About Us |  FAQ  |  Contact Us |  中文版(chinese)

Articles Recommendation

Determinants of Social/Educational Stratification

Allan C. Ornstein
(St. John’s University, U.S.A.)
Abstract: The mid-1960s and early 1970s produced a series of large-scale studies which basically showed that teachers and schools have minimal effect on student achievement. Over the years, the data have been ignored or buried by the liberal/minority community, because it lets teachers and schools off the hook, and implies that there is little educators (and society) can do to overcome the effects of poverty and deprivation on education. In startling contrast to conventional wisdom, the studies by James Coleman, Christopher Jencks and Otis Duncan concluded that schools have little influence on children’s academic achievement. The results of the studies are difficult to present concisely, since the analyses include a host of variables and a large number of sub-groups. The article continues into the 1990s and post-2000 period with a discussion on achievement vs. aptitude, an analysis of family capital and an overview of public schooling and social institutions involved in the education of children and youth.
Key words: student achievement, inequality, school influence, social stratification, family capital

Every modern society must deal with the relationship between excellence, equality, and education. When society considers excellence, it must deal with the division of labor and what it will pay for certain jobs. When 95 percent of the jobs in the U.S. pay less than $100,000 per year, we need to ask why certain other jobs pay a million dollars or more – and are the benefits and importance (or responsibilities) of the high-paying jobs worth the cost. If merit is defined in terms of performance, we need to distinguish between performance and credentials. (Having the appropriate education credentials does not necessarily guarantee good performance.) We must also work out definitions or criteria for performance (good, average, poor etc.), test and evaluation procedures in school and in the work place for determining merit and rewards – and the notion of excellence and occasional genius. 
Society must consider equality in terms of power and wealth – which people or groups have more or less political muscle and earn more or less (and how much more or less) than the average income – and why. The more egalitarian or progressive is society, the more safety nets it will provide to help ordinary, slow, unqualified and disabled workers to obtain and pay for essential human goods (such as food and shelter) and services (such as health, education and transportation). The exact benefits and standards for obtaining the benefits must be worked out politically. Hence, it depends on what political group (liberal or conservative) controls the process. The more benefits available – unemployment insurance, health insurance, pensions and social security for the poor, disabled and aged – the more egalitarian the society.
From its birth in 1776 to the turn of the twentieth century, the United States moved from an agrarian to an industrial society. Education and training were important but not crucial factors for increasing opportunity. Farm and industrial societies are primarily based on muscle power and not brain power, so that a good deal of mobility could be achieved without a high school or college diploma. Apprenticeships, training, and learning on the job were more important than a formal education for the masses to live a descent life. At the turn of the twentieth century, for example, only 11.5 percent of 14- to 17- year olds were enrolled in high school and only 6.5 percent graduated high school.
As society became more complex and bureaucratic, education became more important. With the coming of the information age and technology-based society at the mid-twentieth century, formal education took on even greater importance for opportunity and mobility. Brain power now substituted muscle power as the crucial factor for productivity and economic advancement. The female liberation movement which started in the 1950s, with its demand for more equality, coincides with the coming information/technological revolution, and provided a much easier vehicle for women to obtain middle-class jobs, economic independence, and greater equality in just a few decades.
Education, today, is the link between excellence and equality. In a democracy, it is considered essential for promoting a person's opportunity and mobility and for improving the productivity of society. In a society dedicated to the pursuit of social justice, intensive efforts should be devoted to providing the best education for all its citizens and to close the education gaps that exist between the "haves" and "have nots," rich and poor students. It must not write off its disadvantaged populations as "uneducable" or slot them into poorly funded schools and second-rate programs. Our Founding Fathers understood the notion of social justice, although they called it by different names such as "freedom," "liberty" and "natural rights" of man. They wanted the children of the common people to have a fair chance to grow up as equal as possible. Equal opportunity, regardless of parentage, combined with the need for civic responsibility, were the driving forces for schooling in America.
The Role of the Family
Prior to the civil rights movement, the influence of the school and family were considered roughly the same for determining educational outcomes. It was the same education period, spear headed by J. McHunt at the University of Illinois and Ben Bloom at the University of Chicago, which challenged the hereditary argument in explaining intelligence differences and counter-argued the importance of environmental factors. Differences in family patterns and child-rearing practices, as well as social-class, all seemed to conform to educational differences.
In 1964, the black Harvard psychologist Thomas Pettigrew wrote A Profile of the Negro American, a comprehensive interpretation of the available research at that time describing the crippling social and family costs to blacks of the inequality imposed upon them from slavery to the early 1960s. The first of his sobering statistics is that the longer a black child remains in school, even in integrated classrooms, the farther behind he falls in relation to his age and grade. Moreover, the discrepancies between black and white children are not limited to poverty-stricken families; they cut across social class and actually increase at each higher socioeconomic level. Pettigrew concluded the problems of self-concept, motivation and educational achievement were inter-linked and a direct result of family structure which in turn was the result of racial discrimination and the caste system in the United States.
A quarter century earlier than the Pettigrew study, Franklin Frazier, a black sociologist at the University of Chicago was writing what became a classic text, The Negro Family in the United States, about family disorganization among blacks—rooted in slavery. The female came to play the dominant role; inordinate significance was attached to the variations in skin color; and a high incidence of desertion and illegitimacy prevailed. Commenting on his thesis a decade later (1950) in the Journal of Negro Education, Franklin indicated:
As a result of family disorganization, a large proportion of Negro children and youth have not undergone the socialization which only the family can provide. The disorganized families have failed to provide for their emotional needs and have not provided the discipline and habits which are necessary for personality development. Because the disorganized family has failed in its function as a socializing agency, it has handicapped the children in their relation to the institutions in the community.
…Since the widespread family disorganiza- tion among Negros has resulted from the failure of the father to play the role in family life required by American society, the mitigation of this problem must await those changes in the Negro and American society which will enable the Negro father to play the role required of him.
Frazier pointed out that when the black child who comes from a disorganized home reaches the school cultural shock occurs; the child finds his or her classroom experiences uninteresting, frustrating, and anxiety producing. The child feels at odds with the school and has difficulty functioning. Because of general lack of discipline and training in self-restraint, the child lacks the inner-controls necessary for effective learning and “conformity” in school. The child may exhibit aggressive behavior, withdrawn psychological growth, and physically absent himself from school.
When Daniel Moynihan addressed himself to the same point—black family disorganization—in the mid1960s, his conclusions were bitterly denounced by many black and liberal spokesmen. Indeed, the times had changed and Moynihan, a white sociologist, was considered incapable of interpreting the black experience in America. In The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Moynihan postulated that family structure is not only a product of social behavior and attitudes, but is itself a primary socializing agent—a major element in the creation of culture, social character, and social class. In other words, the black family structure is major variable in limiting school achievement and keeping blacks in a lower class. The study focused on the increasing black illegitimacy ratio (from 16.8 percent in 1940 to 23.6 percent in 1963, compared to the white ratio of 2 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively, during the same period), the rise of female-headed families (from 18 percent in 1949 to 24 percent in 1962, compared to the white rate of about 8 percent during this period), and other breakdown factors (a dramatic increase in welfare dependency, unemployment, and juvenile delinquency and arrest rates among youth) which correlated with female-headed households. In describing the less stable black families, Moynihan referred to “the tangle of pathology,” and was roundly criticized for it.
The family structure of blacks worsened in the 1970s. In a follow-up study Moynihan pointed out that the percentage of black female-headed families rose to 30.6 percent in 1971. Although the number of families below the poverty level declined 50 percent between 1959 and 1968 for black families with male heads, it increased 24 percent for female-headed homes. By 1968 the majority of poor black children were in female-headed families, and by 1971 the percentage reached three-fifths. These family statistics had serious educational implications: lower-class blacks from broken homes were far more likely to score below grade level on achievement test than lower-class blacks from intact homes; they were more likely to drop out of school, and they accounted for a large portion of the achievement differences in school between blacks and white samples.
Today, in 2015, there are almost no liberal/university social scientists willing to advocate for the nuclear family, that is a two-headed household, and traditional values such as hard work, honesty, industry, delayed gratification, and respect for adult authority—what David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd, published more than 50 years ago, called inner-directed society. The politically correct thing today is to question the value of the two-headed family which devotes its resources to preparing children for success in school and a better life in adulthood than that of the parents. Given the popularity of diversity, pluralism, and gender irregularity, the nuclear family has becomes an anomaly; it now compromises fewer then 25 percent of the U.S. households. Overall, about half of youth (black, brown and white) under 18 years have lived in a single-parent family for some part of their childhood. Pro-family and church groups view this trend as evidence of moral and social decline. The breakdown of the family, according to Charles Murray in Coming Apart, contributes to the erosion of social capital in the U.S., which reflects white and black families alike, and if I may add is keenly reflected in the international test scores of U.S. students compared to their industrialized counterparts in Europe and Asia.
