Monday, June 20, 2011
Schools will never fix inequality: Diane Ravitch vs. Arne Duncan fight misses point on poverty
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By John Marsh Sunday, June 19th 2011, 4:00 AM
It is not every day that the U.S. secretary of education charges a professor with "insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country." But in the cutthroat world of education reform, the daggers have come out.
The professor, Diane Ravitch of NYU - who once shared educational reformers' love for school choice, charter schools and accountability - has in recent years come to oppose them. A few weeks ago, she published a much-debated op-ed in The New York Times that reiterated her belief that few schools, reformed or not, can overcome the differences in family income that determine educational outcomes. "Families," she wrote, "are children's most important educators."
The critics pounced. The columnist Jonathan Alter called her views "the mother of all cop outs." The aforementioned Arne Duncan - President Obama's education chief - said she was "in denial."
To the new breed of educational reformers, whose motto is "no excuses," schools cannot only prevail over the effects of an impoverished upbringing; they can set students from poor families on the path to college and, ultimately, a middle-class life.
This argument is a neat but dangerous dodge. The inconvenient truth: If you care about poverty and economic inequality, you would be better off forgetting about education. Because, even if schools could overcome the effects of growing up in poverty, they cannot reshape the structure of an economy that produces poverty and economic inequality in the first place.
In terms of income, it is no secret that the United States has grown top-heavy in the past few decades. In broad terms, the rich have gotten richer, most people have treaded water and more people live in poverty. From 1993 to 2008, slightly more than half of all economic growth in the U.S. flowed to the top 1% of earners. The United States now has the most unequal distribution of incomes among developed countries.
Almost no one disputes whether this profound inequality exists. Rather, the debate seems to be about whether it matters - and if so, what to do about it. According to recent polls, most Americans seem to have made up their minds about both questions. More than 70% of us think differences in income are too large. Regarding what to do about it, Americans are equally decisive. Roughly two out of three people disagree with the proposition that it is the government's responsibility to reduce income differences.
By contrast, there is unfailing and overwhelming support for education and, lately, education reform. is not hard to imagine why Americans almost unanimously support education as a solution to poverty and inequality. It offers an elegant solution to an otherwise intractable problem: Good schools, the thinking goes, can provide everyone, including and perhaps especially the poor, a chance to get ahead, graduate from college and join the middle class. In this way, economic inequality would be reduced. Moreover, by combating income inequality with genuine educational equality, Americans can avoid the spectre of divisive economic policies - of "spreading the wealth around," as Barack Obama famously put it in his 2008 presidential campaign.
The only problem is that it does not, and will not, work. As a growing body of scholarship has shown, educational achievement depends mostly on family background - on how much money your parents make. In that respect at least, Ravitch is right.
For the sake of argument, though, suppose critics like Ravitch were wrong and reformers like Duncan and Alter were right. Assume the United States could induce many more poor and low-income students to graduate from college. It is not clear what all those new college graduates would do.
The economy requires more workers with college degrees than ever before. Yet it remains - and will remain - an economy that requires more workers without degrees than workers with degrees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven out of the 10 occupations that will produce the most new jobs by 2018 will require only on-the-job training. (Think jobs like home health aides, customer service representatives, food preparers and servers.)
A good education will not help workers trapped in low-wage, nonunion jobs. Nor will it do much to divert the flow of economic growth to the top 1% of earners. These are the reasons behind rising economic inequality, and these reasons have little to do with education.
In short, we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality. And so, Americans must decide what they dislike more: differences in income that are too large, or the government taking more responsibility to reduce income differences. Their favorite solution, education, is no solution at all.
Marsh is author of the book, "Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality."