Education in Context

An importance subtext in a lot of education policy debates is that some people feel that efforts to improve the performance of schools is a distraction from the more important job of giving poor people more economic resources. As Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado puts the critique, those who complain about poor school performance “act as enablers for those who dismiss the need to address issues of concentrated poverty.”

Kevin Carey has a reply to this that I largely agree with as far as it goes, but I’d like to make a couple of points in defense of the Welner perspective. One—and this is why I like being a generalist—is that there really are sharp limits to have far you can go with addressing education policy issues in a vacuum. The rising cost of health care, the shrinking public tolerance for tax hikes on the middle class, and the hyper-empowerment of the rich in the political system are combining to create a situation where it will be impossible to finance K-12 education in the United States. Institutions committed to “education reform” as their mission sort of can’t focus on this nexus by definition and the people who fund such outfits are generally not interested in funding talk about the desirability of higher taxes. Similarly, most American cities are in a position where if they improve their school system and hold housing policies constant, the medium-term impact will be to create a new equilibrium where poor people can’t afford to live in the city, not a new equilibrium where poor people attend the new good schools.

The flipside of that is that it’s difficult for me to imagine a policy agenda that improves the relative status of poor people in a long-term and sustainable way that doesn’t include improvements in the level of educational attainment. That’s not even especially because of the economic benefits of improved education and better skills. Just think about political empowerment. People who grow up equipped to read and write and speak standard formal professional English have a much better chance of getting their concerns addressed by public officials. People who understand math and statistics are harder to hoodwink or take advantage of.

It’s like Brother Mouzone says.