Now, opposition to one-headed households, lack of family structure, welfare dependency and illegitimate children are considered a form of bigotry and akin to racism. In fact, the claim is that the traditional family is far from ideal, often loveless and dysfunctional, whereas the “modern” family provides love and support for children. Similarly, the trend among social scientists is to gloss over the importance of the family in determining educational outcomes and, emphasize the effects of schools, teachers, principals’ leadership, classroom size, increased student spending and additional resources. Various research methods—from quaint ethnographic experiments, qualitative studies, and antidotal stories—to more sophisticated meta analysis studies—are employed to show the effects of nonfamily variables upon school outcomes. Few liberal/minority advocates want to hear or say in public that the gap between “haves” and “have nots” is linked to family structure and family values; nonetheless the most successful adults intermarry and ensure their children achieve in school and comprise the application pool for elite universities and high-paying professional jobs.
Do Schools Make A Difference?
The modern view of educational equality, which emerged also in the 1950s and 1960s, goes much further than the old view that was concerned with equal opportunity. In light of this, James Coleman, when he was professor of education at John Hopkins University, outlined in the Harvard Educational Review five views of inequality of educational opportunity, paralleling liberal philosophy: (1) inequality defined by the same curriculum for all children, with the intent that school facilities be equal; (2) inequality defined in terms of social or racial composition of the schools; (3) inequality defined in terms of such intangible characteristics as teacher morale and teacher expectation of students; (4) inequality based on school consequences or outcomes for students with equal backgrounds and abilities; and (5) inequality based on school consequences for students with unequal backgrounds and abilities.
The first two definitions deal with race and social class; the next definition deals with concepts that are hard to define and hard to change. The fourth and fifth definitions are the most difficult to fix. In today’s world, no one wants to hear in public about inequality based on students’ intelligence. Given a revisionist (or highly liberal analysis), equality is reached only when the outcomes of schooling are similar for all students-those who are lower class and minority as well as middle class and majority; those who lack basic skills when they start school eventually catch up to those who start with basic skills already acquired. Of course, that is not an easy goal to reach, given the fact that the education gap at the first grade usually widens by 200 to 300 percent by the twelfth grade.
The mid-1960s and early 1970s produced a series of large-scale studies, the biggest in education history, which basically showed that teachers and schools have minimal effect on student achievement. Over the years the data have been ignored or buried by the liberal/minority community, because it lets teachers and schools off the hook, and implies there is little that educators (or society) can do to overcome the effects of poverty on education. In startling contrast to conventional wisdom, the studies by James Coleman and Christopher Jencks concluded that schools have little influence on children’s intellectual achievements. The results of these studies are difficult to present concisely, since the analysis includes a host of variables and a large number of subgroups.
The Coleman Report
The Coleman Survey Equality of Educational Opportunity, deals with 625,000 children and 4,000 schools, and the report is about 1,300 pages long, including 548 pages of statistics. It is the largest educational research enterprise conducted in the United States, and almost everyone of whatever political persuasion can find something in it to quote. Coleman found that the effects of home environment far outweighed any effects the school program or the teacher had on achievement. The report analyzed the results of testing at the beginning of grades 1,3,6,9, and 12. Achievement of the average Mexican American, Puerto Rican, American Indian, and black was much lower than the average Asian American and white student at all grade levels. Moreover, the differences widened at higher grades. The characteristics of teachers and schools had the least impact on black students among all other minority groups; teachers and school characteristics could not account for all the reasons why blacks, who started only 6 months behind in reading at the first grade, ended up 3 ½ years behind whites in reading at the twelfth grade.
The general approach used by Coleman sorts 45 school characteristics or variables into correlates and noncorrelates of student achievement. For this purpose, a correlate was loosely defined as any school characteristic that correlates 0.2 or better with any one of three achievement measures –reading, mathematics and general information. Of the 45 variables, 19 showed some relationship with at least one of three achievement tests, and 26 failed to do so.
The 19 correlates that tend to be associated with student achievement cluster around student and teacher characteristics, and especially around students; those are hard-to-change variables. Those that are unassociated with student achievement are by and large school characteristics and easy-to-change variables. In effect, the Coleman Report says that schools in general have little effect on learning. Changes effected by spending extra money –such as teacher experience, teacher turnover and student-teacher ratios, books and materials, reading and tutorial programs, and length of school day –are easier to bring about but have little relation to achievement. Thus, the correlation between expenditures per student and learning was essentially zero at each grade level examined.
