Inching Toward Equity: What Should Schools Do to Increase Social Mobility?

by Guest Blogger
July 24th, 2013

The great equalizer. It’s what public education is supposed to be. It’s what draws many of us to the field of educational improvement. And it’s what drew me to Core Knowledge. Taking the knowledge and skills that have long been exclusively in the minds of the educational elite and spelling out a grade-by-grade plan for that same knowledge and skill set to take root in all minds—that’s the great equalizing force of the Core Knowledge approach.

I was reminded of that today while reading, and reading about, a new study on social mobility. With data from across the United States, researchers asked questions like this: Of children born into families in the lowest income quintile, what percent are in the highest income quintile in their early 30s? The answer depends largely on where those children grow up.

For a quick summary, let’s turn to the New York Times:

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest,… with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

Want to explore social mobility in your area? Take a look at the two addictive, interactive graphics that the New York Times created. In one, you scroll over an area to see answers to the question of what percent moves from the bottom to the top income quintile:

In the other graphic, you can select an area on the map and slide up and down the parents’ income percentile to see where, on average, children end up:

Even if you only play with these graphics for a few minutes, stark differences in social mobility—in the extent to which America is the land of opportunity—are apparent.

Why? For that, let’s turn to the researchers’ summary of their findings:

To understand what is driving this variation…, we considered other sets of factors that have been proposed in prior work. Here, we found significant correlations between intergenerational mobility and income inequality, economic and racial residential segregation, measures of K-12 school quality (such as test scores and high school dropout rates), social capital indices, and measures of family structure (such as the fraction of single parents in an area). In particular, areas with a smaller middle class had lower rates of upward mobility. In contrast, a high concentration of income in the top 1% was not highly correlated with mobility patterns. Areas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals were also particularly likely to have low rates of upward mobility. The quality of the K-12 school system also appears to be correlated with mobility: areas with higher test scores (controlling for income levels), lower dropout rates, and higher spending per student in schools had higher rates of upward mobility. Finally, some of the strongest predictors of upward mobility are correlates of social capital and family structure. For instance, high upward mobility areas tended to have higher fractions of religious individuals and fewer children raised by single parents. Each of these correlations remained strong even after controlling for measures of tax expenditures. Likewise, local tax policies remain correlated with mobility after controlling for these other factors.

In my mind, these findings boil down to this: communities have choices to make. If you are lucky enough to be on the upper end of the spectrum, you can choose to go bowling alone in your gated community. But if you are concerned about the American experiment, you might want to start asking yourself whether or not your choices add to or subtract from equality of opportunity.

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers.

I’m not going to pretend to have any advice or expertise on the matter. I will, however, point to someone who does: Richard D. Kahlenberg. Kahlenberg is a lot like E. D. Hirsch. He’s an independent-minded scholar with a brilliant idea and the research to back it up—and he’ll stick with it no matter how loud the naysayers’ cries grow.

Here’s his brilliant plan: do whatever it takes to integrate schools by socioeconomic status. Kahlenberg, along with a team of researchers, has explored every facet of the benefits, costs, and feasibility of such integration. For all the details, see The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy. For an essay that sums up the work (and is free online), check out Kahlenberg’s recent article in American Educator. Noting that socioeconomic integration of schools is “a very old and profoundly American idea and, at the same time, novel and mostly unexplored in practice,” he writes:

On the one hand, the idea of economically integrated schools runs deep in American history. In 1837, Horace Mann, who famously argued that public education should be “the great equalizer,” wrote that in order to serve that role, public schools had to be “common schools,” by which he meant institutions in which “the children of all classes, rich and poor, should partake as equally as possible in the privileges” of the enterprise. The idea of socioeconomic integration received a big boost more than 100 years later with the publication of the 1966 Coleman Report. Coleman’s analysis—examining 600,000 students in 4,000 schools—found that the socioeconomic status of your classmates mattered a great deal to your academic performance. The report concluded that “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

On the other hand, in 1996, when I began researching the topic of socioeconomic integration, almost no American school districts explicitly sought an economically integrated student body. Racial integration was a widely recognized goal, but racial desegregation was seen mostly as a legal remedy for the crime of de jure segregation and as a desirable social goal for society at large.

Racial integration is a very important aim that I fully support, but if one’s goal is boosting academic achievement, the research from Coleman (and subsequent studies) found that what really matters is economic integration….

The research is clear. Low-income students in middle-class schools (in which less than 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) are surrounded by: (1) peers who, on average, are more academically engaged and less likely to act out than those in high-poverty schools (in which at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch); (2) a community of parents who are able to be more actively involved in school affairs and know how to hold school officials accountable; and (3) stronger teachers who have higher expectations for students.

In the wealthiest nation, we have schools with and without science labs, theaters, fast computers and internet connections, musical instruments, libraries, gymnasiums, and more. Is such blatant inequity in keeping with our character? I hope not.

Core Knowledge’s contribution is a curriculum that provides intellectual equality of opportunity. That is essential to increasing social mobility, but it is not sufficient. Excellent curricula in socioeconomically integrated schools probably would not be sufficient either—but research shows that it would help.

Upward spiral of knowledge, skills, and social mobility courtesy of Shutterstock.


  1. One demographic not often considered in this talk about achievement gaps is the ordinary white anti-intellectual American who gives lip-service to good education, but balks at the real thing. This describes a lot of people in my well-to-do-blue-collar exurban CA district. They don’t REALLY want their local public school to become more like Andover. They want “normal” well-adjusted kids with the people skills to get good jobs. Thus the personnel hired by the school boards in these sorts of communities tend toward the affable jock rather than the intellectual. The old story that Richard Hoffstadter described.

