Social Mobility Starts and Ends in Schools

Given that bipartisan agreement went extinct sometime in the previous decade, the fact that conservatives and liberals have both concluded that our country suffers from a troubling lack of social mobility might be reason enough to celebrate. The problem, as I wrote earlier, is that few commentators on either side of the political spectrum have recognized the obvious: This problem begins with our schools. And it could potentially end there, as well. In my experience with public schools and the culture that surrounds them, we won’t close the social mobility gap unless we recognize three facts:

1. Our schools don’t value merit

As we know, the idea of merit implies the idea of non-merit; we can’t all be winners. Yet, that is exactly the kind of talk I hear in schools all the time: We are all winners. As Thomas Edsall wrote in his Times essay,In the business sector, particularly, other less benign qualities emerge as essential to meritocratic success: aggressiveness, ruthlessness, dominance-seeking, victimizing behavior, acquisitiveness and the disciplined pursuit of self-interest.” How do we possibly reconcile the hard-edged reality of merit in the real world with the “all winners” ethos of our public schools? We don’t. We have to get real at school and start rewarding merit there. It need not be cut-throat, but it needs to be something better than giving everyone a blue ribbon

2. Our schools don’t value knowledge

In fact, since we are constantly bombarded with research about the dismal prospects of the poor, we have, as I have previously argued, mistaken effect for cause, and created a rather deafening echo chamber that creates policy to institutionalize our failure; e.g. because we have failed to educate the poor, the poor must be uneducable. What does it mean that, as a Princeton political scientist says in Edsall’s essay, “policy outcomes are more strongly related to the preferences of the well off than those of the poor or the middle class”? In my experience, since the “well off” don’t appreciate—or at least, won’t admit to appreciating—nearly enough how knowledge-privileged they are, they do not push for, either out of ignorance or avarice, education policy that would deliver such knowledge to all of our kids.

3. Our culture does not value education.

The fact that most of the essays referred to in my earlier post do not look beyond social and economic status or the acquisition and use of money as determinants of future earnings or measurements of success probably explains my second point above: Does knowledge matter? It is not just weak analysis of a fact pattern (could it not be that the poor are poor because they are poorly educated?) at play here.  Because the data clearly shows that even our “smartest” kids (the word is in quotes because it is one I’ve been reprimanded for using in school—see #1 above) are losing ground. The question is, can schools make us smarter, more moral, more tough, more able to converse with those at the table of the elite?

The social mobility gap is real. But we need to decide whether it is disease or symptom. If the former, we will aim our policy responses at the social engineering constructs that have typified education governance for the last fifty years. But if we believe that social mobility comes from a culture that values open and equal opportunities to education, then we will not only equip the poor for the merit fight ahead, we will have created a tide that will lift all boats.

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College