It’s a sad and intransigent truth that poor children don’t do as well in school as kids whose parents have money. During most of American history, few jobs required more than minimal education, and that fact didn’t cause much hand-wringing. But about 30 years ago, manufacturing jobs began to evaporate, median incomes stalled, and the expanding knowledge economy increased the number and type of cognitive skills needed for most middle-class jobs. Suddenly, the academic performance of low-income kids mattered a great deal. In an age when good jobs require advanced skills, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that education gaps are income gaps and income gaps are achievement gaps.
As dismay over economic inequality has grown, so has skepticism that culture has anything useful to tell us about how people do in school or in life. “Blaming poverty on the mysterious influence of ‘culture’ is a convenient excuse for doing nothing to address the problem,” Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Eugene Robinson has written. “If we had universal pre-kindergarten that fed all children into high-quality schools, if we had affordable higher education, if we incentivized industry to invest in troubled communities—if people had options for which they were prepared—culture would take care of itself.”
But skeptics like Robinson are missing something important. No one would argue that such things as hunger, homelessness, a mother’s job loss, a father’s imprisonment, and—sometimes forgotten in this familiar list—a parental breakup have no effect on a student’s ability to learn in school. It’s equally foolish to suggest that culture—the habits, meanings, and aspirations that parents bring to child-rearing—has no effect. America, with its diverse population, has had more than a century to learn this lesson. Now, with record immigration, Europe is learning it as well.