It’s the chicken-or-the-egg question at the heart of the education-reform wars: Can education help young people overcome poverty, or must we defeat poverty before more young people from disadvantaged circumstances can successfully learn?
You don’t have to be a sunny-side-up optimist (or even a hard-boiled pessimist) to get that the right answer to this riddle is “yes.” Yes, education can help young people overcome an impoverished childhood, and yes we need to supplement great schools with smart anti-poverty efforts, too. The best schools—public, private, and charter—do this already, identifying and seeking to furnish the out-of-school “social supports” that will help their kids and their families thrive, while preparing them academically for postsecondary learning and beyond.
A recent article by Rachel Cohen in The Atlantic, however, scrambles this narrative, claiming (in the title at least) that “Education Isn’t the Key to a Good Income.” One might surmise that Cohen has found evidence of thousands of young people who grew up poor, succeeded in school and college, and still failed to find good-paying jobs. Alas, that’s not what she found at all—probably because that almost never happens. What she did find was a study by Jesse Rothstein that looked at metro areas to gauge whether the varying quality of their education systems could explain their varying success in boosting upward mobility. In other words, this was not a study of the long-term impacts of education on individual students, or even the long-term impacts of individual schools.
Therefore, the overwhelming research consensus still stands: Students who attain valuable postsecondary credentials have a much better chance of making it into the middle class and beyond. While neither Cohen nor Rothstein would necessarily disagree, it’s a point a casual reader of the Atlantic could easily miss.
Let’s refresh ourselves on the evidence on education and upward mobility, and then we’ll return to Rothstein’s study and the hash that Cohen made of its implications.
Education for upward mobility
Our schools can’t do it all, or all by themselves, but there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit that most schools have not yet plucked—tested strategies that can help low-income and working-class kids climb the ladder to the middle class. Here are three of them.
1. Postsecondary education as a path to the workforce—and the middle class
There’s a good reason why education reformers have been obsessed with getting many more low-income students “to and through” four-year college degrees: They are the closest things we have to a guarantee of propelling poor kids into the middle class.
So it makes sense that reformers continue to embrace strategies to prepare students for college, including the implementation of high-quality standards and aligned curriculum, “no excuses” charter schools, and the development of important “non-cognitive” skills.
But as Andrew Kelly has argued, while a college degree has a big payoff, it also comes with a low probability. Among children from the bottom third of the income distribution, Kelly estimates, just 14 percent will complete four-year degrees. Even if we could double that proportion, the great majority of poor and working class kids would still need another path to the middle class.
Thankfully, there is such a route: High-quality career and technical education, culminating in industry-recognized post-secondary credentials. But we’re going to need to rethink our approach to high school if we want many more students to be able to tread this promising path. Right now we mostly shuffle kids through so-called college preparation courses. According to the most recent data, 81 percent of high school students are taking an academic route; only 19 percent are “concentrating” in CTE (which means earning at least three credits in a single CTE program area).
All too often, then, the outcome of our current strategy—what you might call “bachelor’s degree or bust”—is that a young person drops out of college at age twenty with no post-secondary credential, no skills, and no work experience, but a heavy burden of debt. That’s a terrible way to begin adult life, and it’s even worse if the young adult aims to escape poverty.
A better approach for many young people would be to develop coherent pathways, beginning in high school, into authentic technical education options at the post-secondary level. Such efforts show great promise in better engaging students, helping them succeed academically, boosting their college-going and college completion rates, and brightening their career prospects. These arrangements not only provide access to workplaces where students can apply their skills, they also offer seamless transitions into post-secondary education, apprenticeships, and employer-provided learning opportunities. By age twenty, graduates of such programs have academic credentials, technical credentials, and work experience—and, usually, well-paying jobs.