One of the more discussed recent books on education is Diane Ravitch’s “Reign of Error”. Ravitch argues that poverty and socioeconomic inequality produces kids who enter our educational system handicapped in their ability to learn.This poor start translates in poor performance as the individual moves through primary and secondary education.
I do not agree with Ravitch – the immigrants to the US, say in the 1880s, were poor and they were discriminated against on religious and/or cultural grounds. Yet those immigrants made sure their children, although raised in poverty, got the best education they could afford. These children became engineers, doctors, or lawyers. I am proud to count myself as a graduate of an excellent school – The City College of New York – that was developed for the very purpose of offering a free (and excellent) education to the children of poor immigrants. Therefore, I do not see poverty by itself as being the source of a sub-par educational system.
I think that cultures and nations that develop good educational systems do so because education is one of the few, or the only path to an individual’s financial well being.
When there are other avenues for achieving financial success, education takes a back seat. In the US, you can be a mattress salesman, with very little education and still be financially successful. We do have a society in which we can become wealthy in many ways – entrepreneurship, salesmanship – and, in addition, we are a wealthy country (from the point of view of natural resources that one can exploit).
In other countries, there may be many barriers to individual financial success – lack of capital, a hierarchical social order, or generalized poverty. In these societies, education becomes important to the individual primarily as an avenue for achieving financial security . I am thinking especially of the Asian countries where education has been the “classic” path to success – those who became mandarins started with the civil service examinations.
An alternative path to developing a good educational system may happen when a top-down, autocratic society (e.g. Russia) starts compensating educated people because these people can strengthen the country’s military and industrial infrastructure which is weaker than that of its neighbors’.
In summary, my thesis is that a good educational system develops due to market forces – education is a sure path to an individual’s financial well-being and there are few other paths available to achieve this well-being. In this thesis, poverty by itself, does not lead to a poor educational system. A sub-par educational system comes about when education is not the most important path to financial security.
Perhaps there can be another driver to a good educational system. After all, there were quite a few rich merchants in medieval times in Asian countries and these merchants did not get wealthy because of their classical education. It could be that a good educational system, or more precisely a selective one, also develops when education is seen as a “noble” profession, in the sense that it leads to relative wealth without physical effort. However, this is not an American concept – we actually value physical effort and one can see a proof of it every Sunday until the Super Bowl.
If I am right, what does this mean for how education will develop in the US? I don’t see much improvement soon – say on a 10-year horizon. As long as we have a high degree of elasticity in our economy – meaning that we have many paths for achieving individual financial success – education will be not be a priority for us as a society.
It may be that increasing international competition will drive us to educational reforms. After all, the genesis of Common Core was when industry and the Chamber of Commerce started going to the state governors and saying we are losing jobs and contracts because we do not have a sufficiently well educated workers. Common Core developed from an industry initiative. That’s market forces at work!