Category Archives: education policy

the year of school choice

A colleague points out that new state laws that allow parents to use public money to purchase education may represent the biggest US policy trend of 2023–basically, since the Republicans won the US House and stopped further federal progressive legislation. As Libby Stanford wrote in EdWeek last June,

So far this year, lawmakers in 14 states have passed bills establishing school choice programs or expanding existing ones, and lawmakers in 42 states have introduced such bills … Six of the 14 states—Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Utah—have passed school choice policies making programs universal or near-universal over the next three years. They join Arizona and West Virginia, which in recent years either established or expanded education savings accounts and made them available to virtually all students. That brings the total number of states where virtually all students will be able to use public funds for private schools to eight.

I hold some principled skepticism about school choice, yet I believe it is a valid policy debate–in fact, I have sometimes chosen it as the leading topic in my undergraduate course on public policy, because there are arguments on both (or many) sides.

It’s mainly in the USA that school choice is seen as a conservative cause; many social democracies allow parents to choose among publicly funded and licensed schools. And there have been progressive proponents of school choice in America.

On a political level, the passage of these new state laws is interesting for several reasons.

First, it is happening without a great deal of national attention, which I suspect reflects the national media’s basic lack of interest in state policies, especially in the South.

Second, it challenges the premise (which, I admit, I sometimes share) that the modern conservative movement has run out of policy ideas and is obsessed with performative politics–denouncing “woke” companies and universities without actually passing laws. A wave of school-choice bills reflects a policy agenda.

Third, it challenges the premise that today’s GOP is shifting from quasi-libertarian to quasi-authoritarian. A law that enforces particular ways of addressing contested social issues in public schools verges on authoritarian. But a law that allows parents to opt out of public schools is libertarian–for better or worse.

(However, many parents may seek schools that have authoritarian climates for their own students, somewhat like private homeowners’ associations that enact meticulous rules to control their own residents’ behavior.)

the links between capital and education

My employer and primary community, Tufts University, appears (along with virtually all US colleges and universities) in two massive studies by Raj Chetty and colleagues. I will use Tufts’ statistics to offer some general observations about the relationships between capital and education in our economic order. Tufts represents one type of institution that plays a significant economic role in the US and even globally.

According to his study of economic mobility, 62% of Tufts students who arrive from the bottom fifth of the income distribution attain the top fifth, which ranks Tufts #7 among “elite” institutions for upward mobility. However, students from the bottom of the income distribution are relatively scarce at Tufts (due, I believe, to our relatively small endowment), ranking us 40th in accessibility out of 65 elite colleges. Putting those two facts together generates a rank of 30th out of 65 for what Chetty et al. call “overall mobility.”

Basically, Tufts students tend to be economically advantaged, but their median income at age 34 is much higher than their family income was at age 18. This is typical of the institutions Chetty et al. call “elite.” (See the graphic with this post, which shows Tufts right in the midst of the elite schools.)

Meanwhile, according to Chetty and colleagues’ analysis of Facebook data, 94.4% of low-income Tufts students’ Facebook “friends” have high incomes, ranking Tufts in the 100th percentile among all US institutions on that measure. Tufts demonstrates relatively low “clustering,” meaning that Tufts students’ Facebook-friend networks are relatively cliquey. But these cliques do not seem to be economically homogeneous (Chetty et al 2022). In short, because Tufts is somewhat diverse and fairly cohesive but also predominantly affluent, students who are admitted from the lower economic strata obtain economically valuable connections while in college.

Chetty follows James Coleman (1988, cited 61,000 times), Robert Putnam (2001), and other authors, mostly Americans, in finding that social capital boosts educational success and upward economic mobility. The argument is basically that individuals–especially children and youth–are more likely to succeed if other people voluntarily support them and if many people support their schools and colleges, thereby making these institutions work better. If we define “social capital” as such networks of voluntary engagement, then having social capital benefits the individual and has positive externalities for the society. It is win/win.

A different literature is equally influential but has a different audience. Pierre Bourdieu sees education primarily as a way of reproducing economic stratification. His most famous idea is that educational institutions mark their graduates as members a specific social class by teaching them how to talk and act (Bourdieu 1983, cited 61,000 times). Members of the current ruling class dominate the institutions that mark people as upper class, ensuring that their children obtain “cultural capital.” Bourdieu also uses the phrase “social capital,” referring to the network-ties that further stratify a society. For instance, if a rich and powerful person knows and likes you, you have social capital. For Bourdieu, social capital is zero-sum, a means of gaining relative advantage over others.

To make these theories vivid, image two concrete stories.

First, imagine a US teenager who has only decent odds of completing high school, obtaining an associate’s degree, and getting a job that pays as much as her parents did when they started out. She will be more likely to succeed at these goals if her family members and other adults and peers offer emotional support, occasional financial support, and connections, and if many people support the local schools, sports leagues, and other community-based settings where she spends her time.

