Educational Attainment and Economic Inequality: What Schools Cannot Do

Article excerpt

It has long been an article of faith in the U.S. that education is the key to economic success. The faith works in two directions: (1) education is good for the economy in general and (2) education is good for the individual. The first article of faith is the assumption behind all the rhetoric connecting quality of education and international competitiveness. The second article is the reason teens are told, "stay in school."

Policy makers evidently know the first article is false: while schools are blamed when the economy is poor, they do not get the credit when things go well (Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Bracey, 2001). Regardless, the myth powerfully shapes the way schooling is thought about in the U.S. On the one hand, public schools are supported because the public believes the economy benefits when large numbers of an age cohort go to school for many years. On the other hand, individuals extend their schooling in the expectation of economic advantage. This appears to work to the advantage of schools, gaining both economic support and attendance.

However, the thesis of this paper is that the opposite is true. I will first make the argument that the relationship between educational attainment and economic success is more apparent than real. Then I will consider the ways in which these myths mask serious injustice at the core of U.S. national life. Finally, I will consider the implications of believing the myth and the ways the myth harms education. But before I begin the analysis, let me conduct a little thought experiment.

Imagine that U.S. schools were suddenly made perfect (whatever it is that one might mean by "perfect"). Imagine everyone obtains a perfect education in all areas. If the myth that equates good education with a good, well-paying job were true, everyone would now have a good, well-paying job.

We know these conditions would not follow. Service sector jobs would not pay a living wage or provide health insurance. If everyone were equally well educated, even perfectly so, the surplus of labor would still mean some jobs would pay less than a living wage. In a competitive economy, the educated reap economic benefits only from their education relative to others'. This claim will be elaborated below.

This paper will argue that what schools cannot do, should not be tasked with doing, and should not promise to do, is reduce inequality in the context of a broad socio-economic matrix designed to produce inequality; nor can it much reduce inequity when the means used to distribute inequality are themselves unjust.

However, this paper is not intended to update Coleman's (1966) argument that home effects overwhelm school effect. On Coleman's view, schools cannot produce equality of academic results. There is much evidence that this task, however difficult, is possible (Meier, 2002; Edmonds et al., 1977; Lezotte & Bancroft, 1985). The argument in this paper is: even when schooling does all it can do to educate those who begin life disadvantaged, this educational success will make a difference for only a chosen few; in the competitive life of a capitalist state, the rich and powerful will assure the success of their children over others', individual exceptions to the contrary notwithstanding.

The Argument

Many service-sector employers require a high school diploma or some years of post-secondary education. However, the job skills required are not particularly connected to these educational requirements, nor are wages simply related to the amount of schooling one has. Instead, wages are related to relative education. It is not how much education one has that grants economic advantage in the job market; it is how much more education one has compared to others in that particular market.

To understand why, we begin with what Tom Green (1980) called the Law of Zero Correlation:

   ... if there is a level within the system that everyone completes,
   then completing that level can have no bearing whatever upon any
   social differences that may subsequently arise within the
   population . …