March 15, 2016

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Guest Blog Post: Education for Upward Mobility

Today's guest blog post comes from Michael Petrilli,President of The Fordham Institute. He writes today about his most recent publication, a book where he and a dozen leading scholars and policy analysts address the questions "How can we help children born into poverty transcend their disadvantages and enter the middle class as adults? And in particular, what role can our schools play?"

Poor and working class Americans have gotten hammered. Here’s how to help their children do better.

Whatever you think of this year’s presidential election, it’s undeniable that Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ populist messages have struck a chord, particularly with poor and working class voters. As Charles Murray put it in the Wall Street Journal, “For someone living in a town where the big company has shut the factory and moved the jobs to China, or for a roofer who has watched a contractor hire illegal immigrants because they are cheaper, anger and frustration are rational.”

None of this is news to educators, who work with children and families every day who face the challenges that decades of economic upheaval have brought.

State and national leaders have warned since at least the 1980s against leaving people behind, and the need to “build a bridge to the 21st century.” Then-Governor Lamar Alexander said in 1986, “What has suddenly riveted everyone’s attention on our education system is that our standard of living is threatened…we’re not going to have the jobs and the good incomes in America if we don’t have the good skills.” That was thirty years ago.

And to be sure there have been lots of school reform efforts over the years, most well-meaning, and some even effective. But it hasn’t been nearly enough. While NAEP scores have risen at the 4th and 8th grade levels, they remain stubbornly flat at the end of high school. Fewer than forty percent of our graduates leave school ready for college—not just four-year universities but community colleges too. The numbers are much, much worse for kids growing up poor and working class. We saw the challenge coming—the need to equip a vastly larger number of people with stronger skills—and we didn’t get the job done.

So here we are, with low-income and working class voters who have gotten hammered, and are falling further behind their college-educated neighbors, and are letting their anger be heard.

The question for us is whether there’s anything our schools can do to reverse these trends. What can we do to make sure that the next generation develops the skills they need to compete for middle-class and high-wage jobs?

Our schools can’t do it all, or all by themselves, but there’s a least a handful of actions we can take which would do a world of good. For example: balance our obsession with four-year college degrees with renewed attention to high-quality Career and Technical Education; make sure we remember the “strivers”—the low-income, well-behaved, higher-performing students, who are rarely made a top priority; and teach the “success sequence”—finish high school, work full time, and get married before having children. 

While our education system alone cannot solve the stubborn, tragic problem of persistent poverty and the growing gaps between working class and college-educated Americans, there’s much it can do for the children entrusted to it. But first we have to change the way we think about the problem and its possible solutions.


Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. This essay is drawn from his new edited volume, Education for Upward Mobility, which was released this week.


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