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May 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 8

Perspectives / The Uphill Climb

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The video "Wealth Inequality in America" had 5,238,467 hits last I looked. It is a simple but compelling animated chart depicting three ideas: how Americans think wealth is distributed in the United States, how they believe wealth ideally should be distributed, and how the estimated $54 trillion of U.S. wealth is really divided. The graph showing the actual distribution of wealth (based on data compiled by Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University) is shaped like a long deep valley leading up to a mountain. The nearly level valley line represents the 7 percent of wealth owned by 80 percent of the people, and the skinny tall mountain represents the wealth owned by the top 20 percent. Finally, the off-the-chart mountaintop illustrates the "1 percent" who own enormous wealth (40 percent of the nation's total).
The hard-to-miss conclusion of the video: Americans don't have a clue about the extent of poverty or the degree of wealth around them. To their credit, no matter their political ideology, most desire a much more equitable distribution than there actually is.
This issue of Educational Leadership on poverty comes to you because educators must deal with these inequalities every day. Each discussion group we've held with readers (including international members) in the last few years has said that poverty is a top concern affecting their students. Our authors raise awareness of the growing number of children now living in poverty (22 percent in the United States) and examine what might be done to bridge the widening income achievement gap.
Sean F. Reardon's research (p. 10) provides an enlightening perspective on a constellation of trends, including the greater income gap among families, the reduction of social mobility, the decrease in middle class jobs, and increased competition among families for their children's academic success. High-income families, he reports, now spend nearly seven times as much on their children's development as low-income families do, up from a ratio of four times as much in 1972. In addition to test score gaps, large gaps are growing for college-completion rates and for students' participation in extracurricular clubs and activities.
Schools, of course, have a key role to play in the efforts to reduce these gaps, as all our authors write. First, we could devote more resources to creating effective kindergartens and preschools, where the gaps first begin to show up. See Cynthia E. Lamy's article (p. 32) for a description of the characteristics of excellent preschools and the research establishing their benefits: Children develop both cognitive and social skills and learn that they can be good at learning, families learn how to support their children's learning at home, and school systems reap long-term rewards throughout a child's school years when kindergarten cohorts show up with improved readiness.
A second big idea in this issue—and also one with new research behind it—is the value of socioeconomic diversity in schools (pp. 10, 38, 50). More than 80 public school districts now consider socioeconomic status in student assignments to schools. On average, the socioeconomic background of a school's student body has a huge effect on students' academic outcomes. That is not to say that high-poverty schools cannot be very effective. Some are, but they realize success far too rarely. Economists have calculated that only 1.1 percent of majority low-income schools consistently performed in the top third of their state, Halley Potter reports (p. 38). The advantages of breaking up concentrated poverty can be many: Low-income students' performance rises, and all students receive the benefits of a diverse learning environment. Read about how schools are developing practices to overcome the challenges of enrolling and serving an economically diverse student body.
Susan Neuman articulates another compelling idea (p. 18). Her 10-year study of the disparity between poverty and privilege as it surfaced in the literacy resources in two Philadelphia communities is eye-opening. Observations of four-year-olds exploring the local library in the poor neighborhood contrast with those of kids reading at the many more media centers on the richer side of town. Those in the affluent centers spent three-quarters of the time with an adult who read to them whereas the kids in the poor neighborhood were on their own, flipping through materials with little guidance.
Neuman writes:
We need to tip the balance not by equalizing funding but by providing more resources and additional supports to students in poor neighborhoods. Not just extra funding, but additional human resources are needed.
On a final note, I'd like to call readers' attention to the short stories in print and online, called "Tell Me About …." Writing about their "firsthand experience with poverty," educators tell tale after tale about how they—through the power of education—pulled themselves up from poverty to embrace a profession where they can pay forward the help they received. The stories are heart-warming proof that for many in earlier generations, poverty was not destiny. The question is whether, in the future, we will be forced to say, "Poverty should not be destiny, but, unfortunately, statistics say it is."
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End Notes

1 Politizane. (2012, November). "Wealth Inequality in America." Retrieved from

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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