The summer learning gap between the children in poverty and those from middle class families may be shrinking somewhat — but those from wealthy households are pulling even farther ahead of the pack, as parents spend ever-increasing amounts on their their children's academic enrichment, according to The Hechinger Report.
A new report from the U.S. Department of Education focused on the summer after kindergarten, a critical time period, especially for children who entered kindergarten already at a learning disadvantage. Poor or near-poor rising 1st graders missed out on several types of educationally enriching summer activities that their non-poor classmates enjoyed, including tutoring, trips to historical sites and museums, and attending camp.
Worth noting, though, is that 25% of poor families encouraged their children kids to do math and writing activities every day in the summer, as opposed to 12% of non-poor families. That seems to suggest that lack of parental involvement is not the cause for the participation gap in the other enriching summer activities. Whatever the reason, income inequality is setting the stage for tomorrow's adults to be living starkly unequal lives, perhaps even more so than today's adults.
Family income has been a driving force behind differences in students' summer opportunities for decades. What's more surprising are new findings that show how that long-standing truth has evolved over time.
Researchers are seeing that parental financial investment in their children's academic achievement and general educational enrichment has drastically split over the last 40 years or so. And most of that divergence is coming from differences between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else. In a paper published by the American Sociological Review, sociologists from the University of California at Berkeley and Colorado State University discovered that the rich are funneling more and more resources into their children's educational enrichment. Interestingly, it's not that they're spending more money in general; they're shelling out specifically on after-school tutors, elite summer camps, international class trips, and the like. Some scholars call the phenomenon the "shadow education system."
The exact reasons behind the affluent outpacing all other parents at such a rate is unclear. However, the research might offer a clue. The greater income inequality there was in a particular state, the more the wealthy families in that state spent on their children. Researchers speculate living in a strong culture of "haves and have-nots" feeds wealthy parents' urge to throw everything they've got at assuring their child's success. Aside from that theory, reliable transportation, secure jobs that allow for ample time off, and parental appreciation of cultural events might also come into play in explaining the yawning gap.
The sorts of experiences the wealthy are buying for their children do make a difference. A recent study found that students who attended a play, as opposed to a movie, took home increased political tolerance, a better vocabulary, and a grasp of the concept of a plot. And students who went to an art museum, meanwhile, left with a boost in critical thinking skills, aside from more of an interest in art in general. Those perks applied to early-grade students as well as older students. Quality school field trips, then, are essential for disadvantaged students, as they may be the only way some of them will get to reap the benefits of culturally enriching outings. School leaders can look for community partners and donors to provide students with such summer opportunities. Public libraries are also providing more learning opportunities that go beyond reading a set number of books.