Chat Wrap-Up: Schools and Economic Mobility

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On Dec. 15, readers’ questions centered on recent research showing that economic mobility through education is more difficult to attain in the United States than previously, and what schools can do to reverse this trend. They were answered by Cecilia Elena Rouse, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, and Isabel V. Sawhill, a co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. Below are excerpts from the discussion:

Question: I teach in a poverty-ridden area. What is the key to having students believe that education is the way out? Either many of my kids don’t fully comprehend this message, or they don’t want to get out of the cycle of poverty (which I can’t believe is true).

Sawhill: One thing that might help is exposing these students to people like them who have been successful. Another key is parents: If they don’t value education, it’s hard to get their children to be more motivated.

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I don’t know what grade level you teach, but would it be possible to ask your students to think about what kinds of jobs they want to have when they are adults, and then ask them to do research on what type of education and experience these jobs require? They could do research online or interview people with the kinds of jobs they aspire to hold. If their job aspirations are low, then it might be worth asking them what they expect to have in the way of income—and what they are going to want to be able to buy—when they finish school.

I imagine you have thought of all these things already, and I hope you don’t get discouraged. Education is indeed the way out of poverty.

Question: How can U.S. corporations play a positive role in the education arena relative to increasing economic opportunity?

Rouse: That is an interesting question, because in this country the private sector can be so powerful. Some companies have partnered with schools, providing revenue and other inputs—essentially, they have “adopted” schools. In addition, there are successful high school school-to-work programs in which students combine work and school (the work making the school more relevant). I imagine that participating in these programs would make a difference, such that students who might otherwise drop out of school could become more successful students.

Question: One of the key indicators for educational success in children is the education level of their parents. Adult literacy rates are so low it is shocking. We as a country continue to allocate billions of dollars to K-12, yet spend a very small fraction of that on educating adults. As part of a plan to help educate our children so they can have access to economic opportunity, doesn’t it make sense to put more focus on adult education?

Rouse: I agree that we should spend more on adult education, but not everyone agrees with us! The reason is that the evidence on the effectiveness of adult education programs is, at best, mixed. Most would agree that the very best programs improve the welfare of participants. However, the quality of such programs is extremely uneven. In addition, adult learners do not have the time to devote to the kind of intensive study necessary to generate tangible economic gains. There is some evidence that workplace education programs can be effective, however, likely because they address the time issue while also making the curriculum relevant.

Question: Why do you think it is that Scandinavian countries have higher proportions of poor children moving out of poverty than in the United States?

Rouse: Scandinavian countries have much stronger social safety nets than we do here, and a greater redistribution of wealth. With broader and more-generous social assistance, more-equal distribution of educational quality, and the like in Scandinavia, the penalty for being born to a poor family there is much smaller than it is in the United States. As to why the Scandinavians have pursued these policies more vigorously than Americans have, that has been the focus of much academic discussion.

Question: What needs to change in the U.S. education system to enhance opportunity for low-income students?

Sawhill: The most important thing that needs to change, in my view, is the number of qualified teachers in the schools these children attend. We need to recruit differently, pay teachers more, and measure their performance over time.

Vol. 26, Issue 18, Page 32

Published in Print: January 10, 2007, as Chat Wrap-Up: Schools and Economic Mobility
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