Is education still the great equalizer?

Education isn’t the great equalizer any more, concludes Reuters, which follows two students in different Massachusetts towns. The middle-class girl made it into Harvard. The working-class boy dropped out of a state university and hopes to get into the Air Force.

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  1. Barry Garelick says:

    Kitchen Table Math addresses this as well: http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com/2012/12/something-happened.html

    Goldin and Katz’s book “The Race between Education and Technology” addresses this. In it, they find the schools somewhat abruptly ceasing to function as producers of greater equality via educational attainment in the early 1980s.

    • American schools’ content-poor curricula don’t give poor kids the intellectual capital they need in college. They may graduate HS, but sadly that doesn’t mean they’ve learned much. Until we grasp that the ed schools have been selling us pedagogical snake oil (e.g. “reading ability is a skill”, “critical thinking can be taught in lieu of facts”, “the banking model of education has been discredited”, “teachers should not be the sage on the stage”, “positive consequences work; discipline doesn’t”) poor kids will continue to be ripped off.

      • Ponderosa, actually, if you google “Marty Nemko – College is a Ripoff’ and John Stossel – Stupid in America, you’ll find what the issue really is. It isn’t about being an equalizer, but rather filling students heads with a bunch of nonsense about how everyone needs to go to college to succeed, but in reality many students wind up piling up tons of debt, which can’t be discharged in a bankruptcy, and not finishing a credential or degree due to poor academic skills.

        • And if you want to find a poster child for the case that going to college won’t make you a good thinker, the John Stossel recommendation becomes a “twofer”.

      • Yes, absolutely. Also, because of all the “pedagogical snake oil” (don’t forget to include discovery learning and groupwork), the term “afterschooling” has been coined; parents, tutors, Kumon etc. now provide the explicit instruction that was formerly provided by teachers. Since homework merely reinforced what had been taught and practiced in school, kids were able to do it without outside help. This is no longer true; schools have outsourced real instruction to parents, while school time is wasted on useless activities. Those kids with parents who do not realize this, are not able to provide remediation or don’t care, don’t learn and keep falling further behind.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Yes, but why is it content free? The weak content in public education is a feature not a bug. Weak content allows us to mask – as much as we can – unequal outcome. Of course we end up ripping off those that most need the content.

  2. Weston isn’t a middle-class community. Weston’s _per capita_ income is almost twice Gardner’s _household_ income.

    The Atlantic article is better than the Reuters video: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/12/the-decline-of-the-great-equalizer/266455/.

    • The Atlantic article does give more detail. Curtis should have been eligible for a Pell grant, which would have brought his annual expense down to about $5000, an amount that most engineering students should not be afraid to borrow. But really, the aricle is more an argument for compressing the income scale in the US than it is for educational reform. If income inequality is growing despite higher levels of education in the lower three income quintiles, that’s evidence that education is not the vehicle for more equal incomes — something else must be.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “But really, the aricle is more an argument for compressing the income scale in the US than it is for educational reform.”

        We could raise taxes on high income folks, but that doesn’t seem fair to those who work hard.

        Maybe we could apply a surtax to people who work as doctors, lawyers, and engineers (I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few fields)?

  3. Yes, the Goldin and Katz book presents a very compelling case, with supporting data, but the authors do not suggest what the causative factors may have been. Poor curricula and “ed school follies” considerably pre-date this apparent sea-change (although they may of course be components of an explanation), so they don’t adequately account for it. We had weak content, discovery learning, “new math,” writer’/readers’ workshop and “learn toi read by reading” back in the 80′s.

    The picture is further clouded by the fact that other countries, with equally fuzzy curricula and loosey-goosey teacher training — Australia and Canada come to mind, though there are others besides — have not seen this development despite having greatly increased their population diversity over the last few decades.

    The incredible financial cost of post-secondary in the U.S. may also be a factor. Fees in Australia and Canada are 1/2 to 1/4 what they are in most U.S. institutions.

