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The Central Issue at the Heart of America's Growing Education Gap

It's time for some new thinking about how to address the persistent inequalities that plague our education system.
 
 
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As the evidence mounts discrediting much of the movement for “education reform” (including the proliferation of charter schools), and as more of the public discourse recognizes the power of that evidence, we may at last be poised for a thorough rethinking education reform – and a detailed consideration of what the plausible alternatives to our current efforts might be. 

Broadly, new ways of thinking about public education must occur before the U.S. can fulfill its obligation to the promise of universal public schools. We must first understand that:

  1. We have failed public education; public education has not failed us.
  2. Education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change.
  3. And, thus, public education holds up a mirror to the social dynamics defining the U.S. In other words, achievement gaps in our schools are metrics reflecting the equity and opportunity gaps that exist in society.

One aspect of these new ways of thinking about public education that is rarely discussed is that seeking laudable goals (such as closing the achievement gap in schools and the income and upward mobility gaps in society) requires that we address both privilege and poverty—the top and the bottom. Historically and currently, our gaze remains almost exclusively on the bottom.

Richard Reeves in the “The Glass-Floor Problem” poses a provocative and necessary admission about the polar ends of class in the U.S.:

When it comes to the economic malaise facing America, the biggest problem is not the widening gap between rich and poor, but the stagnation of social mobility. When the income gap of one generation becomes an opportunity gap for the next, inequality hardens into social stratification….

These solutions may sound easy, but they are not. While politicians discuss social mobility as a pain-free goal, the unspoken, uncomfortable truth is that relative mobility is a zero-sum game. Opening more doors to applicants from low-income backgrounds often means closing more doors to affluent applicants.

This is delicate territory. Nobody wants parents to stop trying hard for their children. But nor do we want a society in which the social market is rigged in favor of those born into affluence. If we want a competitive economy and an open society, we need the best and brightest to succeed. This means some of the children of the affluent must fail.

In other words, the declining social mobility in the U.S. includes not only that those at the bottom are victims of poverty being destiny, but also that those at the top are reaping the benefit of privilege being destiny. In both extremes, then, the ideal of a U.S. meritocracy is negated.

Beneath simplistic claims that higher educational attainment (effort) is rewarded with greater income potential lies the ugly truth that poverty blocks children from high-quality educational opportunities while privilege insures better schools, advanced degrees, and access to jobs linked to the networking of privilege.

The lives of adults in the U.S. are more often than not the consequences of large and powerful social dynamics driven by poverty and privilege—and not by the character or tenacity of any individual. That fact is the basis for the needed new ways of thinking about education posed above.

One example of thinking differently about education is Diane Ravitch, who explains that school-only reform over the past three decades is essentially a “mistake”; instead, social reform must come first so that school reform can work:

... Income inequality in our nation is larger than at any point in the last century.