Public education was originally designed to be a great equalizer in American society, redistributing opportunities to children from less advantageous backgrounds and thus increasing social mobility. From the Common School movement of the 1840s to the GI Bill of the 1940s, reformers sought to level the playing field, enhance economic productivity, and strengthen democratic citizenship by making education available on a mass scale. Despite these hopeful beginnings, recent evidence suggests that schools may no longer be narrowing the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
Over the past two generations, the difference in educational achievement between the children from poor families and that of children from wealthy families has grown substantially. Whether we look at standardized test scores, college admission, or college graduation, the achievement gaps between children from upper-middle-class families and children from working-class families are steadily increasing. Today, the income gap in test scores is 40 percent larger than it was three decades ago (Reardon 2011). For high-income students, the college graduation rate increased by 18 percentage points over the past two decades; in contrast, the graduation rate of low-income students grew by only 4 percentage points (Bailey and Dynarski 2011). Moreover, wealthy students make up an increasing share of the enrollment at the most selective and prestigious four-year institutions (Reardon, Baker, and Klasik 2012), while low-income students with similar test scores and academic records are more likely to attend two-year colleges (Alon 2009; Hoxby and Avery 2012).
Discussions and debates about the state of education in America often focus on standardized test scores and “core competencies,” but a great deal of evidence suggests that it is not only what happens inside the classroom that matters for children’s outcomes. That is, participation in extracurricular activities (e.g., chess club, yearbook, soccer) has been shown to be no less important than test scores for predicting educational attainment and accumulated earnings 10 years later (Lleras 2008). Simply put, participation in extracurricular activities is closely correlated with children’s futures
Activities, such as chess clubs, yearbook committees, and soccer teams, promote important noncognitive skills—in particular, teamwork, “grit,” and leadership—that are associated with educational attainment and higher returns in the labor market (Kuhn and Weinberger 2005; Cunha, Heckman, and Schennach 2010; Borghans, Ter Weel, and Weinberg 2014). Moreover, participation in activities has become an important proxy for qualities that are hard to measure, such as ambition and curiosity. Colleges seek to admit students who not only test well but who also exhibit a diversity of interests and willingness to learn new things. Being part of the synchronized swimming team and playing a friction harp reflect a diversity of interests and thus are rewarded by university admissions officers. Playing lacrosse or squash is indicative also of cultural capital, because it signals that a student will fit well at an elite institution (Rivera 2012).
In theory, public schools provide equal opportunities for civic engagement and character building for all children in the form of extracurricular activities. In reality, participation in these voluntary activities varies widely across social class. Children from upper-middle-class families are much more likely to join school clubs and sports teams than their working-class peers (Beck and Jennings 1982; Marsh 1992; Marsh and Kleitman 2002). It is troubling but hardly surprising that students from wealthy families are more likely than other students to participate in organized activities. However, it is alarming that this class gap in civic and social engagement has grown over the past two decades.
Examining the differences among high school students with respect to extracurricular activities offers a glimpse of tomorrow’s socioeconomic and civic landscape. Given that these factors predict important outcomes—including educational attainment and civic and political participation later in life—the consequence of the current gaps might be an even more polarized and unequal society than we have now, where children from upper-middle-class families become more socially and civically engaged while working-class children become more disconnected and disengaged (Silva 2013; Wright 2014). Furthermore, if class increasingly predicts participation in activities that in turn predict educational attainment and future income, in effect we may be witnessing a vicious cycle that shapes patterns of intergenerational mobility.