And the rich get richer and….

I met a California couple a few weeks ago who spoke to their two children, ages 3 and 6, in English and Chinese. Their careers took them to China, so they learned Chinese and wanted their children to learn it, too. The children attend a Chinese-immersion pre-school, study violin and play chess.

These parents illustrate the increased time, energy and money wealthy Americas are willing to devote to their children’s early intellectual development. And it’s paying off and widening the achievement gap, not only between rich and poor kids, but between rich and middle-class students.

Stanford’s Sean F. Reardon has studied the relationship between academic achievement and family income over the last 50 years. He found an increased link between family income and children’s academic achievement for families above the median income level, writing in his study, “A given difference in family incomes now corresponds to a 30 to 60 percent larger difference in achievement than it did for children born in the 1970s. …

“The income achievement gap does not appear to be a result of a growing achievement gap between children with highly educated and less-educated parents. In fact, the relationship between parental education and children’s achievement has remained relatively stable during the last 50 years, while the relationship between income and achievement has grown sharply. Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement.”

Writing more conversationally in The New York Times, Reardon explained, “Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich.”

A few days ago, an unlikely source sounded an alarm about deepening income and education disparity in the United States — Standard and Poor’s. In a report, the financial analysis firm warned: “At extreme levels, income inequality can harm sustained economic growth over long periods. The U.S. is approaching that threshold. With wages of a college graduate double that of a high school graduate, increasing educational attainment is an effective way to bring income inequality back to healthy levels.”

Many people blame schools for the widening achievement gap, but Reardon points out the average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been rising. Schools actually narrow the achievement gap; it’s what affluent children get before they start school that gives them significant academic advantages over the children of the middle class and the poor.

A study of spending patterns in the U.S showed that while richer parents spent five times as much per child as low-income counterparts 35 years ago, that spending divide is now nine to one. Prior to the 1990s, parents spent most on early teens and teenagers. Now, spending is highest on preschoolers and 20-somethings.

This generation of parents is convinced its children need superior education skills to succeed and is wasting no time cultivating those talents. Anyone who thinks today’s upper-income parents ignore their children hasn’t been around young couples; they dote on their children and their milestones.

We can’t provide all 3-year-olds with successful parents willing to invest in a $20,000-a-year preschool, private violin lessons and a language tutor. The issue isn’t whether rich parents can shower their children with robotics classes and Chinese immersion class. Of course they can.

But we may be able to learn something about how intense early childhood education and enrichment can bolster learning skills. It’s clearly working for wealthy kids. Why not for all kids?