Opportunity and Education

"At virtually every level, education in America tends to perpetuate rather than compensate for existing inequalities."

Anyone who believes that opportunity — the ability of children to have a future that isn’t defined by their parents’ socio-economic position — is an important value should read Isabel Sawhill’s issue brief on Opportunity in America: The Role of Education.  The whole volume of The Future of Children on Opportunity is worth reading, but the issue brief is only 5 1/2 pages, so there’s no excuse for not reading it.

Sawhill begins by discussing how, contrary to the public image, the US does not have particularly more intergenerational mobility than other industrialized countries, and how such mobility is declining over time.  She notes that Americans are quite resistant to more progressive schemes of taxation and benefits, but — in theory — are highly supportive of the role of education in creating equality of opportunity.  And then she makes the statement I quoted above: "At virtually every level, education in America tends to perpetuate rather than compensate for existing inequalities." 

First, she argues that the K-12 system is generally weak, and "a society with a weak educational system will, by definition, be one in which the advantages of class or family background loom large."  Then she notes that because of the ways that public schools are funded, poor kids go to worse schools than well-off kids.  And finally, she notes that "access both to a quality preschool experience and to higher education continues to depend quite directly on family resources."

Sawhill goes on to mention some possible ways to address these deficiencies.  This part of the essay is not as convincing.  I’m not sure I think all of the proposals are good ideas, and I’m fairly confident that they don’t add up to enough to eliminate the systemic problems that Sawhill has identified.

But go read the brief, because the description of the problem is spot-on.  And then come back and we can discuss whether it’s possible to change any of this.

7 Responses to “Opportunity and Education”

  1. Jennifer (Penguin) Says:

    There is a quote in this week’s Economist magazine: ‘it is hard to say which throw more talent away – America’s dire public schools or Europe’s dire universities. Both suffer from too little competition and what George Bush has called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”‘.
    It’s interesting to read this article – we have similar issues here in Australia. Our education is funded at a state, not local level, but the proliferation of private schools, which all get some state funding, means we get very similar inequality issues anyway.
    But it’s become an article of faith, at least here in Australia, that education is a consumer good (so poor children get the minimum), so people forget that education is also an investment the whole country makes in its future.

  2. Maggie Says:

    The brief is excellent. There are so many things I’m thinking about, but because my comments are always too long anyway, I’ll just share this. One of the most formative moments I had in college (at Harvard) was in a sophomore Government seminar. Of the 15 or so kids in the class, three of us *weren’t* from affluent suburbs like Scarsdale NY, Potomac MD, Morristown NJ, or from schools like Choate/Exeter, et al. There was one boy from an Iowa farming family who had gone to the local public school, one girl from a local Boston family who had gone to Boston Latin (a competitive public school for 6th through 12th grade in Boston), and me. We were discussing the San Antonio School District case that went before the Supreme Court in the ’70s. If I’m remembering correctly, the Court denied the state the ability to shift some property tax revenues – an important elementary school funding source – from a more wealthy area to a poorer area, in order to provide “equality” of resources across elementary schools in the district. The three of us who weren’t from affluent areas – and who, ironically, had all along been among the more conservative viewpoints in the class – thought the Supreme Court got it all wrong, that if anything deserved “equal protection” it was elementary education. And, again ironically, all of the kids who had expressed more generally liberal viewpoints got very indignant at the idea of “their” parents’ money going to some other kid’s school. I even remember one girl saying “My dad worked really hard so that we could buy our house, so our property taxes shouldn’t go to some other school district.”
    I’m sure I’ve shed many memories from back when I was 18, but boy oh boy, do I remember that session vividly.

  3. jen Says:

    I wonder what would happen if we were finally able to offer universal health care in the US? By taking a proportionally-to-income large expense off the shoulders of poor parents, would it leave them with more resources to devote to education?
    I’ve also wondered for some time what would happen to American employment patterns if health insurance were no longer tied to full-time work. I personally know at least half a dozen people — parents and non-parents — who would quit their jobs instantly if health insurance were not a worry. And I wonder if some of these former full-timers could pursue a goal of working in education, if they didn’t sense the health care wolf at the door? Not to imply that teachers don’t get health insurance, but in many cases I think their pay is low enough to make the high co-pays a problem.

  4. jackie Says:

    This issue is on my mind constantly, as I prepare to take a temporary job at one of the most elite private schools in our area, one I don’t think we could afford to send our girls to even if I worked there full-time.
    Can’t wait to read the brief, and see how this discussion plays out.

  5. dave s Says:

    Princeton (the town) is a very high-spending school district, and has been trying very hard to get good outcomes for those of its students from poorer families. NYTimes recently reported this is a miserable failure, and after years of effort. Whatever is going wrong is well before kindergarten. In my own community (Arlington VA) we spend $19000 per student per year, and we regularly have the superintendant reporting wide disparities in educational outcome based on class and race, and promising to fix it next year.
    Sawhill’s notion that we can do important things to level society by improving (at least, by providing more resources within the current practices) k-12, then, seems at least not guaranteed, and maybe not the way to go. High quality day care? Maybe. Intervene into toxic family practices and situations? Wow, I can see the storms rising on that one! The calmest voices would be talking about ‘blaming the victim’, the less calm would be storming the Bastille.
    And I see enough immigrants coming into the country with bupkis and their children making it into the elites that I believe the opportunity is there, and that there are other factors holding back those who start in, and stay in, the bottom quintile. Do I know what to do? No, but I think neither does Sawhill.
    My own success, such as it is, is pretty clearly rooted in the dour Presbyterianism of my grandmother (“You NEVER spend your capitol”) and habits of thrift in my parents and self – not really things you can inculcate in Kindergarten, I think, they need to come at the hearth.

  6. Anne Says:

    Excellent brief and lots to chew on. Two issues that I feel were not addressed there, and have been skirted around in other similar discussions (all really about the disappearance of the upwardly mobile middle class):
    – Our society increasingly places less importance on smart financial decisions and just plain old saving a buck. A large segment of generation X and Y seems to believe that they should be starting life out at the same comfortable level their upper middle class parents currently have. Thus the McMansions financed with interest-only loans, leased luxury cars, incredible credit card debts, all hurting their ability to truly achieve financial security in the long run.
    – The working middle class is what, it seems to me, is really disappearing. Anecdotally, neither of my parents went to college (their working class parents couldn’t afford it); my father is an electrician who worked his way up and eventually bought the business he was working for. My mother, a secretary, decided to do the stay at home mom thing after working 6 years. She never went back. And while there were lean times, they really succeeded. My mother has never had to go back to work; they built a house in a good suburban school district (which they still live in); they put two kids through college (with the help of federal financial aid and a second mortgage); and now they are comfortably middle class. I don’t think you could possibly repeat the same scenario in this day and age.

  7. Julie Says:

    Maggie, I wish I had been in that class with you! (Of course, I didn’t make it to Harvard until I had several years of work experience and could pay the bill.) I’m the daughter of a farmer with no higher education and a bookkeeper with two Associates degrees, both of whom went on a couple of hours of sleep for weeks every year during harvest time. I would have had a few choice words for the woman who talked about how hard her father worked to earn his suburban house and I would have been right there with you arguing for the shifting of funds. Now that I have money of my own (thanks to the upward mobility that came from equal parts good genetics for intelligence and access to a good public education and great public state university), I wish that my money could be shifted to the school districts where it is really needed.

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