Friday, May 18, 2007

Education and Income Inequality

Ken DeRosa discusses a Tyler Cowan piece in today's NY Timesregarding the causes of income inequality. Cowan notes that
Income distribution thus depends on the balance between technological progress and access to college and postgraduate study. The problem isn’t so much capitalism as it is that American lower education does not prepare enough people to receive gains from American higher education.

Bottlenecks currently keep more individuals from improving their education. Professor Katz has suggested changes at multiple levels, including additional college aid, more-accessible community colleges, easier financial aid forms, more serious attempts to identify and retain top teachers in high schools and school voucher experiments.

It doesn’t suffice simply to increase the number of people in college; rather the new students must be prepared to learn. There is, however, no single magic bullet.
DeRosa discusses vouchers for kids to attend private schools, but laments that private schools aren't a particularly good solution:
Vouchers? Have you seen the state of private schools lately? The private schools that do well mostly do well because they are loaded with easily educable kids, not because they employ superior instruction. I visited my son's CCD class at our local parochial school last Sunday and there I saw the same rotten reading and math programs that our local public school uses.
I think that it is an important insight about private schools. But I think DeRosa overlooks one important contribution that a private school education can provide--better competition. True the kids who can afford to go to private schools may be more educable, but put a kid from the inner city in the school and he will rise to the challenge, competing against more "educable" kids. It happens too often for it to be an outlier.

DeRosa concludes, smartly though. We as a nation have long held out the hope of college for "all who want to attend." But the fact of the matter is, that not every kid can compete in college and probably shouldn't compete in college. We cannot craft a system of K-12 education that will prepare all kids for college unless we make college so easy as to be meaningless, or we make K-12 so difficult that we fail out too many kids.
We could be doing a lot better with K-12 education today and improving the lot of many underserved students. Many average students would benefit immensely from a decent high school education instead of the watered-down babysitting that they get today. many lower performing students would benefit immensely if they learned to read and do basic at an eighth grade level. But you're never going to get equality of college education for the same reason you don't see midgets playing in the NBA.
While No Child Left Behind can and should make sure that all kids are not illiterate or innumerate, it cannot make kids ready for college. NCLB is a law that creates floor, and while it doesn't create a ceiling, for some kids, the ceiling will be lower than for other kids.

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