Home > Uncategorized > Does a Quality Education Increase Economic Mobility? Should That Be It’s Primary Purpose?

Does a Quality Education Increase Economic Mobility? Should That Be It’s Primary Purpose?

Earlier this week Atlantic writer Rachel Cohen posted an article titled Why Education Isn’t the Key to a Good Income”, an article that was full of data drawn from reports that buttressed this finding. Among the findings cited were this of a team of economists led by Stanford’s Raj Chetty who found that where a child was raised had more to do with their upward mobility than the schools they attended. Ms. Cohen summarized Mr. Chetty’s findings, writing this his team:

determined that the chances of a child growing up at the bottom of the national income distribution to ever one day reach the top actually varies greatly by geography. For example, they found that a poor child raised in San Jose, or Salt Lake City, has a much greater chance of reaching the top than a poor child raised in Baltimore, or Charlotte. They couldn’t say exactly why, but they concluded that five correlated factors—segregation, family structure, income inequality, local school quality, and social capital—were likely to make a difference. Their conclusion: America is land of opportunity for some. For others, much less so.

She then cited a recent study by Jesse Rothstein that drilled down into the “five correlated factors” and determined that “local school quality” had virtually NO impact on upward mobility. As Ms. Cohen noted, this finding flies in the face of the bipartisan “Horatio Alger” narrative that asserts that anyone who applies themselves can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and earn more than their parents and ultimately lift themselves into a higher economic stratus. She writes:

The idea that school quality would be an important element for intergenerational mobility—essentially a child’s likelihood that they will one day outearn their parents—seems intuitive: Leaders regularly stress that the best way to rise up the income ladder is to go to school, where one can learn the skills they need to succeed in a competitive, global economy. “In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education,” Barack Obama declared in his 2010 State of the Union address. Improving “skills and schools” is a benchmark of Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s poverty-fighting agenda.

Indeed, this bipartisan education-and-poverty consensus has guided research and political efforts for decades. Broadly speaking, the idea is that if more kids graduate from high school, and achieve higher scores on standardized tests, then more young people are likely to go to college, and, in turn, land jobs that can secure them spots in the middle class.

As Ms. Cohen subsequently reports, there is less and less evidence that this is the case. Indeed, she finds research that undercuts the whole “skills gap” argument that politicians and businessmen promote:

According to Marshall Steinbaum, the research director at the Roosevelt Institute, economists have long believed that differing levels of skills and education (what the field refers to as “human capital”) is the most salient explanation for why individuals achieve such varied economic outcomes. “I think it’s becoming harder and harder to accept explanations like the so-called skills gap,” he says, referencing the popular idea that low-income people merely lack the necessary skills and training to thrive in the modern economy.

In the concluding paragraph of her post, Ms. Cohen suggests that policy makers might want to re-think the notion of promoting education as a vehicle for social mobility and instead focus on the inherent value of more and better schooling:

Ultimately, most Americans would probably agree that leaders should work to build great schools, and that individuals who work hard should be able to improve their economic earnings over time. Devoting the bulk of one’s attention to the former in the hopes that it causes the latter, however, might prove to be a real mistake.

After reading this article, I read two NYTimes articles that might explain WHY education is no longer the ladder to success it once was. One article by Rachel Abrams, “Why Aren’t Paychecks Growing? A Burger Joint Clause Offers a Clue” described a corporate practice that “…prohibited franchisees from hiring workers away from one another, preventing, for example, one Pizza Hut from hiring employees from another. As a consequence, a Pizza Hut employee working in one location could not move to another Pizza Hut location to get better wages, hours, or working conditions. In effect, this limits the mobility of entry level workers and suppresses wages. The title of the other article, by Vindu Goel, ” IBM Now Has More Employees in India than the US”, explains the impact of globalization on economic opportunities in our country. And it leads to this question: why should our schools be churning out students with STEM qualifications if one of the major technology corporations is off-shoring jobs? I’m sure that the IBM narrative would be that they are forced to look offshore because they cannot find qualified workers in our country, but the drive to keep overhead low is every bit as strong.

The bottom line seems to be that we might need to change our narrative about education as a means of increasing economic well being and instead emphasize education as a means of overall well being. As Ms.Cohen noted, emphasizing economic well-being may well be a dead end street…. especially if corporations collude to suppress wages and technology businesses look overseas to secure skilled employees willing to work for lower wages.

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: