Can and should schools spur social mobility?
Disturbing but fascinating piece linked below that suggests that the “super efficient” meritocracy of the United States quickly sorts out those with talent, who then marry each other, and over time, the gap between the upper classes and the lower classes becomes more than just opportunity. The suggestion in this interview is that schools can’t really do much to fill in that gap. The piece by Roschelle et al that I mentioned a few weeks ago suggests that schools can help the lower-performing groups improve their performance, but there is some question as to whether schools can really bridge the gap, or will the better-performing students just accelerate even more than the lower-performing?
And is that school’s jobs at all? On my way out of Heathrow last Sunday morning, I read a news piece and an op-ed in The Telegraph, outraged that schools were accepting poorer children who did not have the grades to get in on their own. Explicitly, the heading complained that the schools were engaged in “social engineering.” In the US, we do talk about education as a leg-up, a way of enhancing social mobility. But maybe that’s not a necessary role for school, and Murray would argue, school can’t achieve that goal anyway.
But this assumes that academic ability—whether defined as intelligence, or non-cognitive skills and character traits, or whatever else—is randomly distributed across the population. Which, Murray argues, was probably once true but is no longer. Because of the ferocious sorting of the meritocratic machine, talented people have been finding and marrying one another, and giving birth to a super-class of highly gifted children. (Murray said at our event that it “doesn’t matter” whether these gifts are bequeathed by nature or nurture. What matters is the strong link between the talents of parents and the talents of their offspring.) And, as David Brooks pointed out today, after years of bedtime stories, trips to the zoo, vocabulary-packed conversations, and other “enrichment” activities, these children enter school miles ahead of the rest of their peers—including the poor kids that are the focus of so many education reforms.
Of course, as Murray says, this phenomenon plays out in terms of group averages. If we live in a meritocracy where intelligence and other talents lead to success,* then the children of the highly successful (the Elite) will, on average, be more talented than the children of the somewhat successful, who will, on average, be more talented that the children of the not successful (i.e., the children of the poor). On average.
Understandably, we don’t much like to discuss this possibility. It gives cover to educators who look at a classroom of low-income children and diminish their expectations—thinking that “these kids” aren’t capable of much, educators who don’t buy the mantra that “all children can learn.” But would we be shocked to find that the average intelligence level of such a classroom is lower than a classroom in an elite, affluent suburb?