The fine people at The Brookings Institution are concerned; they are concerned with the inequality in income, the lack of opportunity in America, and the growing poverty rate. Furthermore, Isabel Sawhill, Co-Director of Center on Children and Families, is stupefied that the public doesn’t care more about these statistics, “The public in this country seems reasonably comfortable with the large degree of poverty and inequality.” Evidence? Simply, we haven’t done as much as other countries; America is just not European enough. This disinterest has led to a decline in opportunity and social mobility. Without opportunity an individual cannot secure the American Dream, and cannot move beyond their origins. In fact, recent data suggests that the income of an adult compares favorably to the income of the family in which they were raised. “Clearly,” Sawhill posits, America has “less opportunity than other rich countries.”
However, the way to promote opportunity is to focus on education. Indeed, “If you care about social mobility or opportunity in America, then you have to care about education.” Providing individuals with education will weaken the advantages of class and family background, in terms of success. Sawhill argues that progress must be made throughout all levels of education. Recently, The Brookings Institution hosted a panel to discuss ways in which to “break the link between parental background and [a] child’s eventual success.”
Steve Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, explains that his research details “a good news, bad news story” for investment in preschool education. On a positive note, “Investments in learning and development for children before they enter kindergarten can have a significant effect on social mobility.” In addition, active public programs, such as Head Start, subsidized child care, and state pre-kindergarten programs, have had some effect on increasing social mobility. However, the effects are modest due to limited access for children in poverty, which weakens the programs. Moreover, the public programs start fairly late, whereby, “quite a bit of learning and development…has already taken place.” Still, with reform, these public programs can be salvaged.
First and foremost, access to programs must be increased for children in low-income families; although the programs should be available to all children. Moreover, the quality of preschool education must be increased, which includes better teachers, better pay, smaller classes, and accountability. Barnett relays the familiar argument but claims, “It’s more urgent in the early childhood field.” The quantity of preschool education is also essential (i.e., earlier education and extra hours are important). These modifications provide evidence that point to a greater impact on children than do outdated programs.
Cecilia Rouse, Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, suggests that “it’s not clear that simply increasing educational attainment is going to break the relationship between a child’s future socioeconomic status and [their family’s] socioeconomic status.” Statistics do show that children with a higher socioeconomic status perform better on tests, have lower dropout rates, and have higher graduation rates. But, a causal relationship between high-income and educational attainment is difficult to establish. In fact, the explanation may be an innate educational ability genetically passed down to children. However, adoption studies show evidence that a child’s environment is also significant, and as Rouse claims, “It’s really the environment that policy can potentially change.”
Ultimately, if the benefits of education outweigh the costs, then children will stay in school. However, costs can be different for children in different income levels. Low-income children have different psychological costs, whereby teacher expectations are lower. They have different information costs, whereby they don’t understand the benefit of education. Finally, they have different opportunity costs, whereby it’s difficult to make money while in school. These costs could be decreased by improving school quality, which includes employing more experienced teachers, reducing inadequate building features, and scheduling more advance placement classes. That said, family is still the most important factor in educational attainment, and could undue any policies enacted to improve school quality.
Tim Smeeding, Director of Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University, commends top tier universities for recently changing tuition policies and early admission policies in order to benefit low-income children, but unfortunately, “That’s not where low income kids go to school.” In fact, most low-income children go to community colleges or state schools that are less selective. Smeeding’s solutions are simple; he provides steps that must be taken by low-income students to succeed. These steps include preparedness in high school, taking the SAT or ACT, applying to universities, and persisting in higher education.
Many of these steps could be solved by hiring and training specialized school counselors. These counselors would be trained in preparing children to go to college, which includes advising them on tests and providing detailed information on tuition packets. Better tuition packets for low-income students could be introduced by significantly limiting subsidies to wealthy schools. Once low-income students enroll, a management system should be established to monitor them, ensuring that they continue to persist. If these solutions don’t provide results, then government must began to think about another G.I. Bill.
Unfortunately, when a group of pessimistic scholars provide typical answers to tiring questions it’s difficult to find real solutions. The potential policies that were introduced were the intellectual equivalent of arguing that “Schools need more money.” When vouchers and charter schools were mentioned, they were simply dismissed, “The evidence of school vouchers is decidedly mixed…there is no effect overall.” The argument for improved preschool education was unique, but can education that an individual barely remembers have a great impact in adulthood? Or, as a gentleman later quipped, “If anything I say makes any sense it’s because I had very good pre-K education.” If the education system is truly failing, then these scholars didn’t propose any overwhelming reform, but instead proffered little tweaks with no “evidence that it makes a big difference.”
Matthew Hickman is an intern with Accuracy in Media.