Opinion | School Is for Social Mobility

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By John N. Friedman

Mr. Friedman is an economist at Brown whose work focuses on how to use big data to improve life outcomes.

America is often hailed as a land of opportunity, a place where all children, no matter their family background, have the chance to succeed. Data measuring how low-income children tend to fare in adulthood, however, suggest this may be more myth than reality.

Less than one in 13 children born into poverty in the United States will go on to hold a high-income job in adulthood; the odds are far longer for Black men born into poverty, at one in 40.

Education is the solution to this lack of mobility. There are still many ways in which the current education system generates its own inequities, and many of these have been exacerbated by Covid-19 closures. But the pandemic also revealed a potential path forward by galvanizing support for education funding at levels rarely seen before. With the right level of investment, education can not only provide more pathways out of poverty for individuals, but also restore the equality of opportunity that is supposed to lie at America’s core.

It is certainly not a new idea that education can change a child’s life trajectory. Almost everyone has some formative school memory — a teacher with whom everything made sense, an art project that opened new doors or a sports championship that bonded teammates for life.

But what is new is the torrent of research studies using “big data” to show the power of education for shaping children’s trajectories, especially over the long term. In one study, for example, my co-authors and I found that students who were randomly assigned to higher-quality classrooms earned substantially more 20 years later, about $320,000 over their lifetimes. And it’s not only the early grades that matter; research suggests the quality of education in later grades may be even more important for long-term outcomes, as children’s brains don’t lock in key neural pathways for advanced reasoning skills until well into their teenage years.

Education changes lives in ways that go far beyond economic gains. The data show clearly that children who get better schooling are healthier and happier adults, more civically engaged and less likely to commit crimes. Schools not only teach students academic skills but also noncognitive skills, like grit and teamwork, which are increasingly important for generating social mobility. Even the friendships that students form at school can be life-altering forces for social mobility, because children who grow up in more socially connected communities are much more likely to rise up out of poverty.

Conversely, limited social mobility hurts not just these children but all of society. We are leaving a vast amount of untapped talent on the table by investing unequally in our children, and it’s at all of our expense.

Researchers have also used big data to uncover many specific education reforms that could lead to huge improvements. For instance, the evidence is clear that teachers are critical; my co-authors and I found that, when better teachers arrive at a school, the students in their classrooms earn around $50,000 more over each of their lifetimes. This adds up to $1.25 million for a class of 25 in just a single year of teaching.

Smaller classes and increased tutoring also lead to long-term gains for students. Charter schools have revealed a range of effective approaches as well, often to the benefit of some of society’s most disadvantaged children. Children also benefit from longer school days, greater access to special education and less aggressive cutoffs for holding students back a grade.

Given this rich body of evidence, why doesn’t our K-12 system already propel more low-income students to success? A big reason continues to be inadequate funding. Because schools raise a large share of revenue through local property taxes, high-income students often attend well-resourced schools while low-income students attend schools with more limited resources. Decades of reforms have made some progress reducing these funding gaps within certain states, but huge gaps remain both between states and between schools within districts. Even with additional resources, schools often do not invest in proven reforms like the ones I mentioned above, choosing other, less data-driven proposals or even using additional resources to reduce local property taxes rather than increase spending on education.

If our education system does not currently support equality of opportunity, would investing more simply throw good money after bad? No. Many studies show the gains in social mobility when states like Michigan and New Mexico have reduced funding disparities to invest more in disadvantaged students. These reforms have gone in the right direction, but we need much more: With many students facing larger barriers to success as a result of factors outside the educational system, even equality of average funding levels may not be sufficient to generate equality of opportunity.

The Covid pandemic highlighted and magnified the deep inequities in our education system. Many high-income students were able to limit their learning losses, but on average, low-income students stayed remote longer and lost more ground for each week of remote school. By one estimate, high-poverty schools in districts that were mostly remote experienced 50 percent more achievement loss than low-poverty ones during the 2020-21 school year alone.

But Covid also triggered a momentous policy response. K-12 schools received nearly $200 billion in funding across three federal stimulus bills, much of which was aimed at combating learning loss. This money also began to address structural barriers by supporting increased internet and device access in low-income communities, both urban and rural, and in other ways.

Educators also displayed extraordinary creativity in finding new methods to teach students and help them catch back up. For instance, teachers and school leaders are using technology to support kids by prioritizing learning acceleration over remediation. New research shows students cover twice as much ground if they keep moving forward, completing targeted review as needed to master new material, rather than simply repeating lessons they missed because of Covid.

The sad fact is that the learning gaps opened up by Covid are a small fraction of those that already existed before the pandemic, when, in some school districts, low-income students were two, three and even four grade levels behind. If the pandemic motivated $200 billion in spending, then we should be investing trillions over the next decade to address the broader inequality in our system. While many of these gaps are caused by disparities that exist outside the school system, education remains our best shot at narrowing them.

If politics is the art of the possible, perhaps the biggest silver lining of these past two years has been to redefine what is possible. It will take this kind of extensive effort — investing year after year with the same level of urgency that we used to confront the pandemic — to transform our schools into the engines of social mobility that they can be.

John N. Friedman (@john_n_friedman) is the chairman of the economics department at Brown University. He is also a founding co-director of Opportunity Insights.

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