Better Schools Have a Place in Creating a More Equitable America

As someone who spent the first portion of his career deep in the “education reform” movement, I wasn’t surprised when Nick Hanauer’s Atlantic article, “Better Schools Won’t Fix America,” spread like a wildfire through the education sector. Hanauer’s argument is relatively simple: since the effects of income on student achievement reliably outweigh the effects of schooling, we miss the boat by overly focusing on schools as the unit of equity change.

For those who disagree, the reactions largely suggest that Hanauer is saying education doesn’t matter, despite him explicitly saying otherwise. Understanding the resistance to Hanauer’s argument offers a potential path forward both for education, and for child outcomes writ large.

The real question on the table is this: What percentage of educational inequity can be solved through schools? That’s not a philosophical or rhetorical question—the answer drives how we should allocate our resources and shape our policy priorities. We’d all do well to register our answers (for what it’s worth, the research consensus says it’s between 20% and 33%; I’m an optimist and say 33%).

Outside the Locus of Control

Up until the late 2000s, the education reform movement took almost as an article of faith that the answer is “100%.” As a Teach For America corps member in 2006, we were surveyed on how many of us came in saying that teachers were the most important influence on student outcomes vs. how many said that upon completing their commitment. Any suggestion that poverty or other extra-school factors were significant barriers was considered to be slipping outside one’s “locus of control.” Such talk smacked dangerously of low expectations.

And the concern over low expectations was very real! The original ed reform movement (it has since schismed)—a coalition of center-right business groups and civil rights groups like the NAACP—was partly an effort to finally address the miserably inequitable experience of students of color and low-income students. If you were to walk into a high-poverty high school, you were more likely to find coloring activities than courses like physics or calculus.

For too long, the response to poverty—with a heavy seasoning of racism—had been to stop believing that these children could achieve much at all; the schools were fine, the teachers were fine, blame poverty. What percentage of educational inequity can be solved through schools? Basically 0%.

So, you can understand why Hanauer’s article rankles some people so much. It feels like an abandonment of first principles, a return to the bad old days, a chutes-and-ladders style plummet back towards 0%—even if that’s not what he’s saying. There’s also a cognitive dissonance at play when considering our broader societal goals: as journalist Dana Goldstein wrote on Twitter, “One of the tough things about covering education is that while research shows schools are a modest lever to close macro inequality gaps, they are transformative in individual lives. If I could craft one big policy to help Americans who are suffering, it probably wouldn't be an education policy. But if I could make one change in the life of one child, it might be to send them to a great school.”


Putting Education and Schools in Context

Now, over the past decade, more and more education groups—including, after laudable self-reflection, Teach For America—have realized that great teachers and great schools aren’t moving the needle at scale, and they’ve shifted into the middle of the continuum. Several think tanks like New America and the Center for American Progress have teams working on education alongside those working on early childhood, poverty, etc. We’ve gotten to a point where we can say "all kids have the capacity to learn" + "schools need to be better" + "poverty/community context impacts learning." This is progress.

The problem is that there's a difference between parallel answers and stacked answers, and I still don't see many education reformers willing to accept that schools are not the broad bottom of that hierarchy; income is. It’s not either-or, but it’s not exactly a both-and; it’s causal. This is a key distinction. Parallel answers are effective when done simultaneously, for instance improving on both diet and exercise if one is trying to boost general health. Stacked answers require a pyramidal sequence. Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” is an archetypal example. Humans need both food and friendship, but it’s nearly impossible to focus on relationships when you’re starving.

Income effects are the foundational layer of educational outcomes because of how much family stability influences brain development and functioning—and, ultimately, learning either happens (or doesn’t) within the brain. We know that a massive amount of underlying brain architecture is built during the earliest months and years of life, and that gaps in pre-academic skills already exist by the time children enter kindergarten. Once in school, direct poverty effects such as much higher likelihoods of chronic stress, poor sleep and exposure to toxins like lead present further barriers to learning.

I hear the argument that education people are focused on education because, well, they’re education people. That’s all well and good, except that it’s not how kids’ brains work. Saying that education stakeholders can ignore income effects is like doctors treating emphysema and lung cancer but saying that smoking cessation is outside their purview. Education is built to maximize educational outcomes; poverty, which largely exists thanks to intentionally racist and classist policies like redlining and predatory lending, directly drags down educational outcomes. It’s not 1989 anymore; in 2019, we know enough to say that anti-poverty measures are the foundation of high expectations.

Does saying this indicate that schools don’t matter? No, it indicates that schools matter about 33%; at their best, schools are crucibles for academic and personal growth, for passion-finding and establishing lifelong relationships. Does anything here suggest students don’t need to learn how to read? No, it suggests the effects of poverty have, again, directly negative impacts on the learning brain. And does demonstrating poverty’s effects on learning mean that students of color and low-income students aren’t still getting miserably inequitable in-school experiences, poverty aside? Absolutely not; our schools are nowhere near where they need to be!

All this means is that we have to put education in its proper context.

How to Move the Needle at Scale

Education is an elephant of a sector. With over $650 billion in annual expenditures (although continually underpaid teachers), massive political infrastructures, the nation’s largest union, and the attention and wallet of many of our largest foundations, there is a tremendous opportunity cost to focusing only on schools. This is where Hanauer’s piece can shift us from retrospective to forward-thinking.

If we continue moving forward with an emphasis on school-based strategies for educational equity, we will continue to have at best incremental progress—a ceiling of our own construction.

If, on the other hand, education stakeholders adjust course and intertwine their work—integrating, not in parallel—with those striving for economic justice and family stability, we have a path forward.

While imperfect, the early childhood sector illustrates the potential promise of using a wider aperture. In an effort to increase family income through things like child care subsidy or family-focused tax credits, early childhood education advocates often line-up with those working on anti-poverty policy and child welfare policy.

So, what does this look like in practice for K-12 education? It could look like education advocacy groups, from the most pro-charter orgs to the NEA (National Education Association) and AFT (American Federation of Teachers), going to the mat for policies like a child allowance, zeroing out child care costs, or following the recent recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences about how to reduce child poverty (spoiler alert: give families money). It could look like philanthropic foundations using their dollars to foster collaboration between education nonprofits and those working for affordable housing, food justice or a living wage. In short, it could look like an education reform movement reborn, one committed explicitly to ending poverty and improving schools.

I haven’t seen a credible path to reaching our nation’s educational goals that runs solely through schools, but with schools as one key piece of a larger unified picture, we can finally have a way to unlock equity.

Elliot Haspel writes about early childhood and K-12 education policy. He works as a program officer for a philanthropic foundation in Richmond, VA. Elliot is the author of the forthcoming book, "Crawling Behind: America's Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It" (Black Rose, Nov. 2019).

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