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Cross-posted at Education Week

We Americans have long thought of our public education system as the great equalizer, the route out of poverty for new immigrants, the poor and the ambitious.  That was true for a long time, but it isn’t true anymore.   Now, poverty is a better predictor of school achievement in the United States than in all but seven of the 34 countries surveyed by the OECD in 2012.  Among those countries are Greece, Chile and the Slovak Republic.

It is also true that, whereas the distribution of income in the United States in the 1970s was among the most equal in the industrialized world, it is now the least equal.  The juxtaposition of these facts raises an interesting question:  If it was once true that education was the great equalizer, could it be true that the design of our education system is now contributing to income inequality?  Let me count the ways.

First, there is the overall profile of our high school graduates. Prior to the 1970s, the United States led the world in educational attainment.  This meant not only that we had the best educated workforce in the world (measured by years of schooling), but that we had more people in the middle and upper ranks of educational achievement in that workforce than the other industrialized nations.  So, as the changing nature of the economy required more and more educated people in the workforce, we were supplying them faster than our competitors.  That made it possible for the whole country to get richer faster, but it also meant that there were more people qualified for the jobs that required more education, and that kept the price of their labor down.

That is no longer true.  The supply of highly educated people in our economy has not kept pace with the demand for them, and that has driven up the price (wages) of people with high skills.  At the same time, we are producing more people with relatively low skills than the economy can absorb, driving their wages down.  The result is more rich people, many more poor people and fewer people in the middle.  That won’t change until our education system produces many more highly educated people and many fewer people with only the basic skills.

That may be the most important way in which the performance of our education system contributes to income inequality, but it is not the only way.

Just prior to the Second World War, there was a vast migration of poor African-Americans from the rural South to the Northern cities, where there were lots of opportunities in factory jobs.  After the Second World War, American housing policy led to very rapid growth of the suburbs.  The United States, unlike most of the countries with the world’s most successful education systems today, raises much of the money for its schools locally with a tax on property.  As the suburbs grew, rich people congregated together, which meant that they could enjoy low tax rates and high tax yields, and could therefore easily create very wealthy schools for their kids.  The poor, who could not afford the homes in those school districts, also congregated together–because they had no choice–in communities in which they had to pay high tax rates which produced very low tax yields, so they had much less to spend on their schools.

This wave of African-American migration to northern cities occurred just in time to see the factories leave the cities for the suburbs and to see many of the middle class supporters of the urban schools move to the suburbs, too.  But they, not being able to afford either the new homes in the suburbs or the transportation to the jobs in the suburbs, were stuck in hollowed out, decaying cities, cities that were increasingly the residence of poor people with a shrinking tax base that could no longer fund the kinds of schools the cities had before the war.  The effect of this development was to make it much harder than it had been before for poor whites and even harder for poor African-Americans to use the schools to lift themselves out of poverty than it had been before the war.  Some of this would have happened in any case, but the role played by the way the United States has chosen to fund its schools was very important.

And here comes an irony.  One of the great successes of the American education system in recent years has been the rise of women in the ranks of the educated.  When I went to college in the late 1950s, most women were sent by their parents to college to find husbands.  They were expected to work at home, as housewives.  Now women outnumber men in our colleges and in many of our graduate schools and they are preparing themselves for high status careers.  They are marrying spouses who are themselves highly educated and those couples are becoming economic powerhouses in our economy.  Their incomes are high and their divorce rates are low.  They read to their children when they are young and take them to museums on weekends.  They sacrifice to buy their way into the best school districts and push their kids to take as many AP courses as possible when they are in high school.  They make sure that their kids volunteer to spend their high school summers helping out poor kids in South America or an American city so they can write about that on their college application. They do all of this because they are determined that their kids, like them, will go to one of the best selective colleges in the land, and, when their kids are in college, they use all their connections to get their kid the right internship at the right firm to position them for the right job offers when they graduate.  It is the children of these parents who now stand the best chance of getting into the best colleges, the best chance of graduating, the best chance of getting into graduate school and the best chance of getting a good job when they are finished with school.

It is true that, at one time, our public schools could be described as the great equalizer.  Not anymore.  Since the 1970s, we have built a highly efficient system for reproducing social class in the United States, the very opposite of a system that operates as “the great equalizer.”  None of this was inevitable.  All of it can be fixed.  But it will require big changes in education policy.

Many school people are understandably upset because they see themselves as being held accountable for the performance of more and more children who come to their schools from impoverished homes, often homes with only one parent or none at all. The truth is that our failure as a society to educate enough children to a high enough standard is producing too few people with the high skills now demanded by employers and too many people who have only the low skills needed for jobs that are rapidly disappearing, due to outsourcing and automation.  That is lowering the wages of low-skilled workers even further and raising the wages of the highly skilled even higher.  These inequalities can be traced to the failure of the schools to provide the ever-larger numbers of highly educated workers now required.  Thus the failure of the schools to provide rapidly growing numbers of highly educated and skilled graduates makes it certain that we will have ever larger numbers of poor children who will make it just that much harder to change this dynamic.

There are many factors that account for the growing inequality of income in the advanced industrial economies.  But those inequalities have grown faster in the United States than in any of the others.  I believe the steep slide in the performance of our education system relative to the performance of the systems with highest and broadest student achievement is a major contributing factor. That is because the growing inequality of incomes is both the cause and the effect of the failure of our school system to produce the growing numbers of highly educated and trained people the United States now needs.  We have to break this cycle.