    One does wonder, reading Goldin and Katz, just what changed in the 1980′s? It wasn’t curricula or teacher-training, particularly. Various fads have come and gone, but the generally low quality of public schools serving low-income students was similar then — and before then. Project Follow Through was originally intended to address this, but produced counter-intuitive results that failed to alter the existing memes.

    • My older kids were in ES in the 80s and those factors you identified were not pervasive. In theory, some of the bad practices existed in my kids’ ES but most of the teachers were of an age when teaching was one of a few acceptable options for women and they valued content and traditional teaching. They also tended to use older texts and other books, which had better language and vocab, even though newer materials were available. Because parents were happy with that approach, admin really didn’t push the latest fads much. Those teachers would have started retiring in the 80s. That may be part of the equation. BTW, as far as Canada is concerned, I seem to remember reading that immigration priorities have been focused on education and skills for at least a decade or two – I don’t know about Australia. If this is true, it would make a big difference, since so many of American immigrants (legal and illegal) have little of either.

  4. What changed in the 1980′s was the Plyler decision by the USSC (5-4) which ruled that every person aged 18 or under is ENTITLED to a public education, regardless if they’re here legally or not.

    IMO, it is one of the worst decisions to come out of the Supreme Court in the last 30 years, and has had devastating impact on the public school system for the last 30 years.

    No other country in the world would provide a public education to a person who isn’t a citizen or lawful resident of that country, but the U.S. of A. does…kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

  5. North of 49th says:

    I can correct some of the perceptions about Canada.

    Contrary to Bill’s belief that “No other country in the world would provide a public education to a person who isn’t a citizen or lawful resident of that country, but the U.S. of A. does…” the Canadian province of Ontario, and possibly other provinces as well, does exactly that. From this source: http://faab.edu.gov.on.ca/QsandAsImmigration.htm
    the relevant section reads: “Under Subsection 30(2) of IRPA, ‘Every minor child in Canada, other than a child of a temporary resident not authorized to work or study, is authorized to study at the pre-school, primary, or secondary level.’
    This is consistent with Section 49.1 of the Education Actwhich provides that “a person who is otherwise entitled to be admitted to a school and who is less than 18 years of age, shall not be refused admission because the person or the person’s parent or guardian is unlawfully in Canada.”

    Now, as to momof4′s points: it is true that certain categories of immigrant favour skilled workers of various kinds or people with particular education backgrounds. However, Canada on a per capita basis accepts *far* more refugees than the U.S. (or any other G7 country), and the great majority of these refugees are *not* well-educated or highly skilled. The last three schools I’ve worked in have been largely visible-minority refugee populations (many from east Africa, central America, Afghanistan, etc.) The families of the students are very supportive of education but often did not have a chance to attend school themselves. This is particularly true of the females.

    Nevertheless, our refugee children do well academically over time and end up achieving equal or superior academic outcomes compared to native-born Canadians. We have been able to track our students’ progress since a tracking number process began in the 1990′s and have seen the achievement of poor and minority kids steadily increasing. Our system seems to be more forgiving for late bloomers: children who start out poorly and do not do well in the primary grades often gain steadily through the upper elementary years and blossom in high school. Tracking, as you call it, was largely abandoned here in the late 90′s.

    Canada ranks up there with Finland, Denmark and Norway in terms of intergenerational social mobility, and far ahead of the U.S. or U.K.; education doubtless plays a large role. Post-secondary education is much more affordable than in the U.S., and we don’t have the “slum” schools that I have seen and heard about in urban U.S. milieux. Our teachers, even in elementary, come from the top 20% of their university graduating class — they have to graduate with a degree in a subject, not “education” — and competition for jobs is pretty fierce.

    Some of these factors definitely matter but it’s hard to know which ones.

    • Thanks for the information. Perhaps your ES teachers, due to the nature of their university background, are more academically inclined, as well as having more academic knowledge? Do ES students have different teachers for different subjects? El ed programs here can be weak to the point of ridiculous – one relative actually took Beanbag I and Beanbag II; developing games with beanbags. Her master’s thesis (most kids took the non-thesis option) would have been barely sufficient at my kids’ MS science fair.