Inequality starts young: education opportunities for 3-year-olds

A new book by education scholars highlights the differences in what 3-year-olds are doing with their days:

Only 55 percent of America’s 3 and 4-year-olds attend a formal preschool, a rate far below China, Germany and other power players on the global stage…

Parents who can’t afford preschool typically leave their kids with a grandparent or someone nearby. Some of these informal child-care providers do offer rigorous educational activities, but others just leave kids in front of the television. The quality is more haphazard, and there’s a higher risk the option won’t work out. The book chronicles the awful experience of one low-income family in New York City that had to make 25 different child-care arrangements for their daughter by her fifth birthday.

The inequality that begins before kindergarten lasts a lifetime. Children who don’t get formal schooling until kindergarten start off a year behind in math and verbal skills and they never catch up, according to the authors, who cite a growing body of research that’s been following children since the 1940s. In fact, the gap between rich and poor kids’ math and reading skills has been growing since the 1970s. The “left behind” kids are also more likely to end up in lower-paying jobs…

Many of these initiatives have support across the political spectrum. President Trump’s first budget includes a proposal to start America’s first paid parental leave program. On the campaign trail, Trump also pushed the idea of expanding the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to help make it more affordable for families to put their kids in quality preschool and childcare programs.

This would be a good example of how the Matthew Effect begins: small differences in younger ages lead to divergent outcomes and larger gaps later in life.

Bipartisan support for something? Better capitalize on this before polarization sets in.

“The digital divide has been replaced by a gap in digital readiness”

Having access to technology isn’t necessarily the same as knowing what it can do or feeling comfortable with it, as a new study suggests:

A new survey suggests that the digital divide has been replaced by a gap in digital readiness. It found that nearly 30% of Americans either aren’t digitally literate or don’t trust the Internet. That subgroup tended to be less educated, poorer, and older than the average American.

In contrast, says Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who was not involved in the study, those with essential Web skills “tend to be the more privileged. And so the overall story … is that it’s the people who are already privileged who are reaping the benefits here.”

The study was conducted by John Horrigan, an independent researcher, and released 17 June at an event sponsored by the Washington, D.C.–based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Funded by the Joyce Foundation, the study of 1600 adults measured their grasp of terms like “cookie” and “Wi-Fi.” It asked them to rate how confident they were about using a desktop or laptop or a smart phone to find information, as well as how comfortable they felt about using a computer. Of those who scored low in these areas, about half were not Internet users.

Horrigan believes that policymakers have ignored the problem of digital readiness while concentrating on providing people with access to the Internet and the necessary hardware. Relatively little attention has been paid to teaching people the necessary skills to take advantage of online classes and job searches, he maintains.

It can take quite a while to feel comfortable with new technology, particularly for those not immersed in it. The problem may be compounded by the relative speed of new technologies and their increasingly fast spread throughout the population.

It would be interesting to then see the differences in productivity, comfort, and acquisition of information (or whatever other metric you want to use to measure technology use) among different groups. Imagine we measured improved efficiency in life from using new technology amongst three groups: power users, average users, and non- or limited-users. I imagine we would get a classic Matthew Effect graph where the power users would be able to expand their initial advantages at a higher rate than others.

Bad logic: stories of successful college dropouts obscure advantages of going to college

The president of the University of Chicago writes that holding up successful college dropouts as models takes away attention from the advantages of a college degree:

Names like Jobs, Gates, Dell, and others lend star power to the myth of the wildly successful college dropout. One recent New York Times homage to the phenomenon compared dropping out to “lighting out for the territories to strike gold,” with one young executive describing it as “almost a badge of honor” among startup entrepreneurs. Like any myth, this story has a kernel of truth: There are exceptional individuals whose hard work, determination, and intelligence make up for the lack of a college degree. If they could do it, one might think, why can’t everybody?

Such a question ignores the outlier status of these exceptional drop-out entrepreneurs and innovators.

Those who are able to achieve such success often rely on a set of skills already developed before they get to college. They know how to educate themselves, get a bank loan, and manage their time and their money. They may benefit from a network of family, friends and acquaintances who open doors and provide a safety net.

But what happens to young people without access to these important resources? For them, skipping college to pursue business success is like investing their savings in lottery tickets in the hopes they will be a multimillion-dollar winner, or failing to pursue an education because they expect to be an NBA superstar. The reality is that the next college dropout will not be LeBron James, James Cameron, or Mark Zuckerberg. He will likely belong to the millions of college drop-outs you don’t hear the press singing about. These are the 34 million Americans over 25 with some college credits but no diploma. Nearly as large as the state of California, this group is 71 percent more likely to be unemployed and four times more likely to default on student loans. Far from being millionaires, they earn 32 percent less than college graduates, on average.

I’ve seen this logic used in arguments about not having to spend lots of money on college or from those who see college as liberal indoctrination. As Zimmer argues, using outliers to build a theory is just not a good idea. These famous cases are held up partly because they are so rare, not because this is necessarily a good path to pursue. This is similar to the logic used in holding up rages to riches stories; while it is true that social mobility, upward and downward, occurs in the United States, a phenomenal change in position over one lifetime is more rare.

I’ve used this very example with my Introduction to Sociology class when talking about why people go to college. I ask them if they are aware of wealthy college dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They say yes. I then ask if they dropped out of college, would their parents accept these stories as good rationale? They answer no. I then tell them a little of the Bill Gates story as relayed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Gates attended a pretty good high school that through one student’s parent who worked for a computer company was able to purchase a used mainframe computer. Gates then had a rare opportunity at the time for a high school student to spend hours with the mainframe and learn about it. He was then able to build on this background and later founded Microsoft with Paul Allen. Gladwell uses this as an example of the Matthew effect where those who come from more advantaged backgrounds (or who happened to be the oldest hockey players) tend to get more opportunities later in life.

Aren’t the Olympics the domain of well-funded athletes from wealthier countries?

While watching some events from the Olympics, I was struck by how much training must go into this. But this endless training reminded me of what Malcolm Gladwell discusses in Outliers: only a small number of people get the advantages that allow them to have all of this training. In other words, you are more likely to experience the “Matthew effect” if your parents, social network, or country has the resources to allow you to do all of this training. This doesn’t mean that these competitors aren’t skilled but it is not like all of the world’s population has an equal opportunity to take the path toward the Olympics. (Of course, not everyone would want to, either.)

I’m sure someone has already had this idea but what about some sort of “everyman Olympics”?

Quick Review: The Matthew Effect

Sociologist Daniel Rigney tackles the “Matthew Effect” in a book published earlier in 2010. The “Matthew effect” refers to a situation where those with more get even more and those with less continue to get less so that there is a growing gap. The effect is captured in the phrase “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”

The “Matthew effect” was coined by famous sociologist Robert Merton and refers to a Biblical saying of Jesus (Matthew 13:12): “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

My quick thoughts:

1. The book is a quick overview of the “Matthew effect” within different fields like science, technology, and politics. The book is not very deep and the examples are not fully explored. The primary goal seems to be to argue that Matthew effects are found throughout human activity.

2. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell tackles the same subject. Gladwell’s book is mentioned by Rigney and I wish Rigney added more sociological insights as Gladwell already provided a good overview.

3. The implications section (Chapter 6) raises some interesting questions but does not provide a sufficient discussion. An intriguing question: is the Matthew effect a law or a social construction?

4. Overall: I found some good examples of how social inequality develops to use with future classes. Beyond that, the book is simplistic and would benefit from deeper discussions regarding specific Matthew effects and their implications.