Does Reforming U.S. Schools Soften or Harden Inequalities in Wealth and Health?

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No secret now that U.S. inequalities in the distribution of wealth has reached the highest levels since the 1920s. In 2007, 10 percent of the population held nearly 50 percent of the wealth in the nation, a level higher than any since 1928 when the stock market bubble was about to burst. Twenty percent of the population in 2007 held 84 percent of the wealth.

Nor is it a secret that racial disparities in health–infant mortality is three times higher for black women than women of other races and American Indians have the highest suicide rates–still plague Americans.

What’s the connection between stark inequalities of wealth and health among Americans and schools? It is that for over a century school reformers, like die-hard fanatics who perseverate in the face of one failure after another, believe that U.S. schools can solve national problems, including inequalities in wealth and health through producing graduates primed to get jobs in an ever-changing labor market. Yet school reform has yet to solve major U.S. problems.

The source for these steel-hardened beliefs in school reform can be found in Americans’ expectations for tax-supported public schools. Schools are expected to produce public goods in the form of skilled graduates, citizens, and solutions to problems such as weak economic growth due to inadequately skilled graduates, urban and rural poverty, ill health, and unemployment. Parents also expect that access to good public schooling will put my children on a social escalator to financial success, health, and a better life–a private good.

Yet strong tensions are embedded in this public good–schooling for all–and the private good–I want my kids in the best schools to get the best jobs. Since educational credentials have become the gold standard for attaining financial success, and since everyone cannot go to Harvard or Stanford or graduate with MBAs and Ph.Ds., conflicts between getting access to education–a public good– and at the same time gaining advantage for one’s own children–a private good–have bedeviled school reformers for the past two centuries.

David Labaree’s “Someone Has To Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling” makes the persuasive case that school reforms stumble repeatedly over these tensions between public access and private advantage and, in the long run, these failed school reforms harden rather than soften larger social inequalities in public schools. How does that occur?

Because reformers persistently see schools solving larger social, political, and economic problems–they “educationalize” problems. They look to the school, an inherently conservative institution, to remedy persistent problems of racial and socioeconomic segregation, inadequate medical care, crippling poverty, crime, unemployment, and [insert your favorite national problem here]. And in their ever-optimistic but continually failed efforts for schools to solve major societal problems, reformers end up hardening social inequalities by unintentionally reproducing these inequalities in schools and supplying well-intentioned programs for gifted and talented students, Advanced Placement courses, and digital technologies including computer courses in largely minority and poor urban schools across the nation. Evidence again and again shows that such programs fail to show positive results and harden already existing socioeconomic differences. That occurs because these programs are quickly launched with few experienced teachers and students having the requisite skills while the same programs where the capacities of teachers and students have been nourished and grown over many years are plentiful in largely white, affluent districts (see my post on three-tiered system of schooling, June 20 2010)

High-profile exceptions to this pattern of failures exist. Recent growth of small urban high schools in big cities have far more students than ever before a chance to enter higher education; KIPP, Green Dot, Aspire and charter schools offer choices to urban parents where none existed; wraparound social and educational programs like Harlem’s Children Zone offer hope to both parents and children. These and similar programs may achieve short-term success with their students staying in school and going to college. But their very existence is water poured into a bucket full of holes when it comes to larger societal issues of slow economic growth, poverty, racial disparities in health  and maldistribution of wealth.

What to do? Recognize publicly that schools as a social institution is an indirect and inappropriate tool to remedy national problems. Once acknowledged, political leaders and legislatures can adopt and implement strong, direct, and appropriate measures  to reduce inequalities that are available such as progressive tax policies and earned income tax credits,  family support policies, health insurance, and Vaccines for Children–as exist in many other nations. Movement toward such direct measures will get a conservative political institution such as public schools out of the business of solving problems indirectly and ineptly.

Will it happen? Not until sufficient voters and groups are mobilized to recognize the limits of schooling and then sort out what schools can and cannot do.



Filed under school reform policies

28 responses to “Does Reforming U.S. Schools Soften or Harden Inequalities in Wealth and Health?

  1. Bob Calder

    It is not likely to happen because these people have no way to reward politicians for enacting effective reform. Foundations and the well-to-do are funding traditional reform at higher rates than ever. Reward must always incentise action in the political arena. Perhaps that is why legislators feel so strongly that other people react well to carrots. (?) I would love to see my own legislators agree to daily blood testing for hormone levels.

