2020

The Biggest Problem in Education

Recently, I was asked a question on the Planning Period podcast.

“What do you think is the biggest problem in education?”

I responded quickly and with one word: inequity.

I say this because I’ve been studying how education impacts the social mobility of our students. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the subject of economics. Specifically, how this branch of the social sciences discusses the influence of education.

And, while I’d like to think that it is “the great equalizer” and that a good education will elevate people to a more successful future, the truth is pretty clear. It won’t. At least not the way it’s currently structured.

Because, as it stands, our educational system has inequity baked right in to its fiber. As uncomfortable as that is, it’s a truth that cannot be ignored. And many economists have shown evidence of it time and time again.

The five economists I’ve been reading recently are widely known, and four of them are Nobel Laureates. Their credentials are impressive, their research extensive, and they all say the same thing about education. It’s not the equalizer many of us believe it to be.

Our educational system is not helping people find better, more successful lives. It is not increasing social mobility and allowing those from underprivileged backgrounds to realize a higher quality of life. In reality, it’s exacerbating the problem by perpetuating the inequity that exists in our society. It’s continuing to advantage a specific group of people: the rich and white.

And the problem in large part is due to its foundation and structure.

As it stands, both in the United States and internationally, the curriculum and organization of schools dates back to education’s colonial background—the time when schools were designed to train an elite class. When the purpose was to maximize the gap between the members of ‘society’ and the rest of the population (Banerjee & Duflo, 2011).

We see this now repackaged in a different format. The focus is consistently on the future. On providing students the knowledge they need to gain admittance to top universities. Because only this will propel them forward into a successful future with a substantial income. Only this will guarantee their place in society and in the middle or upper class.

Doesn’t sound too bad, right?

I didn’t think so either. We want to provide our students with a quality education that will help them realize their potential and have a comfortable life.

But the problem goes so much further than that. Because the real predictor of a student’s access to a great university isn’t their education or ability. It’s their parent’s income. And it’s an almost perfect predictor (Piketty, 2014).

A reason for this is because income determines one very important factor: housing. And housing determines the way public education is funded in the United States.

Local property taxes are heavily relied upon by the K-12 educational system, which means that those who live in poor communities (read: those with a lower income) consistently get a worse education with fewer resources than those in richer areas (Stiglitz, 2019).

The neighborhood a child grows up in is integral to their future mobility, or ability to move beyond their circumstances. This constraint is linked to the local funding structure. The places in the most desperate need of high-quality education are the least able to fund it (Banerjee & Duflo, 2019).

Banerjee and Duflo also speak of the influence of income in a different way. While the payoff for education is the same for two students, one will get less education because of his poorer parents. Not just because poorer neighborhoods already have less to spend, but because they have to distribute less funding to more children.

This is because at higher income levels, families tend to have fewer children. Which means that education spending per child grows much faster and is certainly not equally distributed, guaranteeing that wealthy children will get more education regardless of talent, and talented poor children are likely to be denied a chance.

Banerjee & Duflo (2011) also state that, “This is the opposite of what we would expect in a world where education is an investment like any other, unless we are willing to believe that the poor are just incapable of getting educated.”

We see this over and over in the education world. Schools with a lack of books, lack of resources, and lack of teachers are concentrated in poorer areas. They are overburdened, without counselors or psychologists to help students navigate their mental health. These same schools are located in areas with limited access to libraries, food, and quality health care. And these students are coming to school with their basic needs unmet, meaning they have to go even further and work even harder in worse conditions. Just to have a shot.

All of this means students from poorer backgrounds are less competitive in an already competition-driven system. And they are at a disadvantage in the race for a successful future before they even enter school (Stiglitz, 2019).

If that’s not the definition of an inequitable system, I’m not really sure what is.

Paul Krugman even calls this system an oligarchy where wealth is highly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged group (2020).

The common, polite way of addressing this issue is to argue that we need to increase funding to our educational system. Frankly, I disagree.

Education doesn’t need more funding. It needs a better funding structure. One where we don’t continuously disadvantage those in the greatest need, while offering ever-increasing advantages to those at the top. 

But to address this can be uncomfortable. It’s far more comforting to state that we must increase funding for education because it assumes that no one can be blamed for the inequitable system (Krugman, 2020). It’s to stop avoiding it and address the issue.

Centuries have shown us that this is a problem. And, for centuries, we’ve pushed it aside. 

Because it’s really, really hard to change an entire system. Especially when it’s been in place for so long. And it’s even harder when the people you need to get on board to affect the change are the very people the system continuously advantages.

But we cannot continue to let this slide. When we do, we become part of the problem. We engage in the perpetuation of inequity. 

While we might not be able to make big, structural change tomorrow, we can take some small steps today. 

We can educate ourselves and engage in study, which will allow us to better understand the fixes that need to occur. 

We can ensure we are adequately prepared to engage in conversations about the problematic structures that exist within the system, inviting others in to this learning. 

We can challenge practices and beliefs that are fundamentally harming our students and exacerbating the problems we know are there. 

We can love our students, continue to show up for them every day, and be a positive force for change within the educational world.

We cannot stay silent. We won’t.

Because educators already know what these economists are advocating for.

Every kid deserves a chance. 

Resources

Banerjee, A.V. & Duflo, E. (2011). Poor economics: A radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty. New York: PublicAffairs.

Banerjee, A.V. & Duflo, E. (2019). Good economics for hard times. New York: PublicAffairs. 

Krugman, P. (2020). Arguing with zombies: Economics, politics, and the fight for a better future. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd. 

Piketty, T. (2014). Capitalism in the twenty-first century. (A. Goldhammer, Trans.). Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Stiglitz, J.E. (2019). People, power, and profits: Progressive capitalism for an age of discontent. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd.

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