Can schools raise social mobility?

Can schools spur social mobility? asks Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

No way, says Charles Murray, who visited Fordham to promote his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray sees a growing division between well-educated elites, who marry college classmates, and a semi-educated class who are less likely to marry at all.

New York Times columnist David Brooks worries about “the opportunity gap.” College-educated parents spend more time with their children — “reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines” — than working-class parents. Affluent kids are more active in sports, theater, yearbook, scouting, etc. They’re more likely to go to church and to volunteer. It all adds up.

What to do? asks Petrilli

Our argument, as it goes, is that we’ve never really tried. Because of low expectations, mediocre teachers, a lack of options, ill-designed curricula—name your poison—poor kids have never had a chance to see their talents flourish. Put them into the right educational environment, surround them with supportive adults, and (if you’re of the broader/bolder persuasion) provide them with all kinds of social supports too, and we’ll see our elite college campuses—gateways to the new Upper Class—democratize before our eyes.

But academic ability isn’t evenly distributed. Whether by nature or nurture, successful parents are raising successful children.

“We’ve gotten really, really good” at identifying talented children from low-income and working-class communities and providing scholarships to good colleges, Murray says. Petrilli thinks online learning could provide more access, but there are limits to how many diamonds will be found in the rough.

 The second strategy is to be more realistic about the kind of social mobility we hope to spur. Getting a big chunk of America’s poor kids into the New Elite in one generation might be a fool’s errand—our meritocracy has put them at too great a disadvantage. But getting them into working -class or middle-class jobs isn’t so impossible. Here’s a question for the KIPPs and YES Preps of the world: Would you be happy if, ten years from now, your middle schoolers were working as cops, firefighters, teachers, plumbers, electricians, and nurses? This would be a huge accomplishment, it seems to me, as most poor kids will go on to work in low-paid service jobs a decade hence.

Rewarding people based on “real merit” — skills and performance — rather than credentials — SATs and degrees — would mean less social equality, writes Mickey Kaus. “Web-schooled winners” who rise without a university degree are likely to be smart people who have smart children who do well in school and out. “The social centrifuge separating the meritorious from the less meritorious won’t have stopped spinning. In some ways it will be spinning faster, with greater precision. Sorry.”


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  1. This line from Brooks is an interesting new variation on false equivalence:

    “Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.”

    … Tax increases and benefit cuts (to the privileged) are obvious responses to many social ills and are constantly discussed; conservatives put up constant resistance. They certainly could be implemented if the resistance vanished. So Brooks urges conservatives to stop opposing a concrete policy change.

    By contrast, what Brooks asks liberals to do is simply change our attitudes, with the vague implication that the behavior of other people would change if our attitudes changed. Also, in my view (and I’ll bet it’s backed up by data), conservatives in the demographics that are likely to become unwed parents are just as likely as liberals in those demographics to do so. I would bet that among low-income white unwed parents, far more identify as conservative than liberal.

  2. Petrilli, the progressive education reformer. Murray, the conservative intellectual. And Brooks, the Neocon columnist all miss the point. Even though they all come from different points of the political spectrum, they all largely agree on the innate intellectual superiority of those in the upper classes. (Most likely because they all represent that class).

    Petrilli believes that the diamonds we can find in the roughs of inner cities are few and far between. His call for online learning and his disparaging of teachers point to a program of massive disinvestment from the educations of poor children. For him, We merely should bring the meritocracy to these areas in an efficient way and get the small percentage of truly bright poor people into the Ivy Leagues.

    As for the rest, he sees a future for them as workers in middle-class vocations. This is not a bad idea at all, yet neither he nor most education reformers have called for vocational education for poor children. So, I suppose those poor children will just have to find their way to those jobs on their own, or through online classes, as if one can learn plumbing, nursing or teaching online.

    This debate highlights the true nature of education reform. A bunch of elites who debate each other on what kind of education poor people should receive. They always exalt people of their own class, put down teachers and totally discount structural problems in society like poverty and crime. With these people considered the best and brightest education policy wonks we have to offer, our school system is in trouble.

    They should stick to Sunday golf and patting themselves on their collective backs on how enlightened and humane they are. Compulsory education and socioeconomic analysis are not for them. Murray is essentially the new millennium’s apologist for Eugenics. Petrilli is too intellectually flaccid and unimaginative to disagree with Murray and his assumptions.

    An interesting article on this is here:

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “…they all largely agree on the innate intellectual superiority of those in the upper classes…”

      If you read Murray, you’ll find that his claim is that this was *NOT* true in the past.

      He argues that because:
          (a) we have been trying to be meritocratic for a while, and
          (b) it has been working!, and
          (c) parents tend to pass on (though not 100%) traits to their kids (e.g. smarts and hard working),

      there aren’t as many diamonds-in-the-rough to be found amongst the poorer classes of society as their used to be.

      There is nothing innate about this … it is that as a society we have been driving the smarter folks to college much better than we did 50 or 100 years ago.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        What Mark Roulo said. But it’s important to realize that genes are not the only way parents pass on advantages. Higher income parents read to their kids more, talk to their kids more, are more likely to take them to libraries and museums, and to enroll them in activities that increase their chances of doing well in school. They also pass along a greater future-orientation, a willingness to give up something that would be pleasant now in order to get a better something down the road.

