Schools may be the wrong place to fight inequality

Conventional wisdom holds that reforming education is the best way to reduce social inequality. It’s widely believed that disadvantaged children attend bad schools; so if we could just make those schools better, their life prospects would improve. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

Ohio State sociologist Doug Downey has spent over a decade exploring that question, and he’s convinced that the usual narrative about schooling and inequality has led policymakers astray.

Doug Downey (Ohio State photo)

Doug Downey (Ohio State photo)

“We may have overemphasized the role of schools,” he said last week at an Indiana University symposium on race and education. “And it may be undermining our efforts to reduce inequality.”

Downey makes a persuasive case that schools, even many of the ones labeled as “failing,” are doing a pretty good job of compensating for poverty and other out-of-school circumstances. By focusing on schools, he argues, we may be missing opportunities to work on issues that matter more.

He traces the debate back 50 years to the Coleman Report, which concluded that, when it came to student achievement, differences in schools paled next to differences in family and social background. Eventually the report fell out of favor. By the 1980s, liberals and conservatives alike focused on education as the lever for reducing inequality. They just disagreed about what to do.

Conservatives favored accountability and competition. Liberals called for more and fairer funding; they pointed out that, in many states, schools serving poor children got fewer resources and less experienced teachers, arguably widening the achievement gap between rich and poor.

Downey largely subscribed to the second view until he read an article noting that, by age 18, the typical child would spend only 13 percent of his or her waking hours in school. Continue reading