Education is still a sturdy path to upward mobility

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It’s the chicken-or-the-egg question at the heart of the education-reform wars: Can education help young people overcome poverty, or must we defeat poverty before more young people from disadvantaged circumstances can successfully learn?

You don’t have to be a sunny-side-up optimist (or even a hard-boiled pessimist) to get that the right answer to this riddle is “yes.” Yes, education can help young people overcome an impoverished childhood, and yes we need to supplement great schools with smart anti-poverty efforts, too. The best schools—public, private, and charter—do this already, identifying and seeking to furnish the out-of-school “social supports” that will help their kids and their families thrive, while preparing them academically for postsecondary learning and beyond.

A recent article by Rachel Cohen in The Atlantic, however, scrambles this narrative, claiming (in the title at least) that “Education Isn't the Key to a Good Income.” One might surmise that Cohen has found evidence of thousands of young people who grew up poor, succeeded in school and college, and still failed to find good-paying jobs. Alas, that’s not what she found at all—probably because that almost never happens. What she did find was a study by Jesse Rothstein that looked at metro areas to gauge whether the varying quality of their education systems could explain their varying success in boosting upward mobility. In other words, this was not a study of the long-term impacts of education on individual students, or even the long-term impacts of individual schools.

Therefore, the overwhelming research consensus still stands: Students who attain valuable postsecondary credentials have a much better chance of making it into the middle class and beyond. While neither Cohen nor Rothstein would necessarily disagree, it’s a point a casual reader of the Atlantic could easily miss.

Let’s refresh ourselves on the evidence on education and upward mobility, and then we’ll return to Rothstein’s study and the hash that Cohen made of its implications.

Education for upward mobility

Our schools can’t do it all, or all by themselves, but there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit that most schools have not yet plucked—tested strategies that can help low-income and working-class kids climb the ladder to the middle class. Here are three of them.

1. Postsecondary education as a path to the workforce—and the middle class

There’s a good reason why education reformers have been obsessed with getting many more low-income students “to and through” four-year college degrees: They are the closest things we have to a guarantee of propelling poor kids into the middle class

So it makes sense that reformers continue to embrace strategies to prepare students for college, including the implementation of high-quality standards and aligned curriculum, “no excuses” charter schools, and the development of important “non-cognitive” skills.

But as Andrew Kelly has argued, while a college degree has a big payoff, it also comes with a low probability. Among children from the bottom third of the income distribution, Kelly estimates, just 14 percent will complete four-year degrees. Even if we could double that proportion, the great majority of poor and working class kids would still need another path to the middle class.

Thankfully, there is such a route: High-quality career and technical education, culminating in industry-recognized post-secondary credentials. But we’re going to need to rethink our approach to high school if we want many more students to be able to tread this promising path. Right now we mostly shuffle kids through so-called college preparation courses. According to the most recent data, 81 percent of high school students are taking an academic route; only 19 percent are “concentrating” in CTE (which means earning at least three credits in a single CTE program area).

All too often, then, the outcome of our current strategy—what you might call “bachelor’s degree or bust”—is that a young person drops out of college at age twenty with no post-secondary credential, no skills, and no work experience, but a heavy burden of debt. That’s a terrible way to begin adult life, and it’s even worse if the young adult aims to escape poverty.

A better approach for many young people would be to develop coherent pathways, beginning in high school, into authentic technical education options at the post-secondary level. Such efforts show great promise in better engaging students, helping them succeed academically, boosting their college-going and college completion rates, and brightening their career prospects. These arrangements not only provide access to workplaces where students can apply their skills, they also offer seamless transitions into post-secondary education, apprenticeships, and employer-provided learning opportunities. By age twenty, graduates of such programs have academic credentials, technical credentials, and work experience—and, usually, well-paying jobs.

Generic high school experiences are not preparing low-income students to thrive in either academic or technical routes after they receive their diplomas. The system shouldn’t choose a student’s path—but choices there should be.

2. Remember the strivers

The last few years have brought long-overdue attention to the needs of high-achieving, low-income students, as well as new initiatives to ensure that they have opportunities to take rigorous coursework in high school and apply to selective colleges upon graduation. This is good, since these are the low-income kids with the best chance to use higher education as a springboard to the middle class. But as welcome and important as these developments are, they must be complemented by efforts to help high-potential, low-income students much earlier in their academic careers.

As Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution argues, affluent high achievers who come into school with many advantages typically enjoy opportunities that prepare them well for college: gifted-and-talented programs, accelerated courses, and classes with high-achieving peers. Low-income high achievers, on the other hand, are often denied these opportunities. Their urban school systems don’t offer (or greatly restrict) gifted-and-talented programs; they mandate “heterogeneous” groupings of students and tell teachers to do their best meeting a panoply of diverse needs using “differentiated instruction.” Out of fealty to the principle of equity, they don’t let high achievers move faster than their peers. This even though an advanced academic track would help to reduce inequalities in opportunity between rich and poor (and suburban and urban) students who show great academic promise.

