Monday, June 13, 2005

Class Mobility

Uh oh - Sebastian Mallaby is engaging in class warfare.
Now, you want to hear something really bad? The poorest fifth of Americans has experienced a rise in incomes of just 3 percent over the past three decades. The real problem in America is not about the middle class. It's about the underclass; about Americans who lack the skills and habits to advance at all.
Hey - wait a second. Aren't we supposed to pretend that we're a "classless society", that everybody is "middle class", and that the richest of the rich aren't really any different from the rest of us? Perhaps I should consult Ann Coulter to see if Mallaby should be indicted for treason.

This comes on the heels of an observation by Mallaby which I deem, at best, banal:
This is more than merely heartwarming. It takes the ugliest monster in American society and smacks it on the head. Inequality in the United States is sharpening, and income increasingly reflects parental status. And while this may be linked to bad Republican tax policy, it has a lot more to do with bad education policy, defended for the most part by interest groups connected to the Democrats.
As you might expect from such a statement, Mallaby essentially argues that the real problem in our society is inequity in our K-12 schools, apparently best overcome by bashing teachers unions and public school boards. (Never mind that performance in charter schools and in private or parochial schools accepting vouchers is on the whole no better, and in some cases is worse, than that of their public counterparts). But the root of why kids end up with similar earnings as their parents has very little to do with the policies of either major political party and far more to do with modeling - kids pick up a lot from their parents. Does Mallaby think it is a mere coincidence that the children of college graduates are more likely to attend college, the children of teachers are more likely to become teachers, the children of doctors are more likely to enter the medical professions.... Even within "bad" school districts, you will find trends of that sort.

And no amount of improvement in the Los Angeles Public Schools, directly or through charter schools, is going to magically provide the same type of opportunity that wealthy kids in our society are born into. At the extremes, the hardest working kid at one of Kushner's schools isn't going to be admitted as a legacy into Harvard or Yale on middling grades, and he isn't going to be able to follow his father's footsteps into government. She's not going to be able to hire a publicist and a plastic surgeon, repeatedly create a public spectacle of herself, and end up starring on a pseudo-reality TV show on the basis of her manufactured fame. And, in more mundane terms, he is not likely to be welcomed into the "CEO Class", even if he finished college and attends a good business school.

News Flash: Children learn a great deal from their parents, however good or bad their public schools. You can't expect a child's school to magically cure a lousy, unsupportive home environment. Nor can you expect a public school (or private school, or charter school) to create limitless opportunity for every student, entirely divorced from what their parents do (or do not do) for a living.

Mallaby concludes,
Education is the last, lumbering public monopoly, and it is not performing: Only 23 percent of blacks and a fifth of Hispanics graduate from high school prepared for a four-year college; a quarter of all college freshmen require some sort of remedial course. So long as this is so, the alarming wealth gap in this country will remain unbridgeable, no matter whether tax policy is designed by Republicans or Democrats
But where is his evidence that public schools are not performing at least as well as the alternatives? Citations to exceptional examples do not prove the case, and the statistical evidence to date suggests the opposite - that on the whole charter schools underperform public schools. The most strident supporters of vouchers, particularly where parochial schools qualify to receive them, typically oppose requiring the schools which accept vouchers to administer the same standardized tests which are supposedly essential to measure performance in public schools. That suggests first that their goals are something other than improvement in education, and second that they don't expect objective measures of performance to lend support to voucher programs.

I'm no fan of public schools. But I'm even less a fan of proposed "magic answers" to persistent problems which are based on knee-jerk politics and guesswork. In my opinion, Mallaby's editorials often read like reworked press releases from lobbying groups seeking to advance a political agenda, presenting broad generalizations which seem to be backed with little thought or evidence, and this doesn't seem to be an exception.


  1. Waldorf schools are the best!

  2. (Waldorf salads, on the other hand....)


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