Can and should schools spur social mobility?

August 10, 2012 at 11:43 am 4 comments

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?

via Can schools spur social mobility?.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  August 10, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Murray is missing — and it is hard not to think that he’s missing on purpose — that variation has to be taken just as seriously as direct inheritance. (And this includes variation in individuals and the kind of parenting they get.)

    Plato’s “Republic” (not its actual name or sense) was a kind of a meritocracy for governance, and he advocated looking at the entire population of both boys and girls to find talents and abilities that could be nurtured into Guardians over 50 years or so. (The Holy Roman Empire did this for boys.)

    The very early “filtering by parental situation” advocated above would miss important children.

    Schools can do a lot, and should. The Open Magnet School of LA was a busing school and selected by lot from the whole population (this made is a great place to do educational experiments). By in large, the Hispanic children are well loved in their families, but were rarely talked to as infants. When they arrived at the Open School they were often 1-2 year behind verbally and wrt literacy. (It is also the case that children of the same age can differ developmentally by 1-2 years.)

    We were there for 7-8 years and got to see many interesting processes and transformations at all ages, but especially in the earliest “clusters” (children came into the same classrooms, but subsequently were not grouped by age, but by maturity and development levels — these were called “clusters” and consisted of about 60 children and two teachers).

    One of the most striking was the rapid progress made by children that for one reason or another were developmentally behind. Much of the differences had vanished at the end of just one year in this school.

    I think Murray has a bit of a point when thinking about averages between segregated populations — and this against what democracies are supposed to be about.

    In our country, schooling was first and foremost about helping form savvy voting adults who could participate as “the ultimate repository of the powers of the society”. From this standpoint alone, schooling should be doing everything possible to bring every child above important thresholds as citizens.

    Reply
    • 2. nickfalkner  |  August 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      I was going to write something along these lines but far less articulately. I’ll just reiterate Alan’s final comment: schooling should be doing everything possible to bring every child above important thresholds as citizens.

      Reply
  • 3. copiancestral  |  August 11, 2012 at 4:20 am

    I think no one can deny that this type of segregation does nothing but expand this gap of the successful and the not successful (the poor). However, it’s is true that education can (and it should) take people out of poverty, weather they’re naturally gifted or not.

    The other thing that caught my attention is that “academic ability” is no longer randomly distributed. This is utterly true when we look at the difference between the first- and third-world countries. And what is just as interesting is the rise of poverty and increase of this gap among the people of the industrialized world. I wrote a post along these lines several days ago about Envisioning the future your child will live in.

    Reply
  • […] I agree with the importance of reaching underserved populations, I am not convinced that MOOCs are currently having much of an effect in the developing world or to […]

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