Upward Mobility Through Educational Innovation
The job report released a few weeks ago presented a number of gloomy statistics. People are dropping out of the labor force; people are settling for part time employment; hiring in certain sectors, like manufacturing, has dried up, while employment has increased in the so-called “hospitality” sector, where jobs are low paying. These are dismal outcomes for what is supposed to be an economic recovery. Repeatedly cited on the airwaves is the observation that the economy would not return to pre-Great Recession levels of employment unless this slow paced recovery was kept up for five years.
But that last is to mess up the time scales of disparate events. Whatever it is that led to the slow recovery is not going to keep up for another five years. The business cycle or non-economic events such as a war or an election are bound to intrude before that and so set us off on yet another tangent. Moreover, worrying about the recovery from the Great Recession is to neglect the long term changes in the society and the economy that account for the decrease in real wages and the declines in the fortunes of every social class but the professional class for some fifty years now, come boom or bust, bubble or recession, economic growth that is the result of computers or housing or hospitals or whatever. What can be done about that?
The question is the nature of the deep seated processes that underlie job stagnation. And, for that, I think, we need to turn to sociological insights, particularly the idea, now fifty years old, of the opportunity structure, which is the game of Chutes and Ladders as it applies to how people within their own lives make their way within the world of employment so as to build themselves careers—whether the short step ones of the working class, who rise from alternate on the assembly line to crew chief on the assembly line, or the many stepped careers of members of the professional classes, who begin at fancy universities and wind up as upper middle management or possibly as CEO’s, which was the contrast that Peter Blau demonstrated half a century ago, or the new world of employment, where there is a great deal of lateral mobility without benefits, as is the case now in most college teaching and white collar employment, not to speak of those extended internships where college educated people work for next to nothing, supported by their parents or living at home, until they finally grasp the ring and get a job.Whoopdi-do.
What are the bottlenecks that keep people from advancing themselves? Many of them have to do with what is generally called education. People who benefitted from the G. I. Bill of Rights after the Second World War had also “benefitted” from having been at war. They were more mature and anxious to take advantage of what had now opened up to them. It was not just the course work that made them middle class and so able to see the government backed mortgages that allowed them to buy suburban homes as a fulfillment of the American Dream. For at least a generation now, sociologists, following Julius C. Wilson, speak of a readiness to learn that springs from living in a community that is not residentially segregated. Young people in such communities are deprived of the influences that might make them think there is a better way of life than the one they live amidst Chicago’s South Side.
The key stumbling block, however, has to do with formal education. How can you get a job downtown if you can’t read? How can you get a technical job if you can’t do arithmetic? Forget about the fact that ghetto youth swagger; they can lose that when they want to, if they have reason to, though I am not at all sure that wanting to be knowledgeable is enough to make you so if you do not put in the hard work of exercising your brain in directions and with the imagination and discipline that you do not think that you possess. That applies to working class youth as well as to ghetto youth and it has been my experience as well that it applies to students of middling ability who are middle class in background and are just waiting around to get married or inherit a family business.
The problem of class attitude is further exacerbated by the fact that wealthier students go to better schools. Those schools have more discipline because students are expected to treat school as a place to prove themselves rather than have education provided to them like a service and because more able teachers will prefer to work there and because the curriculum is better because the average student can absorb more. Ghetto schools fail on all of these interconnected measures and so the capable or interested student in such a school has the deck stacked against him.
How to break the knot that ties the poor into an educational system that does not serve them very well? One solution is to select a number of them on the basis of early testing to be admitted to schools that will provide a more rigorous education. That might work and there are ways to test early bloomers and parents might not resent that their children have won the merit based lottery. That doesn’t help all those left behind who might also benefit from more intensive educational programs.
There is another option. Isolate the young people from their neighborhood educational opportunities by providing them with home based educational services. Sending tutors to homes was done years ago for children confined to their homes by illnesses such as tuberculosis. It is much easier to do today. Provide students with computers that can be plugged into an educational network that provides readily available sequenced learning that a student can move along through at his or her own pace. In fact, this is what home schooling now provides to children. Try it out for poor kids. If the home is not an environment where they can study, they can go to large study halls and even have teacher’s aides help them sort out the equipment and provide suggestions and additional explanations. The school itself is just a resource center and an athletic center so kids get the interaction, highly supervised, that is also part of growing up.
This suggestion would reduce the cost of education because you would need many fewer teachers and so could retain only those teachers who are especially good and not have to go out and hire whatever warm bodies are available that also happen to have teaching credentials. More students could be accommodated in a fewer number of buildings because there would be less total in school time per student. Fewer educational resources would have to be spent supervising the residential day care centers which are what many schools today are.
The most important gain would be educational, not economic. Students would learn up to the level they desire and can attain at the pace of which they are capable. Fewer years of elementary school followed by fewer years of high school gets students prepared for college that comes to be conceived less as a late adolescent rite of passage than as a place where you might learn something. The boola boola spirit is put on the scrapheap of history. That would save students the need for very extended student loans or the need to go to expensive places to get first rate educations, the best teachers and supervision available on the internet.
I know all of this is much talked about and there are hurdles to be overcome. Will there be a single professor that teaches Shakespeare or political thought? That would be a bad idea for in learning, it is necessary for a thousand flowers to bloom. Will there be students who cannot relate to computer assisted education any more than classroom or teacher centered education? Certainly, and the job of the school as a resource center is to find the optimal setting for one or another student. There is many a glitch to be overcome, but the advantage of this method is that it does not require a great influx of new money and that it does not require an overhaul of the social structure so that students can find their way up the social class ladder. Everybody gets the kind of education and level of education they want, even though that will mean far fewer students will have read Moby Dick or mastered college level algebra. So what? Humanists are a dying breed anyway.
Do not think of this new format for education as an educational innovation, though it is that too. Think of it primarily as a way to separate at least some kids from the herd so that they can make their way up the social class ladder. It doesn’t have to serve everyone in this way but it is some compensation for the over-determined nature of the life of each of the social classes: income, cultural attributes, institutions, all mutually reinforcing one another so that most children in most social classes wind up at the same level of the social class ladder as most children in their class. Yes, if a lot of people go to college, then a lot of people will hold down respectable jobs, which may be the kind of social mobility seen after World War II, or else a result of the fact, in a latter generation, that a lot of people found their way into information technology. But increasingly, what the uniform processes affecting a social class has done is to depress the chances of doing as well as your parents unless you come from the higher social classes.
The main advantage of the educational scheme alluded to here is therefore that it provides avenues out of desperation or even out of the not so desperate circumstances of the service provider sector of the economy. The children of nurse’s aides can become nurse practitioners; the children of data entry people can become programmers. Everyone needs a dream, and this dream costs far less than the pipe dream of a lottery win (if you accumulate up the cost of those lottery tickets.) A radical educational innovation could make upward mobility a reality again for American society.