    As scientific evidence of early intervention continues to mount…

  2. Maria

    Thanks for this post. Having moved 5 years ago to an Abbott district (NJ), a heavily funded school district with State monies, I recently found this connection after reading all the Abbott documentation; all of a sudden it looked as if I had placed my advocacy at all the wrong levels! We still need strong leadership on my poor district (and accountability) but your post is making me think in a much broader way how to continue advocating for our kids here in Plainfield. It looks as if my library will be getting new titles starting with Labaree. Thanks again!

  3. Cal

    Once acknowledged, political leaders and legislatures can adopt and implement strong, direct, and appropriate measures to reduce inequalities that are available such as progressive tax policies and earned income tax credits, family support policies, health insurance, and Vaccines for Children–as exist in many other nations.

    Gosh, if it were that easy, we’d have done that instead of spending billions on education.

    America is a meritocracy–not a perfect one, of course. We will approve lots of money to remedy the lack of a meritocracy, believing that a fair playing field is essential. We aren’t socialists, and we aren’t (speaking collectively) progressive, and I doubt we’ll ever institute the programs you list.

    We are getting very near the point when the majority of Americans will conclude that those with ability and even the modicum of desire can succeed, regardless of their backgrounds, and that those who don’t succeed have deficits but plenty of opportunity.

    We won’t be voting in family support, progessive tax policies, and the like. We will, I suspect, be eliminating constrained academic curriculum, aggressive (and unfair) graduation requirements, while instituting vocational education, as we learn to stop flinching at the demographic imbalances that occur when parents and their students make their choices.

  4. Pingback: More on Cities in Decline… « Politics of Decline, Redux

  5. Ericka W.

    Our nation’s public school system is the foundation of our country, in my opinion. The fact of the matter is that gaining an appropriate education will make more the nation competitive in a world that is constantly changing. Unfortunately, the design of the school system must be drastically reformed because the structure of our communities has drastically changed. Based on the article, four years ago, “10 percent of the population held nearly 50 percent of the wealth in the nation”: it would be interesting to see how much this number has changed. Public schools are not the remedy to our national problems but they are definitely a major part of the solution. The efforts of the charter schools mentioned in the article may not address the larger scale problems that exist in society, but they are getting to the root of the issues, which is, in my opinion, the changing American family. Many of the supports that were available beyond the school are no longer there, so the school must take a stronger role, for now, that should lead to addressing strengthening the American family amidst the new society that we live in. Wealth and health will fall into place when students have a strong education and a household that supports a strong education. Schools can make some major contributions to improving societal ills if they are willing to acknowledge the shortcomings in current practices and collaborate to find the best practices. In addition to school reform, the recognition of the limits of schooling, determining what schools can and cannot do, will help decipher the other areas that need to be directly addressed so efforts can be more concentrated and not generalized under one, big category.

  6. Bev L.

    Our school systems are the root to economic improvements and change. Reforming schools to ensure all students receive an appropriate and equitable education is one great strategy. However, there are other strategies that should be implemented. Schools alone cannot “fix” our nation’s problems. When our graduating high school and college students enter the work force, there should be appropriate jobs for them according to their skills. In addition, another strategy would be to target not only the schools, but the families that are currently struggling everyday would benefit by having better housing, jobs, and health care. Reforming schools is just one strategy in resolving the in equalities pertaining to wealth and health.

  7. Toni E.

    As far back as I can remember, education has always been one of the most important achievable dreams of this country. As a young child, I learned that you went to school, you did the best you could and you valued education. Families were strong proponents of a “good” education. The support system was strong. Parents wanted “good public schooling” for their children to assure a good job/career (“financial success”), “health, and a better life (than the one they had)” during that time, as well. I believe that as it was then even now schools are and should be expected to assist in the production of a nation of “skilled graduates” and productive citizens with the focus being on a thriving economy, a successful America. Schools, however, were not then and are not now the “sole” providers of solutions to all of the country’s problems.
    Educational reform is needed. As globalization increases, the needs of this nation’s people change. Based upon the information provided, the reformers need to be reformed. It is understood that one can not continue to do the same thing and get different results. The failure visible in the data received is attributed to the failure in the necessary provisions being made to improve this nation’s educational system. Does not the NCLB law apply to research and studies also? Where is the data that supports the assessing of the impoverished or those of lower socioeconomic status? In order to receive different results, education can no longer function on what worked yesterday. Until the economy improves and stabilizes, there needs to be an increase in the provisions made for the growth and development of children within the school system, regardless of socioeconomic status. Charter schools and various school programs provide the opportunity for hope to an otherwise failing society. Although they may be short lived, they provide a foundation and a hope to a people who would possibly never have the opportunity to experience a successful future. The educational system has to take a more active role in the success of the students, I believe. Appropriate allocation of funding within the educational arena to provide the opportunity for the highest quality of education possible to a hungry and thirsty population of students is necessary. The educational structure can no longer be the recipient of the “leftovers”.

