Enrichment Spending and Inequality

August 15, 2013

NYT(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The New York Times published the above chart last December here’s a link if you would like a better look. It basically shows that both college attendance and completion and private enrichment spending have been increasing at a much faster rate among wealthier students.

I find the enrichment spending trend particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. First, like Collin’s grit measure, it seems like an example of something that has been lurking in the error term of our limited understanding of K-12 trends.  I’m not sure how the authors define “enrichment spending” but $8,900 per year for well-to-do kids is striking.  How much does this matter? I’m not sure but I think it ought to be rigorously researched. It could matter quite a bit.

Four states have average family incomes for a family of four above six figures and one cannot help but wonder how much more this trend influences academic trends than in other states. Washington DC has been gentrifying strongly and has also had a large increase in the economic achievement gap despite large gains for low-income kids.  Could this trend be partially explained by this phenomenon?

What, if anything, is to be done about this? A vast increase in K-12 spending aimed at the cultural enrichment of poor children is not in the cards given the rotten state of state and federal finances, and it is just as well given the fact that the relationship between spending and outcomes is already hazy to say the least in the public school system. Just as a reminder, in the insightful words of Paul Hill:

Money is used so loosely in public education – in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning – that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough. Accounting systems make it impossible to track how much is spent on a particular child or school, and hide the costs of programs and teacher contracts. Districts can’t choose the most cost-effective programs because they lack evidence on costs and results.

The country is broke and even if we did raise taxes to punishing levels to fund this stuff no one should feel the least bit confident that enrichment spending would actually work if funnelled through the existing system. Jay’s idea about supplementing private summer camp attendance might be a better idea but again public finances are a total mess. This is currently in the private realm and it is necessary to keep it that way.

This would seem to leave us with at least few possibilities. Better use of technology may enhance the efforts of both public and private enrichment efforts. Khan Academy is doubtlessly one of the most powerful remedial education tools ever developed. It is free of charge and has branched out into the fine arts, and it is hardly alone. Sandra Day O’Connor has an online civics project for instance but I suspect that these efforts will require some concerted effort to realise their full potential. Putting them up online is a first crucial step, but one cannot help but to fear that their impact might be reminiscent of public libraries absent a sustained effort to get children to use them.

Fareed Zakaria summarizes the current debate on inequality, social mobility and schooling, but misses the crucial point.  The problem isn’t that we spend so little on the schooling of poor children but rather that we get so little for the massive amounts spent. American Black and Hispanic students score closer to the average score in Mexico (a nation that spends a fraction of what we do per pupil and which suffers from a much greater poverty problem) than to top performing scores. Using various policy mechanisms to increase ROI for K-12 spending runs you straight into reactionary resistance but it easily represents the most promising avenue for improving the prospects for disadvantaged children.

Oh, and by the way, as the New York Daily News kindly points out it does work.