We think of schooling as a way to get ahead in society. But is that actually how the education system works?
By Jon Overton
Education is widely considered a core part of the American dream. That fancy college diploma has long been said to give graduates across the country a shot at high-wage middle-class jobs.
The case that education is a force for upward social mobility is a familiar one.
Students go to school to prepare for the workforce and ultimately get a job with a good income.
You probably heard a lot in the media about how a four-year degree isn’t worth as much as it used to be, complete with anecdotes of recent graduates who are tens of thousands of dollars in debt and can’t find reliable work.
It’s looking like that resulted from unusually slow economic growth after the recession. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that over the past year, underemployment and unemployment among recent college graduates has been falling.
Data consistently show time and again that people who have a college degree are unemployed at much lower rates and make substantially more money than those without a degree. In 2012, the Pew Research Center calculated a net $550,000 lifetime earnings gap between people with a four-year degree from an in-state public university and everyone else.
So yeah, over half a million bucks. As long as you work hard and make the grades, the argument goes, it’s a pretty good deal.
No one would actually argue that some students don’t start with advantages over others, but in the education-promotes-upward-mobility camp, schools are portrayed as reducing inequalities between the rich and poor.
A second grade student begins working on an assignment as classes start in the morning at Greenwood Elementary School in Des Moines. (Flickr/Phil Roeder)
Academic research has been accumulating since the late ‘70s showing that in the summer months, wealthy students continue learning because their parents take them on educational trips, enroll them in academic summer programs, and overall push their kids to learn even when school is not in session. Lower income parents on the other hand, don’t typically provide these opportunities for their children.
A 2007 article in the American Sociological Review by Karl Alexander from Johns Hopkins examined educational data from students in the Baltimore area. It showed that in the summer months, the academic achievement gap between wealthy and poor students the grew, but during the school year, students from high and low class backgrounds saw roughly equal gains in academic achievement on standardized tests.
The researchers concluded, “Since it is low [socioeconomic status] youth specifically whose out-of-school learning lags behind, this summer shortfall relative to better-off children contributes to the perpetuation of family advantage and disadvantage across generations.”
Overall, schools can encourage roughly equal learning when in session and once students get a college degree, they should do pretty well economically.
But most of the evidence seems to suggest that schools really aren’t the great equalizers they’re made out to be. In fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence that indicates education, as it operates today, solidifies existing social inequalities.
Poverty and Segregation
First, there’s the way schools are supported. Public schools get about half of their funding from property taxes, meaning their resources depend on property values, which are strongly related to family wealth and income. Residential segregation along class and racial lines tends to exacerbate the challenges this system creates for schools.
A 2012 report from the right-leaning Manhattan Institute stated that “In 657 out of 658 housing markets tracked by the Census Bureau, segregation is now lower than the average level of segregation marked in 1970.”
It’s true that massive reductions in segregation have appeared nationwide, with cities like Waterloo, Iowa dropping from a dissimilarity score (a measure of segregation on a scale of 0 to 100) of 87.5 in 1970 to 61.6 in 2010.
That’s progress, but this certainly is not the end of segregation, nor does it mean segregation is falling everywhere and will continue declining.
A 2014 study by the University of Iowa Public Policy Center showed that from 1990 to 2010, Iowa City’s dissimilarity score rose from 44 to 55. Researchers also noted that a score of 60 is widely considered “very segregated.”
But in general, residential segregation along racial lines is declining (though segregation is increasing between the rich and poor).
So given that schools tend to be hyper-local, surely the general trend away from neighborhood-level racial segregation means racial segregation in schools is declining.
Surprisingly, residential racial segregation is actually decreasing across the country while school segregation overall is increasing.
Hundreds of school districts in the South that courts previously ordered to integrate have been released from those court orders. A 2011 study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management by Sean Reardon and collaborators from Stanford found that racial segregation has become more intense in schools released from court orders than in those that were never released.
Racial segregation in schools is a particularly critical problem because families of different races tend to be in vastly different economic situations.
2013 Census data show that the median household income for Asians was $67,065, for whites it was $58,270, for Hispanics it was $40,963, and for blacks it was $34,598. Poverty rates follow a similar pattern with 10.5 percent of Asians below the poverty line, 12.3 percent of whites, 23.5 percent of Hispanics, and 27.2 percent of blacks.
Although some whites and Asians live in poverty and some blacks and Hispanics are wealthy, the data strongly indicate that on average, Asians and whites are much better off economically than blacks and Hispanics.
Growing school segregation may also be resulting from the school choice movement. The basic idea is that parents should be able to choose where their students go to school.
There are a number of ways that this could help disadvantaged children, but at the end of the day, wealthier parents have more resources and thus are more easily able to send their children greater distances to get into the best schools. High-income families are also better equipped to pay tuition and fees associated with private schools.
In the Classroom
Beyond segregating effects, we have to consider how students behave and are treated in the classroom. Though largely unintentional, teachers are less likely to evaluate black students compared to white students as intelligent.
This tends to reinforce what’s known as stereotype threat.
Here’s an example: Black students are stereotyped as less intelligent than white students. Black students are afraid of confirming that they are not very smart. That increased anxiety leads them to perform worse than they otherwise would have on tests of academic ability, thus seemingly confirming the stereotype.
This isn’t purely a cultural process and it’s not just exclusive to people of African descent. Anyone can experience it.