Coleman’s findings raise difficult policy questions for the nation’s educators. If increases in student expenditures, higher teacher salaries, reduced classroom sizes, and other conventional remedies for low achievement have virtually no effect, what grounds are there to seek increased funds for education? Compensatory education advocates were being told that extra spending basically makes no difference in outcomes because it does not correlate with student achievement. Reform advocates generally are being told that they need to come up with a better idea than increased spending, special programs or special schools.
Even worse, the data led to the conclusion that schools and teachers can do very little to effect changes in student achievement; rather, home characteristics and peer group influences are, in that order, the two major variables associated with achievement. In a subsequent interview by the Saturday Review, Coleman put it this way: “All factors considered, the most important variable –in or out of school –in a child’s performance remains his family background. The second most important factor is the social-class background of the families of the children in school. Those two elements are much more important than any physical attributes of the school. And, it might be argued that ranking family background better than others is a basic statement or rationale for inequality; hence, a very sensitive issue can stifle frank discussion.
The major criticism leveled against the Coleman Report is that the criterion of academic achievement is almost exclusively a measure of verbal abilities, which are more likely to be the product of the child’s home than his or her school experience. Another criticism is that it is difficult to find circumstances where one can measure and account for all the factors that result in student achievement. However, most other studies rely on the same test measurements (reading and math tests) and use similar subgroups (based on class or ethnicity); when the results appear more positive, these so-called bias factors are not mentioned. If Coleman can be criticized for this bias, it follows that almost all other studies on school achievement are also misleading.
Most important, the reanalysis of the Coleman data by other investigators, as well as other large-scale statistical studies of the determinants of student achievement show similar results. A large fraction of the variation in student achievement is accounted for by out-of-school variables, such as the students’ community and home characteristics. Another large fraction is attributable to the so-called peer group effect –that is, the characteristics of the students’ classmates. The blunt fact is that most student output is directly related to student input: High ability yields high achievement; low ability yields low achievement. If this is the case, if abilities are unequal, then achievement results will be unequal—at least in large samples. A Newsweek report on the “best high schools” in the nation puts the ditties in a slightly different way: “Best in, best out, best school.” Later, the report concludes: “Best schools would do best not to get bogged down serving students considered ‘unbest.’”
In a related report, How Effective is Schooling, the Rand Corporation concludes: Of the variation that is explained by school factors (usually no more than 17 to 20 percent), only part of this percent can be attributed to teachers (no more than 10 percent). For those who push the notion of equality in lieu of excellence, the 2010 reanalysis of the Coleman report, by Wisconsin professors Berman and Dowling, suggests that as much as 40 percent of the difference in student achievement can be attributed to differences in teacher and school characteristics. The differences in academic outcomes are explained by the teachers’ biases favoring middle-class students and the schools’ programs, curriculum content and tracking policies. Of course, critics can make the counter argument that teacher attitudes and behaviors are influenced by student attitudes and behaviors, and schools modify their programs and policies to fit the abilities of their students.
The Jencks Study
Whereas Coleman showed that there was not much schools could do to improve the achievement levels of students, Christopher Jencks went one step further and indicated the differences in school achievement as well as economic attainment are related more to socioeconomic origin than to schooling. In his four-year study of the reanalysis of the U.S. Census, the Coleman Report, Project Talent (a study of more than 100 high schools), and several smaller studies, Jencks concluded, in his book entitled, Inequality: Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling:
1. The schools do almost nothing to close the gap between the rich and poor, the disadvantaged or advantaged learner.
2. The quality of education has little effect on what happens to the students (with regard to future income) after they graduate.
3. School achievement depends largely on a single input –that is, the family characteristics of the students –and all other variables are either secondary or irrelevant.
4. About 45 percent of IQ is determined by heredity, 35 percent by environment, and 20 percent by a covariance or interaction factor.
5. There is no evidence that school reform (such as compensatory spending or integration) can substantially reduce the cognitive inequality that exists among students.
Whether we are inclined to accept the data of Coleman, Rand, or Berman and Dowling, the really important variables in education are not found in classrooms or schools. The important dependent variables are located outside the schools—within (and among) families, peers, communities and SES in general. Our testing and education processes tend to ignore these factors.
