a good education. What the economic integration of schools has shown us is that poor kids, given access to the right social and cultural capital, can be much more successful academically. Instead of testing ourselves out of educational problems, the focus should be on providing the resources for poor kids to access social and cultural capital.
For my home country of Singapore, I think this is a tremendous opportunity for a small country (it’s easy for students to travel to different parts of the country) to try this bold new education reform of “economic integration of schools” – I think it will be bold, clever, and it will actually be good for everyone.
Yen Yen Woo is Associate Professor of Education, LIU Post in New York and also creator of the bilingual comic book iPad app, Dim Sum Warriors