Atlantic Story Postscript

Originally published in Medium on October 13, 2017.

On September 26th I published a story in The Atlantic that has garnered a number of interesting reactions. It has also sparked some confusion.

My piece, entitled “Why Education is Not The Key to a Good Income” looks at a body of evidence that suggests educational attainment is not the main factor influencing intergenerational mobility — a child’s likelihood that they will one day outearn their parents.

Some readers responded by worrying that I was saying schools don’t matter.

Or more conspiratorially, that I’m working to reduce accountability for schools and, ultimately, reduce funding for education.

Many of these responses, I will note, have focused heavily on the title of the piece and much less on the body. (As is standard journalistic practice, I did not write the title; however, I do believe a fair reading of it captures the thrust of my argument.)

The latest critique came Friday, from Mike Petrelli, the president of the Fordham Institute, a center-right education think tank.

He calls my piece misleading, again focusing on the title. “How can she write ‘education isn’t the key to a good income’ when reams of research show that it still is?”

Despite various insinuations about the piece, I see no reason to be coy about the argument I was making and its implications. So let me spell those things out clearly.

  1. Education is important. Schools matter. I would never say otherwise. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about public schooling, and reporting on how best to achieve its potential and promise.
  2. Jesse Rothstein, whose new study was featured in my piece (among other studies), also does not say schools are unimportant. He does not argue that we should stop investing in schools or in school improvement.
  3. There are critical differences between the aggregate effect of education versus the individual effect. Jesse’s study, and my piece, were both focused on the aggregate effect. That’s the correct context for the headline.
  4. On an individual level, education is typically quite important to earning a good income. Well-paid lawyers went to college and to law school. Wall Streeters are overwhelmingly college educated, often with MBAs or other graduate credentials. Doctors attend college and medical school, and so on.
  5. But education, in and of itself, does not create jobs with good incomes. It’s conceivable that improving schools would, through second-order effects, create jobs. But the evidence suggests that it does not, or hasn’t yet. And if the supply doesn’t change, then the aggregate effect of academically superior schools on income mobility will be negligible. I recommend Matt Bruenig’s great post on this issue.

For policymakers, this is a critical distinction. Imagine there’s a good job with two applicants John Smith and Jane Doe. He gets it, and she doesn’t.

Improving Jane’s school academically might ensure that she gets the job instead. And then if you improve John’s school some more, maybe he’s the stronger candidate again. But no matter how much you improve his school or hers, you can’t give them both that same job. The effect on overall income mobility is zero. For policymakers, opportunity is just as scarce either way. If they’re trying to make everyone better off economically — and we mostly assume they are — this isn’t a great way to do it.

This aggregate v. individual effect distinction is important to the piece.

For instance, Rothstein is quoted as saying “We cannot educate people out of this problem.” He’s referring to aggregate inequality and mobility, not saying that, in the job market, an individual who attends a good school won’t outcompete someone who didn’t. Another economist, Marie Connolly, is quoted as saying “Education is just not a big part of the story. You can see a little role for school quality but the structure of the labor market seems to be a much bigger driver.” She’s referring to aggregate levels of intergenerational mobility across Canada.

If you’re an individual looking for a leg up over the competition, by all means, go to a good school if you can. But if we want to reduce overall levels of poverty in the U.S, we’re going to need to look beyond education.


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