One of the favored tactics of education reform opponents is to blame underperformance of schools on problems we cannot easily solve in order to avoid solving the actual problems that are within our powers to address. The latest example of this comes from
progressive journalist Rachel Cohen in The Atlantic. Under a headline that flatly states, “Education Isn’t the Key to a Good Income,” Cohen cherry-picks data, anecdote and opinion to build a flimsy case that education is not the path out of poverty. Instead, she cites factors like segregation, family structure, income inequality, hunger, inadequate health care and lack of social capital for poor kids. School and teacher quality are barely mentioned and there is no consideration of evidence linking higher incomes with educational outcomes.
Picked Cherries and Plucked Anecdotes
Cohen cites one study from Raj Chetty that suggests
geography is a greater factor than educational quality in determining incomes. I suppose that if one kid grows up in thriving Silicon Valley and the other one grows up in a dying rust-belt community, geography may carry extra weight—but does that mean we shouldn’t expect better results in schools? Then she turns to a
working paper from Berkeley economist Jesse Rothstein who concludes that labor markets and marriage patterns, “seemed to make much more of a difference than school quality.” What “seemed” true in her narrative morphs into blunt certainty in the conclusion: “We can’t educate people out of this problem,” says Rothstein. For further evidence, Cohen turns to New York City math teacher, author and blogger José Vilson, who says, “Access to food and healthcare have a bigger impact than schools.” No one denies that sick, hungry kids have trouble learning, but that doesn’t explain away the millions of healthy, well-fed kids who are still struggling in school or the millions of middle-class kids who need
remedial education in college. It’s also astonishing that a teacher would be arguing that schools don’t have much impact. Cohen cites several other pieces of academic guesswork before landing on her final point, which is that unionization “seems to be another critical factor helping poor people escape poverty.” There’s that word “seems” again. (It should be noted that Cohen is writing for a media outlet that has received
more than a million dollars in the past year from a national teachers union. It should also be noted that one of Education Post’s funders, Emerson Collective, just bought a
majority stake in The Atlantic. For the record, I support unions though I disagree with some of their positions on education.)
What ‘Seems’ May Not Be
Cohen’s article fails the smell test. For one thing, there is no consideration of any
education to better economic outcomes. For example, in 2012, The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report called, “
Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations.” It says, in no uncertain terms, “Having a college degree improves Americans’ chances of surpassing their parents’ family income and wealth.” The report compares the income levels of high school and college graduates and finds that, among America’s poorest quintile, 53 percent of college grads make it into the top three-fifths of the income scale—a pretty good proxy for middle class—compared to 27 percent of high school graduates. All told, 90 percent of low-income kids with college degrees moved at least one rung up the ladder compared to 53 percent of those with only high school degrees. We also know that, on average, people who don’t finish high school
earn much less than those who do. Others, including
advocates for greater investment in anti-poverty programs, have read the Pew data differently. They point out that rich kids (in the top quintile) with only a high school degree are more likely to remain rich than poor kids with a college degree are to get rich. To me, that only proves that inherited wealth can keep you wealthy and the social capital that accompanies wealth protects undereducated rich kids. It hardly disproves the value of education for poor kids looking to move up the economic ladder. Cohen concludes:
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.
Actually, we know what most Americans think. The most recent PDK poll shows overwhelming support for
career and technical education, suggesting the public clearly links education with the economy.
Another Excuse to Avoid Accountability
Arguing that education isn’t a significant factor in lifting poor people out of poverty is akin to the argument advanced by
union leaders and
others that teachers have only a minimal impact on student achievement and therefore should not be held accountable for results. Both arguments are excuses to evade
accountability. Worse yet, they undermine public confidence in public education and weaken the case for greater investment. [pullquote position="left"]If education doesn’t have much impact, then what’s their argument for investing more in schools or improving teacher quality with higher pay? I’m not suggesting that factors like poverty, segregation, and family structure are irrelevant and I support every effort to address them. And I’m not suggesting that education alone will move every poor person into the middle class. But the existence of these big macro problems, which we have been combating for decades with mixed results, at best, is not an excuse to avoid issues we can address today, right now—like school and teacher quality. Every day, in classrooms all across America, great teachers and school leaders are proving that low-income kids can achieve at the highest levels
despite factors like poverty. I would also argue—and a new working paper
from Nobel Prize-winner James Heckman, among others, affirms it—that other challenges in society like incarceration, mental health, voter participation and welfare dependence, are ameliorated through better education. To me, the case is clear: do all we can to solve society’s problems but invest more in schools and teachers and hold them accountable for results. It’s the single best bet we have.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with