One study of a high school in the San Francisco area found among the predominantly white and Asian students, white students were negatively stereotyped as underachievers and taken less seriously than their Asian counterparts, who were stereotyped as highly intelligent.
A team of researchers, led by University of Iowa Professor Michael Lovaglia found in a laboratory experiment that when randomly assigned to a high or low status position, high status participants performed better on an intelligence test than low status participants.
The widely cited achievement gap between black and white students through this lens is a product largely of stereotypes and status processes, all of which are malleable.
Students from middle class backgrounds are also more likely than low and working-class students to be seen as good students.
Past research by the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau has shown that middle-class parents typically raise their children to treat authority figures as equals, while working-class parents mostly teach their kids to passively accept what authority figures say.
Building on Lareau’s research, Jessica Calarco observed two mentalities in the classroom. Working-class parents generally pushed a “no-excuses” style that encourages students to figure out problems on their own without bothering the teacher. Middle-class parents typically taught their children to use a “by-any-means” approach where students assertively request help from teachers—sometimes directly asking, other times interrupting their teachers.
Calarco noted that this reluctance to seek help among working-class students often meant that when students didn’t understand course material, they struggled a lot more than their middle-class counterparts. The working-class students were also more likely to blame themselves and believe they just weren’t as smart as students who did understand what they were learning.
The ultimate result of this process often leads wealthier students to enroll in advanced and college-credit courses, while poorer students end up in standard or remedial classes.
As Karolyn Tyson, a sociology professor from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill explained in her 2011 book, “Integration Interrupted,” teachers and counselors are very influential in determining whether students take advanced coursework that prepares them for college. In high schools, the most common system requires that faculty approve the courses students want to take.
Although technically students get to pick the classes they want to take, the buck stops with school faculty. The race and class composition of courses (skewed heavily toward white students), Tyson observed, usually turns out the same as when teachers and counselors dictate the level of coursework students take.
There is a common perception that disadvantaged groups ostracize group members for high performance in school. If this behavior discourages high achievement, we would expect that students mocked for taking upper level coursework take lower level classes in the future.
But that’s not what happens.
Tyson wrote that “academically successful black students continue to enroll in largely white advanced classes, even when doing so exposes them to hostility and racialized ridicule from same-race peers.”
On balance, the evidence seems to suggest that schools, rather than a rebellious minority culture, perpetuate this inequality.
Finally, there’s college. This is it. This is the benchmark conventional wisdom says it takes in order to really get ahead in society. But where you start and where you wind up are often very closely associated.
Low-income and minority students often start at community colleges, while wealthier students usually go straight to four-year public or private schools. As researchers from Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin, Madison reported last year, community colleges have extremely low completion rates and their students rarely transfer to four-year institutions.
First generation college students, usually from working-class backgrounds, are famously more likely to drop out of college than middle-class students.
|The Old Capitol at the University of Iowa is seen above. (IPN File Photo)|
Part of this is because students from low-income families usually haven’t been truly prepared for college. They’re more likely to come from schools with minimal resources and haven’t grown accustomed to the kind of work a college education requires.
This isn’t to say working-class students don’t work hard. They do. It’s just that a lot of that time and energy is spent trying to earn money in off-campus jobs to support themselves.
A number of studies also suggest that working-class students don’t have the knowhow to really navigate college as successfully as middle-class students. A recent study published last year in the Sociology of Education by Wolfgang Lehmann observed a pattern: successful working-class students usually embraced the liberal collegiate culture, but often struggled to reconnect with working-class friends and family back home.
Still, it’s not as though this causes the social and cultural barriers to suddenly disappear for working-class students.
Still, it’s not as though this causes the social and cultural barriers to suddenly disappear for working-class students.
“Success in traditional middle-class, professional careers, such as law or medicine, still depends on possession of specific forms of cultural, social, and personal capital that goes beyond credentials and may therefore elude the young men and women in this study. They are thus at risk of being caught between the ‘old’ and the ‘new,’ no longer feeling they belong to one, but not (yet) accepted in the other,” Lehmann explained.
Although they started out with ambitions to become lawyers or doctors, Lehmann noted that several working-class students he interviewed lowered their career aspirations.
Just as successful working-class students tend to feel a growing cultural divide between themselves and their old friends and family, the income gap between the college-educated and everyone else is growing.
Data from the Economic Policy Institute show that in the early ‘80s college grads made 64 percent more than high school grads, but by 2013, those with a college degree were earning 98 percent more than high school grads.
Access to the middle class increasingly depends on getting a college degree, which is a lot harder to get if you’re not born into the right social group.
Education Intensifies Social Inequality
Public education is certainly going to lead to more equality than a completely privatized system. That much is clear from the research presented earlier showing that low and high-income students learn at about the same pace throughout the school year. Without publicly available education, the learning gap, now confined to summer, would likely expand to the entire year.
Nonetheless, education as it operates today tends to keep disadvantaged groups lower on the social ladder, while allowing privileged groups to maintain their high status positions.
If we accept that the primary purpose of schools is for encouraging social mobility (putting aside debates about the purpose of education), then we clearly have a long way to go.
At best, education can get our society closer to equal opportunity, where the people who work the hardest and are the most naturally talented get society’s most valuable jobs.
But we aren’t anywhere near that. As it stands now, education in the United States piles advantages onto already privileged groups, while leaving disadvantaged groups with little to stand on.
Jon Overton is the coeditor of Iowa Peace Network. He will be enrolling in the Sociology PhD program at Kent State University this fall.