Education reform will not fix poverty or inequality

As regular readers know by now, I am fairly skeptical of the Education Reform Movement. I am not convinced that the reforms advocated by this well-funded movement will actually work because I suspect that the real problem is economic inequality, not bad schools or bad teachers. But even if one believed that the policies pushed by the reformers would be successful, a question then arises: successful at what?

Education reformers observe that a large achievement gap exists between poor and wealthy students, and try to find ways to eliminate that gap through reforms. But why? What is the point of eliminating the achievement gap? Reformers give many reasons, some of which are undeniably legitimate. Quality education is a freestanding good, and our present economic and educational system denies that good to multitudes of students. Eliminating ignorance is an intrinsic good worth striving for even if nothing else results from it.

However, education reformers do not view reducing the achievement gap as good simply because knowledge and learning are good; they also view it as a way of reducing poverty and economic inequality. It is not just the education reformers who think this either. Almost every milquetoast liberal effort to reduce poverty centers around trying to funnel more poor people into college. The reasoning for this proceeds as follows: people with college degrees make significantly more money; therefore if everyone had a college degree, everyone would make significantly more money.

This analysis does not actually make sense. It is true that if you take any given poor person and push them through college, that specific poor person will probably escape poverty as a result. However, taking all poor people and putting them all through college will not result in all of them escaping poverty. Anyone can escape poverty, but not everyone can.

The reason you cannot scale up college as a poverty-reducer is that high-paying jobs are scarce, positional goods. In the present economy, only so many people can capture good jobs, not because only so many people have the credentials to do so, but because only so many good jobs exist. The number and quality of jobs are decided by market forces, not the number of college graduates. You could educate every single person in the United States to the point where they held a joint PhD-JD-MD-MBA, but that does not mean we would suddenly become a society of doctors, lawyers, managers, and professors. The market defines how many people can hold those positions: we cannot keep adding management jobs and law jobs if there is not market demand for more.

Ultimately, someone has to clean toilets, prepare food, and build infrastructure. In fact, as Doug Henwood pointed out in the latest LBO newsletter, only 5 of the top 20 growing professions even require a college degree. Putting more people through college wont change that, and will thus have little impact on the total amount of inequality or poverty in the United States. Although better educating the population wont create high-paying jobs out of thin air, it may marginally increase the productivity of workers in general. But as we have seen over the past 4 decades, increased productivity does not necessarily translate into more income for working people.

In many ways, capturing high-paying jobs is a lot like capturing one of the tickets to a very popular concert. If you camp out for five days, you will capture one of the tickets. But if everyone camps out for five days, that does not mean they will all get tickets. There are only so many tickets to be captured and there are only so many high-paying jobs to be captured.

So closing the achievement gap will not reduce poverty or economic inequality; it will merely change the distribution of it. Once the achievement gap is closed and we enter into the utopian world of genuine equal opportunity, poor and rich kids will have an equal chance at winding up in miserable poverty. As I have written before, providing kids an equal opportunity to compete for the scarce, non-poverty jobs is not really an improvement, and it certainly does not make an economy just. Education Reformers who think that they can take a bite out of inequality and poverty through closing the achievement gap misunderstand how the economy — and the labor market in particular — works.