In the News: Foundational Study on Education Inequity Wraps Up

Children color in an elementary school classroom.
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In 1982, when Johns Hopkins sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle visited a first grade classroom in Baltimore, they were planning to collect data about how children adjust to their first year of school. Then they decided to extend their sampling period. Then they extended it again. Their study ended up running for twenty-five years and producing results that have changed the way we think about education and inequity.

In their longitudinal study of 790 subjects, Alexander and Entwisle found that social and socioeconomic signifiers like education, class, family status, and incarceration rate were persistent through generations. Middle-class parents were likely to “pass down” this status to their offspring, while children from low-income households were likely to stay there. Less than 11% of the first graders whom Alexander and Entwisle classified as “urban disadvantaged” escaped low-income status by age 28 while fewer still completed a college degree (4% of the disadvantaged group). Similarly, subjects who came from unstable homes were likely raise their own children in unstable environments.

Alexander and Entwisle’s work has informed a generation of researchers working on education inequality. To read more about their study, which officially closed earlier this year, see the Washington Post article, “What your 1st-grade life says about the rest of it.”