Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Solidifying Class Structure

The New York Times' David Brooks has a suggestion for President Bush's State of the Union address: "it would be nice if he would devote himself as passionately to the grandest theme of domestic policy - social mobility."

Expanding on the problem, he writes:

Economists and sociologists do not all agree, but it does seem there is at least slightly less movement across income quintiles than there was a few decades ago. Sons' income levels correlate more closely to those of their fathers. The income levels of brothers also correlate more closely. That suggests that the family you were born into matters more and more to how you will fare in life. That's a problem because we are not supposed to have a hereditary class structure in this country.

But we're developing one. In the information age, education matters more. In an age in which education matters more, family matters more, because as James Coleman established decades ago, family status shapes educational achievement.

At the top end of society we have a mass upper-middle class. This is made up of highly educated people who move into highly educated neighborhoods and raise their kids in good schools with the children of other highly educated parents. These kids develop wonderful skills, get into good colleges (the median family income of a Harvard student is now $150,000), then go out and have their own children, who develop the same sorts of wonderful skills and who repeat the cycle all over again.

In this way these highly educated elites produce a paradox - a hereditary meritocratic class.

It becomes harder for middle-class kids to compete against members of the hypercharged educated class. Indeed, the middle-class areas become more socially isolated from the highly educated areas.

And this is not even to speak of the children who grow up in neighborhoods in which more boys go to jail than college, in which marriage is not the norm before child-rearing, in which homes are often unstable, in which long-range planning is absurd, in which the social skills you need to achieve are not even passed down.

I guess there's concern that societal structure is solidifying, but I remember during an Introduction to Psychology class in college, oh eight or nine years ago, this phenomenon was already pretty well documented, which I assume is the basis of the reference to James Coleman. Granted a decrease in mobility would be somewhat daunting, but overall, this is how America has worked since its inception, the potential for upward mobility is enough to get everyone to "buy into" the societal norms, even if that potential is rarely realized.

I would think that this revelation should also raise questions about the potential effectiveness of the "No Child Left Behind" legislation. Does the legislation address the outside incluences?

By the way, part of Mr Brooks conclusion:

"We can spend all we want on schools. But if families are disrupted, if the social environment is dysfunctional, bigger budgets won't help."

Are we able to see that there is probably a synergy across Education, Health Care, Child Care, and Head Start programs? Can we understand that a child's educational success is tied to all of the above, and to their parent's ability to provide them?

Perhaps we need more reasearch, but if there is a connection and nothing is done to incorporate these aspects into a comprehensive vision of education, children will continue to be left behind.

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