    Enter David Coleman, a real intellectual, who hopes the Common Core will make our public schools more like Andover. AP for all. I hope he succeeds, though I think it’s a long shot. As part of a Common Core training we were shown a video of Coleman explicating “The Letter from Birmingham Jail”. I had the sense that most of my colleagues had never seen anything like his performance: a hard-core intellectual doing a careful close reading. It’s quite conceivable to me that they never encountered a traditional English class with a brainy, erudite professor. Now they’re expected to act like one. Who knows? They may rise to the challenge. Maybe they sensed, as I did, that Coleman was showing us the real deal –real thinking, as opposed to the coarse, cliche-ridden pseudo-thinking that they usually encounter.

    A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core “expert” we hear from seems to be advocating this approach. Those 57 magic words on p. 2 about the necessity of an intentionally and coherently sequenced curriculum seem to have been overlooked by everybody. In the video we saw, Coleman expressly warned against using a text primarily as a vehicle for teaching a generic reading strategy. Hooray –ammo for our side. But were I not there pointing that out to our leaders, I do not think that line would have registered.

    I will vociferously advocate for a content knowledge-centric curriculum in our small district, but I wonder who else in CA is going to point out those 57 words to the key players? My new superintendent informs me she’s going to hear Bill Honig speak at a big meeting of superintendents soon. I hope he’ll mention those magic 57 words (and, if it’s even possible, convince them that heeding those 57 words will result in high Smarter Balanced Assessment scores, which is the most important thing in the world).

    Comment by Ponderosa — July 26, 2013 @ 11:31 pm

  2. Interesting. Generally, one’s upward mobility is enhanced by growing up in a community where the family unit is a family, people go to church or at least profess a belief in God, and there still exists what has historically been called “the Midwestern work ethic”. I don’t think a study of this magnitude was necessary to illustrate the obvious.

    What baffles me is why God continues to be expelled from the school house and the school continues to exert more and more “parental” control over children in areas it does not belong (birth control, abortion counseling).

    The blue areas of the map correlate with lower unemployment, I’m guessing, or being willing to live in “flyover” country and perform hard work, like ranching, farming, or energy jobs.

    Comment by Cindy — July 28, 2013 @ 1:33 am

  3. It started out as the Puritan/Protestant work ethic and it’s been taught regularly ever since. My DH’s Catholic nuns taught all the tenets, without the name, as did my public school. Under whatever name, certain behaviors and habits are heavily associated with school, work and life success. We are simply unable and/or unwilling to teach and demand them; all in the name of cultural sensitivity. In certain communities, they have been forgotten for several generations and the dysfunctional-to-criminal behaviors attest to that.

    Comment by momof4 — July 28, 2013 @ 11:44 am

  4. Cindy-

    There is a lot to be taken from this study, but not that God needs to be in the school house. If you take the most religious states in this country, the south you see there is very little mobility. The blue sections also appear to reflect the growth of the energy sector in the mountain west.

    However that said, what I took from this study was the profound consequences of concentrated poverty. Having red Hirsch’s work he emphasizes that he thinks a core knowledge system would most help this group. Is there any research evidence of how a Core Knowledge system would work say in Atlanta or a poor school in Arizona. I know it is used in a couple charter schools in Arizona, but they are notable for not having high levels of poverty.

    Comment by DC Parent — July 28, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

  5. I think that one of the big contributors, perhaps the biggest, to social mobility (and lots of other good things) is good parenting. It’s well-known that kids from stable, married, two-parent families have big advantages, from birth, and the gap continues to grow. That is a problem that schools cannot – and should not be expected to – solve. That’s culture.

    Comment by momof4 — July 28, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

  6. I’m in the Sourh right now, visiting my daughter and her family. The FIRST thing one notices here (we drove the scenic route from Ohio), is the prevalence of private Christian schools. Within a ten-mile radius of any one spot, there are three times as many private schools as there are public. The population of homeschooled children is also significant. This points to parents who choose against the public school system because it does not serve their needs. What are their needs? To teach “character” education based on the Bible, not on the views of secular humanism. To praise God, not the government. To teach their children about Christian values, not how to jump 80 per cent age points on the socioeconomic ladder.

    Comment by Cindy — July 29, 2013 @ 7:06 am

  7. Cindy,

    If my history knowledge is correct, white Southerners fled the public schools in droves in the 1960s and ’70s to flee from blacks.

    Comment by ponderosa — July 29, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

  8. Ponderosa,

    You present an ad hominem fallacy. It may be true that Southern whites abandoned public schools in the 60s and 70s; what does that have to do with removing Judeo-Christian virtues from public schools?

    By your logic, a state or county school board would observe that whites were abandoning the public schools and decide that God or Christianity were to blame? Illogical and irrelevant.

    Comment by Cindy — July 29, 2013 @ 8:29 pm

  9. My cousin from Alabama tells me it’s well-known that the reason whites fled the public schools was because of court-ordered integration, not because they were dismayed by secular humanism. Private schools cropped up to meet the new demand. Many of them happened to be Christian schools, but the main impetus for the new demand was desegregation, not a groundswell of revulsion against secular humanism. Is this history incorrect?

    Comment by Ponderosa — July 29, 2013 @ 8:37 pm

  10. You raise good points there. I don’t have enough information to know if people choose private Christian schools today for different or the same reasons as they did fifty years ago.

    If I were to go based on what I see, I’d be speculating too much, and I don’t have any hard data on what the racial make-up is in the private schools today. Could be the basis for another study.

    Comment by Cindy — July 30, 2013 @ 10:29 am

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