Second, imagine a teenager (we will call him “Brett”) who attends a selective private school in the Washington suburbs with a future Supreme Court justice, goes on to Yale, where his grandfather had studied before him, and then to Yale Law School, where he rooms with a future federal judge and plays basketball with the Yale professor who leads the Federalist Society chapter. He gets clerkships, jobs, and appointments that culminate in a seat on the Supreme Court along with his former schoolmate, two other Yale Law graduates, and five other former members of the Federalist Society. Brett was more likely to succeed at reaching his goal–the nation’s highest court–because well-placed friends looked out for him and supported the institutions where he studied.

Both of these theories could be true. They might name dynamics that apply for different segments of our population. I am not aware of empirical studies that explicitly juxtapose them in ways that would allow them to be compared and, perhaps, combined. Chetty’s work hints at some combinations. If he and his colleagues only studied institutions like Tufts, the main findings would be consistent with Bourdieu. But Chetty offers data for all colleges, universities, school systems, and neighborhoods, and often it appears that social capital benefits everyone, as in Coleman and Putnam.

I would also cite the tremendously ambitious Chicago study by Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls (1997). As Sampson presents the results, this study finds very little evidence of economic mobility in Chicago. The vast majority of Chicagoans retain their class position as they move through life (Sampson 2012, Kindle loc. 5138). Nevertheless, individuals are much safer and healthier if their neighborhoods are more socially cohesive. In this model, social capital–which Sampson et al. re-conceive as “collective efficacy”–improves one’s quality of life without challenging the class structure. This is a way of synthesizing Bourdieu and Coleman.

I cannot offer additional empirical evidence, but I would like to suggest some conceptual clarifications. Basically, I believe that the categories in this debate are complicated and that neither Bourdieu’s Marxism nor neoliberal economics offers sufficient nuance on its own.

Capital takes many forms. Let’s define capital most abstractly as a stock that produces some kind of flow. This stock can be land (with our without natural endowments that benefit people), raw materials, equipment, organizational structure, know-how, basic knowledge, specific knowledge, network ties, and/or influence or even control over other people. Depending on the type of stock, it may or may not belong to groups, as opposed to individuals. Depending on the laws and economic system, it actually belongs to some entities and not others. Likewise, capital can have many flows, from money to happiness to prestige, and those outputs either benefit or harm different people or groups. Some flows accumulate while others dissipate. It may be possible to purchase one kind of capital with another. A classic example is the lucky nouveau-riche who buys cultural capital in the form of a fancy educations for his kids. But such exchanges face barriers and inefficiencies.

People want a variety of things: not only concrete goods for themselves but also relative status vis-a-vis other people, feelings of belonging, freedom, and various other people’s welfare.

Education has many aspects. It can mean practical knowledge with social or economic value for the individual, the community, or both; intrinsically valuable knowledge that may not be socially valued; an indication of relative talent and/or ambition; an indication of membership in a specific social category (e.g., the social elite, a religious group, the military); a process of accommodating individuals to current authority and prevailing norms; or a liberation from those norms. People may consciously seek various combinations of these outcomes for themselves or their children and may experience outcomes that they did not intend. For instance, think of parents who believe they are purchasing economic advancement and good behavior, yet they watch their children turn into subversive radicals–or the reverse.

The socioeconomic distribution can be characterized in various ways. Chetty and colleagues write a lot about mobility, which means movement from one income or wealth percentile to a different one. It is important to remember that upward mobility must be exactly matched by downward mobility, holding other factors constant. For every first-gen. student who attends college, one college graduate’s child must not go to higher education, unless total enrollments rise (which will cheapen the relative advantage of college). This explains why the upper strata are so fierce about preventing mobility. Studies like Sampson et al. are focused on absolute levels of human welfare, such as victimization by violent crime. It would be possible for everyone to rise above reasonable levels. Bourdieu might be interested in the ratio of the top to the bottom, although his relatively classical Marxism is more about power than income. (And France, which he studied, is unusual in its combination of economic equality with political and cultural elitism).

There are many kind of relevant institutions, from neighborhood public schools that appear open to all but may be deeply exclusive because of residential patterns, to public universities that are genuinely accessible yet internally segregated and stratified, to well-endowed private institutions that heavily subsidize a minority of their students in the interests of “diversity,” which may primarily benefit the best off, and more.

There are many policy options. As I understand it, the elite of Mexico congregate at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, UNAM, which enrolls 356,530 students, admitting just 10% of its applicants, and charges $900 for tuition thanks to federal support and a limited budget. About half of UNAM students graduate. A considerable number of affluent but less ambitious Mexican students opt for private institutions in Mexico or US colleges that offer more individual services at higher cost but with less distinction. In contrast, many EU countries do not allow their universities to differ much in reputation or selectivity, and they typically serve students from their local areas, again, offering limited services. Even relative inexpensive and more accessible US public institutions usually provide many more services, beyond classroom instruction, compared to European universities. One would expect different results in terms of mobility, stratification, minimum welfare, median welfare, and equality–which are different measures.

