Thursday, July 29, 2010

Education won't make poverty go away

The most emailed article in the Times this week is about a study showing that kids with more effective kindergarten teachers end up earning higher incomes as adults.

There’s a logical flaw, though, implicit in the article -- one that goes unnoticed in many discussions of education. The assumed implication of the study is: if all kids had more effective teachers, they would all make that much more money as adults. But that conclusion does not logically follow, even if the study’s analysis is accurate.

There are almost certainly two effects at work. One is that certain educational advantages give a child an edge relative to other children in later life. The other is that educational advantages generally promote economic growth. In other words, the study doesn’t sort out the two questions: is it just that kids with educational advantages end up with a larger slice of the pie, or would giving everyone those advantages result in a bigger pie? It would hardly be cause for celebration if the gains made by the kids in the study came largely at the expense of other kids who weren’t in the study.

Sure, people with more educational advantages are less likely to end up in poverty. It thus becomes politically appealing to argue that, to address the issue of poverty, we need only provide a better education to all kids. But that logical jump allows politicians to ignore the extent to which poverty is a necessary evil of our economic system. You could send everyone to four years of college and beyond, and our economy would still require a lot of cheap and unskilled labor. Focusing on education as the solution to poverty enables politicians to avoid the question of how we deal with the poverty (and income inequality) that won’t ever go away, regardless of our educational policies. It also allows some people to conclude that poorer people have no one but themselves to blame -- why didn’t they study harder in school?

Of course, as a recipe for giving some kids a relative advantage over others, the article is probably accurate. Hmmmm . . . why do I suspect that kids who are already better off will be the most likely beneficiaries of that recipe?

..How can I comment?