        Unless we prohibit parents from doing these things, it is inevitable that lower income kids will (on average) do less well in school.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          “But it’s important to realize that genes are not the only way parents pass on advantages.”

          Yep. And Murray covers this, too (although it *does* tend to get left out of many discussions).

          From the article:

          “Murray said at our event that it ‘doesn’t matter’ whether these gifts are bequeathed by nature or nurture. What matters is the strong link between the talents of parents and the talents of their offspring.”

          If the issue is genetics, then there isn’t much we can do.

          If the issue is environment, then I see only two choices:
          (a) Somehow get the poor kids into an environment (INCLUDING HOME LIFE) that is roughly equivalent to the one that the wealthy kids grow up in, or
          (b) Wreck the environment for the wealthy kids so that it is roughly equivalent to that of the poor kids.

          Even “evening out” the school environment won’t be enough (though it would help if lousy schools are the problem) because the wealthy kids have a much richer home environment.

          So, what to do?

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    Arnie, are you really saying that “book smarts”–the ability to do well in an academic setting–is evenly distributed between income classes? It’s a pleasant thought, like thinking that men don’t care how a woman looks. However, I fear that both thoughts are false.

    Fortunately, book smarts don’t matter that much for a lot of socially useful things.

  4. Walter E. Wallis says:

    How about kinesthetic [?] smarts? You better hope the carpenter you hire, at a rate equal or better than you, has that kind of smarts. And the crane operator, the bulldozer driver, etc. I do the intellectual work for sheet metal workers, electricians and plumbers, but I consider my skills not better, just different. The journeyman certificate in any trade is the equal of most bachelor’s degrees and better than some.

  5. I public schools don’t have a responsiblity to teach reading why is the question of a responsibilty to ensure social mobility even being raised?

  6. Schools can contribute to social mobility, by exposing kids to the skills they need to improve themselves economically, and coaching them in those skills if they’ll accept the coaching. But they only contribute; other factors are in play as well. And historically, even when there was much less economic inequality in our country, the kids who went from the bottom to the top were outliers. Much more common is mobility from one quintile to the adjoining one (and this is true for downward mobility as well). We should be concentrating on helping large numbers of kids to economically better themselves rather than believing that large numbers will make it to the very top of the heap.

  7. North of 49th says:

    I read Murray’s book, which certainly paints a gloomy picture of the prospects for the U.S. However, his contention that education can’t make any difference in social mobility is undermined by his obvious unfamiliarity with elementary education in particular, and how vastly disparate the quality of early schooling is across the U.S.

    If education can make no difference, then it’s hard to explain why results are so different in Canada. Joanne posted earlier on about the fact == true for decades now — that immigrants in Canada perform at or above the level of native-born Canadians in school. I wanted to reply to that one but was too busy with end-of-year business; she postulated it might be because of “Asian” immigration. Well, Asians are certainly among our immigrant population but until the last 20 years or so they have not been a huge component. Earlier groups included southern Europeans, people from the Balkans, Caribbean, Central and South America, then Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Russia. East Asians have tended to settle in particular areas (Greater Vancouver, York Region in Ontario). They don’t account for the success of immigrant groups as a whole.

    My district is more than 50% immigrant and my own school about 85%, with more than 90% being visible minorities. Despite the fact that many come from cultures or backgrounds where families had little education — Somalia, Afghanistan, rural Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, El Salvador, Guyana — the children do well in school overall. Many are refugees, so not coming from advantaged backgrounds. Since they initiated student tracking numbers, we get feedback on how well our students do in secondary school and beyond, even if they move our of the area. A high number go to university, often on scholarships, and they are more likely to complete a degree program than other Canadian kids. I attribute some of this to family culture and high expectations. Clearly they are not all high-IQ prodigies, but hard work and good teaching do make a difference. Social mobility in Canada is much higher than in the US. This works both ways — children born to upper-class families are no more likely to remain in that social niche than welfare kids are to remain in theirs.

    I’m not sure what makes the difference, since curricula, testing and so forth are very similar. I do think perhaps some of the “Finland factors” apply: standards for entering teaching, especially at the elementary level, are much higher here than in most of the U.S.; there’s a much more positive school climate (Richard Elmore remarked on this) and a culture of volunteerism: teachers do a lot of extra activities, tutoring etc. at no remuneration, whereas I understand teacher in the U.S. are paid extra for coaching and other extra-curriculars.

    You get the usual teacher-bashers here as well, but nothing like what I read on U.S. sites — in general, teachers and schools are held in higher regard. I have yet to meet a parent who wants charters or vouchers or “Parent Triggers.” Private schooling and homeschooling are much less popular than in the U.S.

    Whatever, it does suggest that the USA could also do better by its poor kids — of course Murray could, and probably would, argue that you have a different gene pool in the “poor” classes than we do. But improving elementary education is certainly worth a try, no?

    From the report:

    Education policies play a key role in explaining observed differences in intergenerational social mobility across countries. For example, higher enrolment in early childhood education is associated with a lower influence of parental background on students’ achievement in secondary education. By contrast, school practices that group students into different curricula at early ages come with less social mobility in achievement.

    We start K for children turning 4 by Dec. 31 of the year they enter; this probably makes a difference too. We don’t do any tracking in the elementary grades, either, in my experience anyway.