Here are some possible takeaways for different kinds of people:

  • If you’re prone to admire selective (Akil Bellow calls them “highly rejective”) institutions because many of their less advantaged students move upward on the socioeconomic scale, focus less on those few students and more on the vast numbers who aren’t admitted. Furthermore, if selective institutions offer exclusive social capital, their impact on mobility could not be expanded. Making them bigger would dilute their benefits for their own students.
  • If you view selective institutions as merely exclusive and all about preserving social advantage, you have a valid perspective. However, you might consider the public goods that these institutions produce (from highly trained physicians to translations from Sanskrit) and ask how we else we might generate those goods.
  • If you want to promote mobility by giving money to selective institutions, you should at least Google their per-student endowments. Some US universities (but not including Tufts) could already offer completely free tuition for all their students below a high income threshold. You might ask what they are doing with your fungible contributions.
  • If you think that universities should invest more in services and quality of life to promote their own students’ equitable well-being, you might consider evidence that such investments also make those institutions more selective and less accessible (Bulman 2022). Institutions could instead expand the number and/or diversity of the students they admit, but that means serving a hypothetical constituency instead of an actual one, and it rarely happens.

Citations: Bourdieu, Pierre. Forms of Capital: General Sociology, Volume 3: Lectures at the College de France 1983-84. United Kingdom: Wiley, 2021; G. Bulman, “The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition,” NBER Working Paper 30404 (2022); Chetty, Raj, Matthew O. Jackson, Theresa Kuchler, Johannes Stroebel, Nathaniel Hendren, Robert B. Fluegge, Sara Gong et al. “Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility.” Nature 608, no. 7921 (2022): 108-121; Coleman, James S. “Social capital in the creation of human capital.” American journal of sociology 94 (1988): S95-S120; Putnam, Robert D. 2001. “Community Based Social Capital and Educational Performance.” In Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, 58–95. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Sampson, Robert J.. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press 2012; Sampson, Robert J., Stephen W. Raudenbush, and Felton Earls. “Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy.” Science 277, no. 5328 (1997): 918–24.

See also why don’t colleges allocate more resources to access?; four perspectives on student debt forgiveness;  the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace; two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature; Bourdieu in the college admissions office; the ROI for philosophy, etc. 

what Americans think about teaching controversy in schools

Anna Saavedra, Meira Levinson, and Morgan Polikoff report some results from the August-September Understanding America Study that reveal what Americans believe about teaching controversial issues in schools. The sample is 3,751 representative adults, and the survey is a high-quality instrument that I have previously used myself.

The headline is that Americans broadly agree about discussing many issues that might be considered controversial in high school. There is consensus about the value of discussing issues from slavery to local politics, and from sex education to the environment–plus the contributions of both the founders and women and people of color. There are no meaningful differences by political party on those items. It also doesn’t matter how most of the issues are named. For example, similar proportions support discussing “limiting immigration” and “immigration rights,” or “2nd amendment” and “gun control.”

There is much less agreement about discussing sexual orientation and related issues. Democrats are strongly supportive; Republicans oppose. The whole sample is less supportive of teaching controversial issues at all in elementary school, and there again, issues related to sexuality and gender get the lowest support.

See also public opinion on Critical Race Theory; Teaching Honest History: a conversation with Randi Weingarten and Marcia Chatelain; etc.

the shrinking field of vocational education

Before you look at the graph …

What subjects do you think have become more or less prevalent in US high schools since the late 1980s?

If we measure the percentage of all high school teachers who are assigned to each major subject, this is the pattern:

Almost all the subjects were similar in 1988 and 2012, except that vocational education dropped a lot and health/physical education shrank by a bit. The other subjects all gained about the same amounts at the expense of those two.

It isn’t worth showing the trends for most of those subjects by year, because the lines would be pretty flat. But here is the proportion of vo-tech teachers for all the years in the survey.

Posted without a comment, except to say that this may surprise people who think that some of the arts and sciences have expanded at the expense of others.

My analysis of U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), “Public School Teacher Data File,” 1987-88 through 2011-12; “Private School Teacher Data File,” 1987-88 through 2011-12; and “Charter School Teacher Data File,” 1999-2000.

Educational Equity During a Pandemic

In lieu of a post here today, I have an article up on the American Federation of Teachers’ Shanker Institute blog, entitled “Educational Equity During A Pandemic.” It begins:

My wife and I have each spent many hours teaching by video this spring. While sitting in the same house, I meet online with college students who attend a selective private university; she meets with 5-to-9-year olds in an urban public school system, helping them learn to read. 

Both of us think and worry about equity: how to treat all students fairly within our respective institutions and across the whole country (even the world). And both of us discuss these issues with our respective colleagues. I suspect that many other educators are similarly wrestling with the challenges of teaching equitably while schools are closed. 

I hope it may have some value for people currently teaching remotely (at any level) or for parents and other adults concerned about education while schools are shut.