What if education isn't the key to social mobility?

In America, if you work hard in school, anything is possible. You'll be able to to do better than your parents -- make more money, climb the ladder of social mobility, and enjoy a better life. That's the American dream. We treat that idea like scripture, and education is the lynchpin. It's a powerful belief. It's deeply embedded in the American psyche that education, on an individual level, is a difference maker.

Education is the key to social mobility.

But what if it isn't?

The Atlantic just published an article by Rachel Cohen that makes a persuasive case that education actually is not the dominant factor in social mobility. She cites research from UC Berkley economist Jesse Rothstein. "There is...little evidence that differences in the quality of K-12 schooling are a key mechanism driving variation in intergenerational mobility," according to Rothstein's working paper.

Cohen closes here essay this summary: "Ultimately, most Americans would probably agree that leaders should work to build great schools, and that individuals who work hard should be able to improve their economic earnings over time. Devoting the bulk of one’s attention to the former in the hopes that it causes the latter, however, might prove to be a real mistake."

There are several factors that are cited in the article and the research that may play a larger role than education in social mobility: differences in labor markets, differences in marriage patterns, differences in income sources, and other factors that are tied to geography.

What's concerning about those factors is that they're not equal -- and not public goods, like K-12 education is.

There are two public policy paths that, if the research is accepted as true (the authors acknowledge that the studies are not causal), are presented. One option is to try to address the factors listed: try to make structural changes to the labor market, try to equalize work opportunities across geographic areas, try to influence social behaviors like marriage, etc. Those may be worthy endeavors. 

But I think education should be to be the largest determinant of social mobility, even if it isn't today. Every kid in this country gets education. They don't get to choose where they live or what their parents do, but they get to go to school. That should mean something, and just for society, but for every individual kid. How well a kid does in school -- however we decide to define "well" -- is a lot fairer way for a society to allocate social advantage than where that kid is born. 

If the current education system isn't producing the social mobility outcomes that we think it should, how can we adapt the system to produce better outcomes? How can we make the education system more closely align with economic demand? If it's true that even high quality educational opportunities and attainment aren't producing social mobility, then doesn't that call for structural change? Or do we accept that education is inherently insignificant to social mobility?

Those are big questions for educators, economists, and policymakers to weigh in on. I hope we'll have this debate as our economy continues to change.