What does your family income say about educational attainment?

As an undergraduate student at Youngstown State University (YSU) I was an active member of the Model United Nations Team.  For those not familiar with Model U.N. it is a competitive simulation of the the United Nations.   It is an amazing experience that blends public speaking, debate, research, critical thinking, parliamentary procedure, awareness of global issues etc….. We competed all over the United States and Canada.

One particular conference, left a lasting impression on me not only as a student — but as an educator. It was held in Washington D.C.,  and it was a huge conference with Universities from around the world, including several ivy league schools — I had two ivy league students in my session and at first they were given  immediate unconditional credibility when they spoke—they are of course from elite schools.  However, I noticed that at least one of them was woefully under prepared and was ignoring or unaware of his countries foreign policy.

I started to call attention to his inaccurate positions and slowly was embarrassing him and his counterpart from the ivy league school which I shall not name.  Finally, after a few hours of simply beating him up he pulled me aside in a caucus session and said simply “dude, give me a break — my professor is in the back of the room and I am getting a grade for this and your killing me.”   I looked back and sure enough his professor was in the back taking copious notes.  Part of me did feel sorry for him– but — I was a lowly student from YSU and simply went for the kill in spite of his pleas for mercy.  Shortly after the conference he came up to me and we chatted and I learned that his father was an ambassador and his mother was an accomplished musician.

As I think about that experience today as an educator —  I cannot help but think about how his privilege determined his path and likely not his intellect.  Not to say that he was not smart — but he was just like the rest of us attending a university the only difference was his social class.  The university he was attending was at least 40 times more expensive than my public university. His private prep school that allowed him to get accepted into that Ivy League institution was at least 30 times what my public high school was able to spend on my education.

Pundits and policymakers either ignore or avoid discussion on this topic.  Public Education is the “tide that will raise all boats” if that public education is at least on par with a private school education.  But the reality many of our public schools are underfunded and understaffed in comparison to the private counterparts.  That underfunded and understaffed public school simply cannot offer near the number of Advanced Placement Courses, dual credit courses, global travel, foreign languages, the arts, the personal advisers, counselors and tutors that elite private schools are able to offer and provide to insure success of students.  If education was a race, those in elite private school have a healthy head start.

We have seen– at least in Ohio — a slow but often painful decline in public school funding.  It is increasingly being diverted to for-profit charter schools or subsidizing in subtle ways private schools. As public school dollars dwindle those public schools only have two choices — reduce programs and staff or ask the already tapped out community for more financial support.   It is not rocket science that those communities who have the lowest incomes are least likely to be able to support that public school via increased tax dollars.  Those more affluent communities are better able to increase the funding to stave off cuts in programs.  But they all feel the pinch of decreased funding that equates to reduced opportunities for kids.

The income gap and achievement gap are aligned — yes — let that sink in a little — yet we make no mention of this when discussing education or formulating education policy.  Your income nowadays has more to do with your educational attainment than any other single factor.  It trumps race — social class matters — but we fail to discuss this in any serious way — we instead focus on labeling schools as failures using measurement tools that are really measuring income levels of communities and not student ability, potential, knowledge or skill.

We have a serious opportunity gap in this country coupled with an income gap which was only exacerbated in the last recession.  I have heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk extensively about the achievement gap, but I have never once heard him or any other policy maker for that matter discuss the opportunity gap as it relates to education.  I have never heard any of them discuss the income gap and how that impacts education…..it is simply not discussed.  I am not diminishing the achievement gap — but our singular focus on just the achievement gap is like my doctor treating my sore knee with an arm sling.

Public education is still our best path to social mobility, but for kids who are born into impoverished circumstances they will attend public schools that will not have a 1/2 of the opportunities provided in the more affluent counterparts and nothing near what elite private school kids will receive.

What we need to remind ourselves that all kids have potential — ALL — and even kids who are born into privilege struggle with math or science.  The difference is we expect them to succeed and place all kinds of supports to insure they will succeed. Those kids of privilege are given every available opportunity and resource.  The only way we erase gaps whether it’s the achievement, income, or opportunity is to reinvigorate and reinvest in public education and discard the erroneous thinking that kids fail when in reality we are failing kids.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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