Doubling down on Education has long been a favorite policy option when unrest brews and the people in charge realize there’s trouble ahead. “Something must be done.” Education is the time-honored ticket to the comfort and security of the middle class – so let’s throw more money at it. But education works only when justice and economics work.
There’s plenty of reason to think that education can help. Most people who’ve experienced success in life have benefited from at least some formal education and are comfortable assenting to more money for the schools. Who doesn’t favor education as a cure for what ails others? But education works only when justice and economics work.
Problem: Investing in Education won’t close the achievement gap or lift the downtrodden if our other systems of opportunity still say No.
- “No, you can’t earn a wage that feeds your family, much less sock money away for your kids’ education.”
- “No, you can’t get a job here beyond the apprentice track, I don’t care if you just got your GED and you were a model inmate.”
- “No, you can’t get a job here; if you’ve got two kids at home, you won’t be coming to work very often.”
- “No, you can’t get a loan to buy a house or start a business even if you’re as educated and credit-worthy as that White guy we just said Yes to.”
- “No you can’t get out of debt without paying all these extra fees that we normally charge people who are trying to get out of debt.”
- “No, you can’t have a future, because you have a past. Those appearances in Juvi when you were in middle school mean you’re doomed, I don’t care how much time you’ve been Reformed, Corrected, or made Penitent. I’d rather take a chance on my goofy neighbor’s son.”
Extreme examples? Not hardly, these disparities have been documented over and over, almost as much as the dangers of tobacco or alcohol.
Problem: Disparities and dysfunctions in the justice systems and in the economic systems greatly limit the benefits to be achieved through improving the education system.
The disparities in systems that adjoin the Education system have the effect of damping or suppressing better educational outcomes, and can perpetuate bad outcomes for a long time, even over generations. Here’s how:
- The children of parents who are kept away from their families by incarceration are not likely to do all that well in school. Healthy, secure, hopeful adults in the home make a difference.
- The children of parents who’ve not been allowed to make ends meet or accumulate savings with an eye to moving on up are not likely to do all that well in school. Healthy, secure, hopeful adults in the home make a difference.
- The children of parents who have no realistic chance of becoming meaningfully employed are not likely to do all that well in school. Healthy, secure, hopeful adults in the home make a difference.
Parents have to be able to see and communicate the possibility of a success track for themselves and especially for their children. Parents have to see avenues for making life better for their own family. It’s the American dream and always has been. For people who can see or imagine the possibilities, education certainly can make a difference.
Sensing such hope is practically a prerequisite for encouraging effort in one’s school-age child. But the legacy of Jim Crow is deeply ingrained in the bones of our social systems that still say No to African Americans. Opportunity is still denied. Hope is still snuffed. The humiliation of being repeatedly told No creates a death spiral. Post-traumatic stress from that Jim Crow era still continues, and for these people, education is not sufficient for breaking out.
What we have to do is make all social systems say Yes in a more fair way, so that Education can indeed become a more reliable pathway to success. That’s a long haul but that’s where the effort must go.
System change is required.
Pressure has to be applied at key points in the Justice and Economics systems so that the new rules for saying Yes can be applied to let everyone get a fair shake.
Fortunately, these rules are made by humans, and these systems are operated by humans, and are therefore subject to change. There’s actually signs that these systems are ripe for a bipartisan approach to change.
It starts by discovering opportunities in these systems, like the justice systems and economics systems, for intervention – opportunities for changing the written and unwritten rules to level the playing field and assure more equal opportunity. Fixing these systems is a matter of urgency and opportunity.
And it also starts with choosing different metrics for measuring success. If it’s true that we get what we measure, let’s choose to measure “successful re-entry to a more productive path and onto a path of improved financial security” instead of the usual “recidivism – return to futile incarceration and doomed future.”
Originally appeared, July 27, 2015. Lightly revised June 26, 2020