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Posts Tagged ‘education’

Does Education Work?

Just about everyone from left to right believes in the power of more education for more Americans, that more education for all will open up opportunity, raise standards of living, and reduce economic inequality. Some scholars, however, are skeptical.

They have at least three related arguments. One is that the content of education–perhaps beyond basic literacy and skills– does not matter for individuals’ economic attainment, that what matters is the person’s relative level of education. When few people have graduated high school, doing so will make a big difference, but when most people have a high school diploma, then real success then requires going to college. Employers just up their requirements as educational attainment spreads, so what is important is being ahead of the pack.

Another argument is that educational degrees just signal or “credential” people with talent, people who would have succeeded with or without the extra classwork. More degrees for more people will not change that.

A third argument is that advantaged families find ways to pass on advantage to their children even as education becomes more widespread. They do that by supporting their sons’ and daughters’ attainment of yet further, more exclusive schooling, maintaining leads over those from less advantaged backgrounds and thus maintaining the inheritance of inequality (see, e.g., here).

A just-published article takes a look at what happened to equality and social mobility in the United States when a major educational reform swept through the nation in the nineteenth century: compulsory schooling. (more…)

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Child Labors

American children are typically expected to focus, laser-like, on doing well in school so that they can do well in college so that they can do well when they eventually start working. Moreover, parents enroll their daughters and sons in extracurricular activities also in part to give them practical skills. Given such a schedule, the proportion of teens, especially young teens, who work for pay has dropped considerably in recent generations; it also appears that rates of doing household chores have dropped. Our image of childhoods past, in contrast, depicts even young children working hard on the farm or in part-time city jobs. When did American childhood change to become so education-focused?

Noted USC historian Carole Shammas contributed to the discussion this summer. (Shammas has produced central studies on, for example, the history of the family and of consumption.) Writing in the William & Mary Quarterly, Shammas analyzes an unusual pre-revolutionary diary – a 12-year-old boy’s a detailed accounting, started in 1774, of all his daily activities. It tells of a quite different adolescence.

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Geography of Inequality

One vision of the digital electronic future is that it would “erase” place and space. One can Skype over a cell phone with people half a globe away. A law firm can send audio to India and get back transcriptions in the morning. A firm in California can order goods from Korea and have them shipped to a customer in Europe. The vision that all places are one is not new. Over a hundred years ago a journalist wrote that, thanks to the telephone, by our time everyone would live on their own mountain top and do their work over the electronic wire. Didn’t happen then; isn’t happening now. Where you live and work seems to matter economically and culturally at least as much now as decades ago. The obvious example is the continuing concentration of the IT industries themselves – Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, Silicon Wadi, etc. (here).

Wikimedia: Uptown

Wikimedia: Bev. Hills

This musing is occasioned by a recent article in the Times occasioned by a report from the Brookings Institution on how American metropolitan areas are becoming increasingly different from one another with respect to the educational levels of their residents. Some places, like Washington, Boston, and San Francisco are experiencing growing concentrations of the college-educated; others like Las Vegas, Memphis, and Dayton are falling further behind. Early followers of this blog will have read of this trend 16 months ago and of a related trend, the concentration of twenty- and thirty-something college graduates in particular downtown neighborhoods of those cities.  But why does this matter?

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Women Graduating

It’s the season of graduation in America and, increasingly, that means it’s the season of women, too. This year, about 3 women will get their B.A. degrees for every 2 men who do. About 50 years ago, the ratio was about 2 men to every 1 woman. In a society that treats a college degree as the ticket to the middle class and the certificate of achievement, this gender reversal is a social revolution.

(Stern College)

The trend has been noticed. There have been panicky magazine stories and books (e.g., The War Against Boys; Why Boys Fail). Did the women’s movement, designed to establish equality, push the pendulum too far, spark a war against boys, and undermine men, as some suggest? Or, have schoolgirls adjusted to a changing world faster than have boys? Why does the class of 2011 look so different than the class of 1961?

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Buying a Head Start

The widening gaps between Americans of average wealth and well-off Americans, and especially, super-well-off Americans over the last 40 years have now been fully documented and heavily discussed. But it’s not just about money. We are seeing, as well, growing economic, social, geographical, and cultural divisions between Americans of less and more education. (See, e.g., this earlier post.)

barnaby watson via flikr

Now, Sean Reardon of the Stanford School of Education has described another way that these two developments have increasingly combined to widen social class differences. More and more over the last four decades, affluent parents have leveraged their financial assets into better academic skills for their children. Having those greater skills, in turn, gives their kids an even larger head start in the race for higher education and its financial payoff.
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Degree Inequality

It is now generally understood that economic inequality has expanded greatly since about 1970. (Well, there are exceptions. For a couple of decades, some commentators denied that economic inequality was growing, claiming that it was all a statistical illusion. A few holdouts against reality may remain.) Now the debate has shifted to what – if anything at all – should be done about inequality.

UC Berkeley

Most of that discussion has been about income inequality. Between 1979 and 2007, the one-fifth of American households with the highest income experienced a roughly 100% increase in their annual, inflation-adjusted, after-tax income (280% [!] for the highest one percent of households); the middle one-fifth got about 25% more income; and the poorest one-fifth got about 15% more (see pdf). For wealth – property, stocks, and the like – the gap is enormously greater and has also widened over the last few decades (see Ch. 6 here).

Less discussed is the widening college degree gap. Yet its implications go considerably beyond money, to widening differences in life experiences and ways of life. (I draw in particular on the work of my colleague, Michael Hout, notably here [pdf], and on two books we wrote together, here and here.)

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Grammar Rules

Ours is an age of sentences such as “C u 2nite, k?” and “I tweet that’s the way I roll,” from a potential prez. Some even in the literary ranks applaud using the latest vernacular (e.g., here). It seems avant-garde, like treating graffiti as art. Yet, there was a time when Americans of all ranks – from the learned gentry to the self-taught slave – sought to write and speak only in the most proper, authorized form of English. To know the rules of conjugation, declension, proper use of infinitives and other minutiae of grammar was the mark of the educated person. That was what “grammar schools” were for.

A recent article by Beth Barton Schweiger in the Journal of the Early Republic (a fun journal to read, at least for me) describes how important it was for garnering the esteem of others and for self-respect in the 19th century not only to read and write, but more critically, to know by heart rules such as “Conjunctions that are of a positive and absolute nature, require the indicative mood.” And she describes how this veneration of grammatical rules was a vehicle for democracy.
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In the Part 1 of this post, I asked whether Americans were increasingly dividing along the “culture wars” battlefront – an impression one would certainly get from media coverage of politics over the last decade or two. The research shows that, while the political class has become more polarized in the last generation, average Americans have not. On the so-called values issues, with the possible exception of abortion, Americans cluster around the middle, not in two opposed camps, and that middle has moved a bit to the left.

Source: Pepperdine Univ.

If the “culture wars” description of a fragmenting America is not accurate, does that mean that there are no growing divisions? Not necessarily. Here, I consider three deeper cleavages among Americans: by immigration status, by race, and by class (especially, by education).

(I draw largely on this 2009 article and chapter 9 of Century of Difference.)

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