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In this file photo, a pre-K student completes a writing assignment.
In this file photo, a pre-K student completes a writing assignment. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Editor’s note: Once a month, the National Interest column will tackle broader questions about what the country should do to increase educational opportunities for black youths.

Americans like to think that if individuals are educated in great schools, they can pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and bring their families with them. From childhood, we’re told that we can achieve middle-class status if we only work hard in school and get good grades. No matter if obstacles such as bad policing, weak labor markets and discriminatory housing policies litter our path. We believe that a good education can propel us past those barriers, and we can surpass our parents’ social standing.

If there’s one thing that unifies a riven country, it’s the shining promise of education. Democrats, Republicans and education reformers of all stripes are all invested in the belief that schools are the “great equalizer.” But new research out of the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that we’re overselling our belief in schools. That belief, in fact, might barely be a hope.

The study’s author, Jesse Rothstein, and his colleagues at Berkeley found that the quality of K-12 schooling has little bearing on individuals’ ability to earn more than their parents. Rothstein’s research addresses commonly held assumptions about social mobility. The study found that family structure (spousal earnings), access to a college education and the ability to parlay that education into a bigger paycheck play much larger roles.

Put simply, we’re overstating the impact of schools on students’ abilities to climb the social ladder. Kids don’t live in schools; they live in communities. And schools don’t transcend neighborhoods and cities; they are part of them. Improving people’s lives means we must empower the communities that schools are in.

Related: Higher education must stand up for Puerto Rico

The gospel is that more Advanced Placement courses, more time in reading and math, harsh accountability and state takeover of their schools will deliver low-income youths a better life (ahem, much later in life). But overemphasizing school quality—at least as measured by traditional yardsticks—allows the upper classes to escape investing in truer equalizers such as scholarships restricted to low-income families and pathways to careers (not dead-end jobs).

Schools don’t transcend neighborhoods and cities; they are part of them. Improving people’s lives means we must empower the communities that schools are in.

For instance, earlier this year, cash-strapped Louisiana legislators were faced with cutting the state’s merit scholarship for students irrespective of financial need, which amounted to a tax break for upper-income parents. Many of the “fixes” proposed by legislators to reduce the program’s cost, such as increasing the ACT-score requirement, disproportionately affected poorer students, but large deficits still put the program on the chopping block.

Giving in to middle-class outrage, lawmakers eventually found funding to continue the scholarship this year, but it’s a temporary solution. Lawmakers should instead create a scholarship program the state can afford by limiting the scholarships to people who can demonstrate financial need.

Academic snobs like me need to accept that technical education and practical training provided by trade schools should be pillars of education reform. Vocational classes, internships, apprenticeships and more can result in higher earnings and a pathway to middle-class jobs later on.

In a speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2014, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that technical education was “the neglected stepchild of education reform.” He was right. There are reasons that poor folk are stuck with hope instead of real opportunities: Middle-class families are hoarding them.

Related: Black athletes can teach us about more than just sports

“Every college place or internship that goes to one of our kids because of a legacy bias or personal connection is one less available to others,” writes Brookings Institution researcher Richard Reeves in a discussion of social mobility in his book Dream Hoarders.

There are only so many seats in America’s top colleges. Not everyone can be at the top. Creating diversity demands some sacrifice. A largely white middle class would rather peddle feel-good slogans about the transcendent power of education to the poor than give up their own seat at the table.

Some of us are complicit, too.

African-Americans with a certain class privilege have access not only to higher education but also to the networking and, subsequently, career opportunities it affords. If we aren’t going to give up our seats at a predominantly white table, we should at the very least fight for economically oppressed black people to have the necessary tools to improve their relationship to labor markets.

The difference in social mobility among adults has less to do with skills gained in school and more to do with factors that influence labor markets, such as the protection that comes with belonging to a union, or differing access to good jobs, or access to exclusive internships that lead to prestigious careers and mentoring. The Rothstein study found that money is still a clear predictor of academic success, and parental income is strongly related to academic attainment. This reinforces the idea that education reform without a jobs program is like Corn Flakes without milk.

School leaders have rightly focused on making schools more rigorous (and we should continue to do so), but we have simultaneously reduced access to the people and things that uplift communities and families. For example, in our rush to promote rigor and accountability, we’ve pushed performance-based funding policies by which states fund colleges based on their graduation and retention rates. Universities acquiesced in the last decade by instituting significant restrictions on their admissions criteria, including requiring minimum ACT or SAT scores, a nefarious way to improve performance. Consequently, students from low-income families who tend to score lower on standardized tests aren’t admitted to institutions that could give them a leg up on the ladder.

Related: America has never had a merit-based system for college attendance

There’s another negative to inflating the impact of schools. If students don’t succeed, we fault them or heap blame on black parents for their underachieving kids. “It all starts at home,” we say, shaking our heads sadly, wagging our fingers at black America. This in the face of consistent evidence that shows African-Americans are most likely to value a postsecondary education for success, at 90 percent, followed by Asians and Latinos, with whites at 64 percent. It’s not that parenting doesn’t matter, but nappy hair and sagging pants aren’t the reasons black folk aren’t getting into Harvard at similar rates as whites.

In the name of school quality, we’ve fired teachers en masse, expelled kids for uniform violations, removed schools from districts managed by elected governing bodies and made it more difficult for people of low-income backgrounds to be teachers. After limiting students’ chances for mobility in these and other areas, districts will rave about insignificant, incremental increases on the ACT or SAT that can’t be attributed to any specific education reforms.

Then, after blaming low-income black folk, we middle-class Americans pat ourselves on the back to justify our seat at the table.

“Too many upper-middle-class Americans still insist that their success, or the success of their children, stems entirely from brilliance and tenacity,” Reeves wrote.

It’s time to discard the cliché about education that it is the next civil rights issue of our generation; the reality is that privileged Americans limit opportunities for everyone else, ensuring that the American dream remains merely a fantasy.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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  1. Dr. Perry,

    Thank you for sharing this provocative commentary. I feel that it knits together some of the loose ends of dissonant narratives on:
    1) Equity
    2) Social Capital
    3) Academic Rigor

    I’d be intrigued to hear your thoughts on this related piece that emphasizes the important roles that schools can play in more pro-actively and productively supporting students/families/communities – “I Want to Follow Your Footsteps,” — Schools and Social Capital –

    I’ve appreciated a number of the pieces that I’ve come across by you and I hope that our paths intertwine,

    Andrew Frishman, Co-Executive Director, Big Picture Learning

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