Frustrated by rising costs and stagnant achievement levels on standardized tests, American politicians and media-savvy education reformers have over the past several years pushed for a complete overhaul of this country’s public school system. The ways their frustration has been vented – from demonizing teacher unions to implementing punitive policies that look to evaluate teachers’ competency solely through student test scores – have operated under one main assumption: Something is deeply flawed with the way we educate our children.
What is so troubling about this framework is that it completely ignores the totality of experience and other factors that can influence a child’s educational development. To be clear, schooling does have an important role to play, but children are influenced by life outside the classroom as well. Texas public school students are only required to spend 180 days – just over half the year – in the classroom. Why should public schools take 100 percent of the blame, when they can only educate and influence kids 50 percent of the year? What sort of impact does that other 50 percent have?
One of the most troubling trends that are making that other 50 percent even more important to look at is the growing income inequality in the U.S. This push toward the extremes of income levels has real consequences. For example, according to Slate magazine’s recent investigation of income inequality, the wealthiest 1 percent of wage earners received 18 percent of the national income. The percentage of children growing up in poverty is the highest it had been in over two decades, and is only increasing by the year. The list could continue indefinitely.
It’s important to remember exactly how important a family’s income is in determining how successful their children are during the school year. If a student is homeless or having to work to support siblings, it is hard to imagine them finding time to attend that after-school TAKS tutoring or setting aside homework time.
Countless lawsuits and policy proposals have sought to deal with equalizing school finance funding, but this income inequality outside the school has yet to receive the same amount of attention by our judges and our legislators. In fact, due to relatively progressive court rulings and governmental programs throughout the past few decades, more funding on average is flowing to schools in poor neighborhoods than ever before. However, a more progressive income tax structure is a nonstarter in Texas and is frequently demonized as class warfare in national debates.
Research by LBJ’s own Dr. Paul Von Hippel shows the profound impact family economic level can have on student performance. He showed that, during the school months, poor students and wealthy students actually learned at similar rates. In fact, the stark levels of inequality present by the 12th grade could almost entirely be accounted for by two factors: The differences in ability found at the start of Kindergarten, and the high levels of summer learning loss among poor students. With poorer families having less access to educational materials and opportunities outside of the public school system, their children have a harder time being school-ready by age 5 and retaining the past school year’s lessons without the assistance of costly summer programs.
Additionally, other recent research shows a striking correlation between countries with high levels of income inequality and low performance on the standardized test distributed by the Programme for International Student Assessment. Many U.S. education reformers hold Finland up as a model due to their high PISA scores. While there is something to learn from their example, Finland also has one of the lowest rates of income inequality due to a strong political commitment to equality in all areas of society, not just within the school building.
Including this information into our understanding of potential policy proposals makes for a much more complicated picture and raises a challenging chicken-and-the-egg-type question: Which comes first, educational equality or economic equality?
On the one hand, education is one of the best predictors of future income. We often hear education-friendly politicians waxing poetic about how education alone can be the vehicle for improving one’s lot, as if it’s the bootstrap ambitious individuals grasp on to.
However, as mentioned earlier, a family’s economic standing is one of the best predictors of a child’s progress and subsequent success in school. Over the summer, children from wealthy, highly educated families see an almost seamless continuation of the progress they experienced during the school year, while children from poorer, less educated families regress, or remain stagnant if they’re lucky. This difference is largely attributable to wealthy children’s increased access to summer educational resources.
Because of this reality, it seems our education system will be forced to play the scapegoat until we make a concerted effort to combat the economic disparities that are so pervasive outside the classroom. Could our education system be reformed for the better, to be a more equalizing force in society? Absolutely. Should we rely on it alone to undo the truly staggering levels of inequality in our country? Not if we’re making a serious attempt at it.