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The Myth of Education as the 'Great Equalizer'

We Americans have long liked to think of ourselves as born into a classless society, a place in which the best jobs, the highest incomes and the upper reaches of social status are reached not by being born into the right family, but by merit.  We believe that our schools make it possible for low status, poor and minority people with smarts, drive and ambition to ascend to the top.  But what if this is increasingly a myth?  What if our education system now serves mainly those already at the top, enabling their children to get the greatest possible advantages in the race at the expense of everyone else?

In the mid-60s, James Coleman, in an iconic U.S. Government report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, said that the biggest influence on student achievement was not anything having to do with the schools they attended, but rather the socio-economic status of their parents.  No doubt this is partly because wealthy communities can easily raise enough money for their public schools to buy the best teachers, facilities, materials and school administrators.

But that may leave out the most important variable, the socio-economic status of the other students in the school.  Take for example, the conditions in a typical low-income, mostly minority community: expectations for all students are low, students get As for doing mediocre work, the curriculum is not challenging, classrooms are constantly disrupted, teachers have a hard time maintaining order, students who strive for academic excellence are ostracized by their peers and few go to college.  In a wealthy school district serving mostly students from well-to-do families, all is reversed: expectations are high, classroom discipline is not a problem, students are paying attention in class; they have to work for their As and are not ostracized by their peers for doing well in their classes.  The curriculum is challenging and designed to put all students on a track that will get a great majority of them into selective colleges. 

In a process brilliantly described by Richard Florida, the "creatives" the professionals most in demand in the new economy, are concentrating in a relatively small number of cities where they are most likely to get the environment they are seeking, while the people who used to work at the factories whose owners moved the business offshore are increasing concentrated, losing their homes and working, if they can get any work at all, at the local convenience store.  An article in last week's New York Times tells us that these trends feed on themselves, as rising real estate values in the favored communities are matched by falling real estate values in the others, driving the fortunes of these two types of communities steadily farther apart.

All over the United States, the professionals and managers in our society who can afford to do so are seeking every possible advantage for their children and, as income disparities increase, they are succeeding to an ever-increasing degree.  Their aim is to get their children into the most selective colleges in the nation, because they see those institutions as the keyhole their children must go through to get the best jobs and the highest status that society has to offer.

What is it about this vanishingly small number of elite institutions that makes them the gateway to success for the children of the new elite?  Is it the quality of education they will get there?  Not so much.  The answer lies just where it lay in the schools.  It is mainly the community to which they gain access, their classmates.

In another very insightful article in the New York Times, Ross Douthat points out that, whereas elite families used to send their daughters to the Ivy league colleges to get married to the future masters of the universe, now the top professionals and managers are sending both their sons and daughters to those institutions so they can meet and marry the future masters and mistresses of the universe and build social networks with their classmates and their professors that will give them privileged access to the best jobs and highest status the society has to offer.  Those social networks will pay off for the rest of their lives.  From the time they are born until they enter the job market, the sons and daughters of our top professionals and managers have incomparably better access to the resources they will need to reach the pinnacles of success.  With each successive year the chances that our professional and managerial elite will be able to pass their status along to their progeny improves and the likelihood that the sons and daughters of the less fortunate will inherit the status of their parents also improves.  Education policy, as I see it, does not offset this trend.  It actually aids and abets it.  In my next blog, I will explain how the growth of massive open online courses could exacerbate this trend.   

Follow NCEE @CtrEdEcon.
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