Monday Reading List: The Problem With Arguments About Social Mobility & Schools

United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave a speech at Harvard last week. Sarah Darville and Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat unpacked the most salient nuggets:

The first question lobbed at DeVos came from a parent who has sent her children to district, charter and parochial schools, but argued that “as a whole, most [school] systems … aren’t working for black parents like me.” The question focused on DeVos and the federal government’s role in ensuring quality schools: “Why don’t you think that you should have any say or any control over setting minimums … so systems aren’t the wild, wild West?” DeVos, a skeptic of the federal role in education, immediately pivoted back to school choice. “My goal, my hope, is that all parents like you and all others would have the power to choose a school that is right for your child,” she said. “Accompanying that there has to be a lot of great information available to parents.” DeVos also demurred when Peterson asked her a nitty-gritty question on ESSA, the federal accountability law.

As I've said before, choice without accountability is a scam, and it's troubling that DeVos eschews one of the few agenda items that used to unite centrist technocrats on education issues.

MIke Petrilli, writing in National Affairs, seems to agree:

For more than three decades, the conservative approach has been to pursue a two-track strategy: Push for more school choice, but also demand greater accountability from traditional public schools ... To better understand this question, a simple thought experiment is clarifying: Imagine that conservatives are wildly successful in expanding school choice. Every parent in America, however poor or rich, gains access to several educational options, including religious schools. In a thriving marketplace, these schools compete to attract market share, innovate in ways currently unimaginable, and provide unprecedented levels of customer satisfaction. School choice turns out to be everything conservatives promised it would be. But what if, with all of that, America's international rankings in reading, math, and science are still mediocre, or even decline?

I'm glad to see Petrilli posit this question, because it's the exact hypothetical that reveals important shortcomings in an ideological approach to school choice. As a card-carrying lefty, I learned a lot from reading this perspective, and I hope that educators who trend left will give this piece the time it deserves, even when they find themselves disagreeing.

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Rachel Cohen is in The Atlantic with another edition in the "education doesn't affect outcomes" genre:

Using data from several national surveys, [Jesse] Rothstein sought to scrutinize [Raj] Chetty’s team’s work—looking to further test their  hypothesis that the quality of a child’s education has a significant impact on her ability to advance out of the social class into which she was born. Rothstein, however, found little evidence to support that premise. Instead, he found that differences in local labor markets—for example, how similar industries can vary across different communities—and marriage patterns, such as higher concentrations of single-parent households, seemed to make much more of a difference than school quality. He concludes that factors like higher minimum wages, the presence and strength of labor unions, and clear career pathways within local industries are likely to play more important roles in facilitating a poor child’s ability to rise up the economic ladder when they reach adulthood.

First of all, we shouldn't be THAT surprised that our current schools alone don't solve the problem of social mobility. Our educational system was set up at a time when the country was segregated by race, women were not expected to enter the labor market, and the radio had not yet been invented. (Read: they're old AF.) Moreover, most educational decisions still sit in the hands of the members of local school boards, so problems like residential segregation, and the economic disparities reinforced by those divisions, further exacerbate inequitable outcomes.

This is exactly what progressive reformers have been saying! We shouldn't give up on improving schools because they're not already amazing!

But there are two other thing to keep in mind here. First, the narrative at play in this piece is dead-on-arrival with parents in economically insecure communities, who often have no other option but to pursue schooling as their primary vehicle for improving children's lives. We cannot say to those parents, "I'm sorry, the school system is rigged beyond our control. But you should look forward to labor unions and industry working effectively together to provide a living wage at some point. That will help your children down the road."

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Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this argument about schools is nihilistic. If you follow the argument to its logical conclusion, we would ignore schools and invest only in other social programs. In the meantime, many of the same people who make this argument are on the front lines of pushing for more money for the schools, which they continue to claim are incapable of making a dent in the social fabric. It's just an untenable position, given that half of this country doesn't want to provide more money for anything, ever. I would love to see progressive tax increases in dozens of states to support greater financial equity for schools, but we will never get that done while this argument is consuming air.

All of which is to say ... of course schools can't solve all of our problems. Despite the heated education policy rhetoric of the last decade, nobody thinks they can. That said, there is a slippery slope involved in suggesting that schools are a minimal factor in advancing social mobility, even if the current data suggests they're failing at that job. Other countries with newer, more robust national education systems have far more equitable outcomes than ours, and it's not just because their other social systems are stronger.

Have a great week!