These issues tend to come to a head in middle school. If traditional public schools fail to provide a safe, orderly, academically enriching environment for young adolescents to prepare for college preparatory high schools or high-quality career and technical options, then we should encourage the development of charter schools, magnet schools, and other choice strategies that do.

3. Teach the “Success Sequence”

Several years ago, Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution made a startling yet commonsense discovery: Even young people with just a high school diploma can make it into the middle class if they work full-time and delay parenthood until they are at least twenty-one and married. Ninety-eight percent of the people who followed those norms aren’t poor; the vast majority are in the middle class. They termed these three steps—graduate from high school, work full-time, and delay parenthood until marriage—the “success sequence.”

It raises the question: Is there anything schools could do to promote the success sequence, and especially the last component—delaying parenting until marriage, or at least until young people are ready for the challenges of starting a family?

We’ve already discussed the role that well-designed technical education programs can play in getting young people ready for post-secondary education and work. Such education also appears to have a positive impact on the success sequence itself. A sophisticated evaluation by MDRC found that young men who had graduated from a “career academy”—a high quality form of CTE—were 33 percent more likely to be married and living with their spouses than selected peers in a control group. They were also significantly likelier to have custody of their children.

Schools can also help their students develop the character skills needed to think long-term and stay out of trouble. The time-honored way to do this is with religion. A 2012 study by David Figlio and Jens Ludwig found that Catholic high school students were less likely to participate in risky behaviors, including teen sexual activity. They speculated that Catholic schools put the fear of God into their students. Religious instruction, they reported, “could affect students’ ‘tastes’ for misbehavior, or increase the perceived costs of misbehavior by defining a number of activities as sins that have eternal consequences.” And there was also the role of positive peer pressure—by “exposing them to more pro-social peer groups,” particularly by selecting out or expelling students more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

There’s another way that schools can help students develop important character strengths and avoid pregnancy: provide an excellent suite of extracurricular offerings. This might be one secret to Catholic schools’ success. In their 2012 paper, Figlio and Ludwig report that students in Catholic schools “spend more time on homework and extracurricular activities than those in public schools....Private schools may thus reduce delinquency if only because of an ‘incapacitation effect’—teens who are doing homework or running track are not out looking for trouble.”

Extracurricular activities, including athletics, appear to be important for public school students too. As June Kronholz reported in Education Next, studies have long found that disadvantaged students who participate in such activities are less likely to drop out, use tobacco or alcohol, or get pregnant; they are also more likely to score well on tests, enroll in college, and complete college.

The Atlantic’s misleading article

Let’s return to Cohen’s article in The Atlantic. How can she write that “education isn’t the key to a good income” when reams of research show that it still is?

What’s essential to understand is that Cohen and Rothstein are writing about metro areas, not about kids. The question they are looking at is whether the quality of a given area’s schools is related to greater upward mobility for its poorest citizens. That’s a worthwhile question, but it’s rather beside the point for individual students and their teachers, or for individual schools like those in the KIPP network that are trying to achieve breakthrough results. It shouldn’t dissuade them from buying into the common sense idea that poor children will, in general, be much better off if they attain more skills and meaningful postsecondary credentials than if they don’t.

I also have a concern about the original Raj Chetty et al. work that Rothstein’s study builds on. Namely, it doesn’t control for cost-of-living differences when looking at individuals’ mobility. (And yes, it’s true that I’m currently obsessed with cost-of-living differences.)

I suspect it’s not coincidental that several of the metro areas that look quite successful at boosting mobility—taking people from the bottom to the top income quintile based on national data—are also the ones that have become quite expensive (San Jose, Boston, New York, San Francisco). Is someone a “rags to riches” success story in those cities if they are born poor and go on to earn six figures? Probably not, given that even $100,000 doesn’t go so far in those cities. On the other hand, some of the cities that score low on Chetty’s measure, like Charlotte, Atlanta, and Raleigh, are a lot cheaper to live in. Someone making $75,000 in those locales should perhaps be considered upwardly mobile, even if they aren’t in the top income quartile nationally.

I decided to test out this hypothesis, simply plotting Chetty’s “absolute upward mobility” numbers against this cost-of-living index from the Census Bureau. Sure enough, there’s a positive relationship.


Cohen quotes Rothstein saying, “We can’t educate people out of this problem,” and promotes his view that two-parent families and local economic conditions matter more than schools. No doubt those are important, and also consistent with the “success sequence” findings. (Remember that one step of the success sequence is taking a full-time job, which is easier in some places than others.) But kids don’t get to choose their families; they can choose whether to get educated, and whether—as young adults—to move to areas with lots of strong career prospects. But none of that is possible without great primary and secondary schools. So to the teachers and leaders out there who are working with young people to help them climb the mountain to postsecondary education and beyond: Keep at it because that is still the best path to the middle class for the kids you care so much about.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.