  8. Kwesi

    Many familes put their hopes and dreams of their child one day being able to live a productive life in the type of education that they receive. Although all children within America are endowed with a right to a free and appropriate education; not all education is equal. Schools get a level of funding from the federal government and state government. Schools also get part of their budget from local property taxes. This is where the disparity starts. Children in more affluent communities that have a higher tax base have educational opportunities that will not be seen by other students in poor or rural communities that don’t have access to those funds due to the poverty of the people who live within the area. The disparity in resources and funding spread over time will end in a stark difference in the education that each child has been provided.

  9. Diona Williams

    There are many factors that are linked to the success of a nation, its educational system is one of them. I certainly do not believe that schools are the sole solution to all world problems, but I do believe that schools should, and do, enhance society. Educational institutions have the great responsibility of helping prepare students to become competent critical thinkers and problem solvers that possess the ability to contribute something meaningful to the world at large. For too long, schools have been viewed as unimportant tools. School reform itself is not the culprit. Many times our approach to school reform is incorrect because we are over zealous, but uninformed about what actually works in public schools.

  10. Syreeta C

    The education system is one of the foundations of our society. With more money being spent on prisons than education, we clearly have a fallacy. What is the message is being sent? When more money is put into quality education, it hopeful (at least to me) that less money would be needed to be put in the penal system. Our best bet of producing successful future citizen is by ensuring that they are receiving a good quality education. However, it seems that we are regressing instead of progressing if we want to continue to produce generations of students that are going to surpass the education levels and finical means of their parent generations.

  11. Jacqueline Dozier

    I am guilty of believing that parental support and good school reform would resolve many of the economic woes that exist in society. I have even wondered why the federal government had not done more than simply give conformity incentives through funding and choice schooling options while the traditional district schools still suffer. I am currently reading a similar topic by Jean Anyon (2005). She gives suggestions on working to improve the economics of families, and various other societal issues as a means to improve our low income urban schools. She goes on to mention several programs (governmental and private) that have been put into place in certain cities that have worked in improving the income level of families and in turn raising the school performance of students (Anyon, 2005). I believe you both give very valid argument for looking away from schooling as the solution for improvement to economy, but rather look to improvement of economy as the solution to schooling.

    Anyon, J. (2005). Radical possibilities: Public policy, urban education, and a new social movement. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Franklin Group.

  12. Wendy C.

    I agree with the premise that many people look to the school system to remedy a vast majority of social ills. And the truth is that schools are ill-equipped to handle them. That’s simply beyond the scope of what schools can successfully accomplish with the limitations inherently placed on them by government restrictions and merely by virtue of the fact that they do not get to choose their clientele. It’s the phenomenon Labaree (2010) desribes as public access versus private advantage when talking about the many challenges school reform meets. Because school reform itself is designed to solve very limited and specific problems, it results in a wider disparity of inequalities between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

  13. Janet S.

    Schools can not and should not be expected to solve American’s problems. The intent of NCLB was to measure performance in schools and show test data based on different subgroups of students, such as low socio-economic status and minority students. As an administrator, I am a proponent for accountability, but not at the cost of diminishing a child’s education. In my opinion, what was intended for good has resulted in destroying community schools, particularly ones with minority population. By 2014, all students are expected to be on grade level in reading and mathematics. How can this be effectively accomplished, especially with the unfair barriers. For example, students serviced by special education are required to take state assessments on their grade level, but they are taught at their achievement level. This is unfair and frustrating to students. School reform should be about making a positive difference and helping students to become successful. Until law makers take a look at things such as housing, transportation and the funding of schools, school reform will continue to fail.

