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Thursday, 9 November 2017

Education Isn't the Key to a Good Income



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A man climbs a ladder.

A growing body of research debunks the idea that school quality is the main determinant of economic mobility.


One of the most commonly taught stories American schoolchildren learn is that of Ragged Dick, Horatio Alger’s 19th-century tale of a poor, ambitious teenaged boy in New York City who works hard and eventually secures himself a respectable, middle-class life. This “rags to riches” tale embodies one of America’s most sacred narratives: that no matter who you are, what your parents do, or where you grow up, with enough education and hard work, you too can rise the economic ladder.
A body of research has since emerged to challenge this national story, casting the United States not as a meritocracy but as a country where castes are reinforced by factors like the race of one’s childhood neighbors and how unequally income is distributed throughout society. One such study was published in 2014, by a team of economists led by Stanford’s Raj Chetty. After analyzing federal income tax records for millions of Americans, and studying, for the first time, the direct relationship between a child’s earnings and that of their parents, they determined that the chances of a child growing up at the bottom of the national income distribution to ever one day reach the top actually varies greatly by geography. For example, they found that a poor child raised in San Jose, or Salt Lake City, has a much greater chance of reaching the top than a poor child raised in Baltimore, or Charlotte. They couldn’t say exactly why, but they concluded that five correlated factors—segregation, family structure, income inequality, local school quality, and social capital—were likely to make a difference. Their conclusion: America is land of opportunity for some. For others, much less so.

A new working paper authored by the UC Berkeley economist Jesse Rothstein builds on that research, in part by zeroing in on one of those five factors: schools. The idea that school quality would be an important element for intergenerational mobility—essentially a child’s likelihood that they will one day outearn their parents—seems intuitive: Leaders regularly stress that the best way to rise up the income ladder is to go to school, where one can learn the skills they need to succeed in a competitive, global economy. “In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education,” Barack Obama declared in his 2010 State of the Union address. Improving “skills and schools” is a benchmark of Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s poverty-fighting agenda.
Indeed, this bipartisan education-and-poverty consensus has guided research and political efforts for decades. Broadly speaking, the idea is that if more kids graduate from high school, and achieve higher scores on standardized tests, then more young people are likely to go to college, and, in turn, land jobs that can secure them spots in the middle class.
Rothstein’s new work complicates this narrative. Using data from several national surveys, Rothstein sought to scrutinize Chetty’s team’s work—looking to further test their  hypothesis that the quality of a child’s education has a significant impact on her ability to advance out of the social class into which she was born.
Rothstein, however, found little evidence to support that premise. Instead, he found that differences in local labor markets—for example, how similar industries can vary across different communities—and marriage patterns, such as higher concentrations of single-parent households, seemed to make much more of a difference than school quality. He concludes that factors like higher minimum wages, the presence and strength of labor unions, and clear career pathways within local industries are likely to play more important roles in facilitating a poor child’s ability to rise up the economic ladder when they reach adulthood.*
For Rothstein, there’s no reason to assume that improving schools will be necessary or sufficient for improving someone’s economic prospects. “We can’t educate people out of this problem,” he says.
His work, like Chetty’s, is not causal—meaning Rothstein is not able to identify exactly what explains the underlying variation in his economic model. Nevertheless, his work helps to provide researchers and policymakers with a new set of background facts to investigate, and signals that perhaps they should be reconsidering some of their existing ideas. (Both Raj Chetty and his co-author Nathaniel Hendren declined to comment for this story.)
Jose Vilson, a New York City math teacher, says educators have known for years that out-of-school factors like access to food and healthcare are usually bigger determinants for societal success than in-school factors. He adds that while he tries his best to adhere to his various professional duties and expectations, he also recognizes that “maybe not everyone agrees on what it means to be successful” in life.

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