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.