  14. Krystal M.

    Schools cannot fix every national problem. However, that does not mean our educational system does not need reform. The focus needs to be on equity of education. Whether it’s a rural area, surburan area or urban areas, students everywhere across our nation should be receiving the same level of education. Sadly, the only way we can get policies of change in education is through our political representatives. And how many of them are willing to take a true and honest stance for public education. We have to change our value system in our country. We should want the wealth to be spread fairly among Americans. However, as long as the rich stay rich; the poor will continue to be poor.

  15. karlisa s

    Well said; however what do we do with these well edudcated students in these reformed schools when there are no jobs for them outside of service and technology industries?

  16. Jamel G.

    Educational reform has different meanings to different people. Some people feel education reform should stem from the federal government while others feel true reform begins in the classroom. Educational institutions require strategic planning and government funding in order to properly service all students. With that being said, educational institutions are not the cure for all problems in our country. The 2007 statistic concerning wealth distribution was alarming and shameful. In my opinion, education reform must occur first with political understanding of issues that education can honestly address, along with funding, and a total change of thinking of American attitudes towards education. If we truly feel that education can fix all of our nations’ problems, why is it that politicians running for office stress changes and funding coming to education but never really deliver upon gaining there position? Just a thought.

  17. Austrai B.

    Education reform has been a heated topic for quite some time. Reformist have been implementing changes since education evolved. Educators, administrators, and political leaders see the best type of reform through different lenses. Making sure schools are appropriately funded is another major topic seen through different lenses. Reformation and funding should be aligned with one another but before that can happen, we have to look more at equity. Equity focuses on the diverse needs of our students. Equality just states that we all need the same accommodations, which is not true. Before reforming any institution and allocating a budget, we must research and create a plan that ensures all students are properly serviced. America has a lot of work to do and it must start at the top. I agree with the gentleman, Jamel, who posted before me. We have to change our American attitudes towards education but it has to start at the top. Stop cutting funding and show that education is imperative to our great nation.

  18. Jacqueline Mann

    When viewing public education in the US, school reform has to be looked at from the ten thousand foot view and through a social reform lens. While focusing on helping students get a strong start in life as productive citizens. It is imperative that young people are equipped with the tools to be successful beyond K-12 education. Helping individuals to obtain economic and social stability will assist in the fight to maintain the thriving urban communities that many educators live work and play. In an increasingly global economy in which strong reading, math, and science skills are essential to social mobility, education reform has to be looked at both inside and outside of the schools buildings. Education reform is more than trying to save schools or school districts, transforming education can save the lives of our youth today. I just wonder how long it will take for school district and community organizations to understand the importance of tackling school reform through social reform.

  19. terri Best

    If you always do what you have always done, then you always get what you have always got. School reform as it currently is does not work. As you so elegantly stated in your article, the problems are being addressed with the wrong solutiions. If I am sick, I need a doctor, not a new smart borad in my classroom. The problems that school reform are currently trying to address will require systematic changes in laws and institutuions. These changes must occur ourside of the relm of the school doors. The buzz words now are to prepare students to be career, college and citizen ready. What about preparing students to be change agents?

    With that being said, I would still have students to get the current education offered to them as opposed to nothing.

  20. F. Vanessa Diggs

    The inequalities in school funding in urban schools is a barrier to school reform efforts. Urban school districts located in major cities are dealing with more than educational needs of their students. The schools have to take into account students that are living in poverty, poor attendance rates, limited English speaking students, and under-qualified teachers. Until states adopt a different method in how funds are allocate to their districts, it will be difficult for reforms to be sustained in urban schools.

  21. Emmett Connor Gardner

    Schools are responsible to provide equal education to all its citizens and now non citizens. The theory sounds great but it is not possible. When a child comes to school hungry or is homeless and has had lack of sleep because of a social issue, that child is not going to function well in a learning environment.
    I wish school could cure all the social problems that that child is facing but it will not happen. Police, fire persons, social workers, business people, religious organizations, social clubs and human beings as a whole will assist in making our world a better place when they share in providing assistance to a child that they see has a need. Even schools can step up more by caring for the child’s social needs before thinking that educational needs are going to be of value to the child.
    The child must feel safer in school than any other place that the child has ever entered. This child must see that he is cared for, fed and loved for being a person that can make a positive difference in our society.
    Let this difference begin with me.

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