Education plays only a small part in economic success
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Most of us were brought up to believe that education is the key that opens the door to a better future. Whether this is true depends in part on how one defines a better future. If we're just talking about upward mobility and earning power, it is not a given that education leads to greater financial success, according to a growing body of research.
In a 2014 study, the income tax records of 40 million children and their parents were analyzed to identify correlations between parent and offspring earning. The research team, comprising economists from Harvard University and UC Berkeley, discovered that geography was a greater determining factor than education in intergenerational mobility.
Location was shown to play an even more important role for children growing up in low-income families than other children. For example, in Charlotte, North Carolina, there is a 4.4 percent chance that a child reaches the top 5 percent of the national income distribution starting from a family in the bottom quintile. In San Jose, California, the probability goes up to 12.9 — as high as Denmark and Canada, two of the world's most upwardly mobile countries.
The places shown to have higher mobility had some common traits including less residential segregation, less income inequality, better primary schools, greater social capital and greater family stability.
As the analysis was not designed to identify the causal mechanisms that determine upward mobility, the authors recommend further research to answer the question of why some areas generate higher rates of mobility than others. They see it as a local problem best addressed with place-based policies, which then need to be tested for effectiveness.
Jesse Rothstein, an economist from UC Berkeley, has taken on the task of building upon the above research with a deeper analysis of schools, one of the five qualities present in areas with upward mobility noted in the previous study.
In an article in The Atlantic, Rothstein shares that based on data he's gathered and analyzed from several national surveys there's little evidence that links better schools with increased upward mobility. On the other hand, differences in local labor markets and concentrations of single-parent households seemed to have a greater impact on mobility.
"Rothstein concludes that factors like higher minimum wages, the presence and strength of labor unions, and clear career pathways within local industries are likely to play more important roles in facilitating a poor child's ability to rise up the economic ladder when they reach adulthood," writes author Rachel Cohen.
Educational researchers David Berliner and Gene Glass also debunk the myth that student achievement is significantly affected by teacher and school quality in their book "50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education." Instead, outside variables such as socioeconomic status, neighborhood and the quality of psychological and physical health supported by students' home environment play a more prominent role on their success academically.
Earning a college degree doesn't necessarily enhance a person's productive capacity, writes Matt Bruenig, who compared census statistics that link education and poverty levels for 1991 and 2014. While the population is better educated than in the early '90s, poverty has actually increased according to these stats.
In a group discussion titled, "Do we really need education to be successful?" on an India-based site, most people posting believe education is important, yet some are quick to point out that practical knowledge — beyond book learning and getting good grades — needs to be included for it to lead to success. Independent learning or knowledge learned on a farm are viewed as valid, and several mention wealthy entrepreneurs who took initiative and succeeded without a college degree.
Popular posts to the group discussion say that education makes people good citizens, teaches them to respect and interact with others, gives them the ability to think freely and make good decisions. More than one poster declares that education is something can't be stolen away from you.
"Social mobility — the chance for anyone prepared to work hard to get on and achieve beyond what was expected — depends on education and opportunity," explains Professor Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield in Britain, where social mobility is especially low. "Education alone can produce wasted money and frustrated graduates."
Education is priceless, but it can't do the impossible in face of a slew of other societal factors that need to be addressed in other ways. Trying to solve these problems with education puts undue pressure on teachers, administrators and the whole system.
"I believe in education, but it must be tied to real opportunity," concludes Burnett. "No matter its other virtues, education alone cannot make the jobs."
Likewise, the other researchers mentioned in this article still hold education in a positive light despite their findings that demonstrate its limited reach in solving world problems such as poverty. Rothstein doesn't believe that his findings mean education is unrelated to improving opportunity nor that Americans should stop investing in improving schools and effectively educating people to read, write, compute, think and innovate.
"It will still be good for us if we can figure out how to educate people more and better," he concludes in The Atlantic article. "It might help the labor market, our civic society, our culture."
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