These are hard-to-swallow conclusions, and a number of social scientists and reformers would rather discard them; the inference is that equality of outcomes is not possible. But committed to total egalitarianism, Jencks concluded that it would require actual redistribution of income to achieve complete economic equality regardless of ability. Since we cannot equalize hereditary or family, we are inclined to put the emphasis on economic equality. Given this rationale, most people might object to income equality, and argue that economic inequality reflects genetic, family and cultural differences among groups. Most people rather not discuss these differences in public. But considering his period, it was a major shift in thinking –from equal opportunity to equal results. Given the world we live in, it is hard to talk about increased or progressive taxation, or any other “Robin Hood” theory that takes form the rich and gives to the poor. Conservative pundits would argue: Stop talking about redistribution and taxing the rich and put your emphasis on increasing productivity and expanding the economic pie for everyone.
The main policy implications of these findings are that schools cannot contribute significantly to equality. Jencks maintains that educators at all levels of instruction are not improving the lives of students, but this is not really their fault; rather, the problem lies with the children’s social class and other home characteristics. Economic equality in U.S. society will have to be achieved by changing not the schools but the economic institutions. School reform failed because policymakers tried to effect changes that were not feasible.
Jenck’s positions on heredity and environment, his support of standardized tests for predicting school success and measuring academic skills, his belief that schooling is without significant value, and his espousal of income redistribution, regardless of differences between those who are smart and ambitious or dumb and lazy, aroused criticism from the political Left and Right alike. The Harvard Education Review devoted a feature issue to the study. In trying to answer his critics, Jencks strongly responded that those who are politically oriented or are advocating a specific position will “deplore anything that undercuts [their] arguments.” He said that sufficient criticism had been leveled at the book so that educators, laypeople, and policymakers “feel free to accept or reject its conclusions according to their prejudices.” The critics’ arguments were unconvincing: “Most of the ideas they raise [were originally] covered in the text…or appendices.” This does not necessarily mean that the study’s conclusions were correct, but “the assumptions are plausible” and those who reject the data “are under obligation to offer an alternative view of how the world works, along with some empirical evidence that their view is more accurate than ours.”
Coleman and Jencks challenge both traditional and revisionist theorists who put more stock on the influence of education. Whereas the traditionalists today argue that education is the main avenue of opportunity, and teacher effectiveness and school reform are crucial, the revisionists criticize it as a vehicle by which inequality is perpetuated by a “dominant” group that discriminates against and imposes tracking and testing barriers against the “subordinate” group. Both theorist groups probably overstate their cases as to the influence of education, but the latter argument dominates college course work in philosophy, sociology, and education.
For those who have trouble accepting Coleman and Jencks, and seek another explanation why disadvantages groups have difficulty in school, or why there is such inequality of academic outcomes, another explanation is needed. To say, for example, that there are correctible inequalities suggests that we haven’t worked hard enough to increase educational opportunity for all students. It might also mean that schools and society do not reward certain qualities or characteristics that they should, or that they favor certain abilities and gifts that some groups do not take steps to enhance within the family or community.
The general idea is that children should not fail in school, but the attempt to diminish competition and differential achievement among groups often results in the dilution of standards or the scramble to put the blame on everyone except students. All of us do not have equal levels of ability. The idea is for teachers and schools, as well as society in general, to accept (and not reject) differences and then reduce tensions, bind students and offer appropriate opportunities for those who are not going to college.
The Duncan Model
It’s important to note that the correlations among occupation, income, and education are based on averages. The spread around the mean is considerable, which reduces the real predictability for each occupational and income group. That said, in a classic study on The American Occupational Structure, involving economic mobility of over 20,000 male Americans, Peter Blau and Otis Duncan show that the direct correlation between schooling and occupational status is a modest 0.32, but that when all variables are considered, education accounts for only 10 percent of the variation in occupational status. Obviously, no one in education wants to hear this kind of news, especially dedicated teachers who expect to make a difference; likewise, most textbook publishers put pressure on authors to screen out this kind of research because it is too negative and may even affect textbook sales. It is considered prudent to kill off this kind of messenger, although Coleman and Jencks can be gingerly tolerated because of their stature and influence.
Blau and Duncan further explain the relationship. A high school graduate, on average, has a lower occupational status than a man who has attended college. However, a considerable number of high school graduates have better jobs than do those who leave college before graduating as well as those who finish, and one-third do as well as those who do graduate work. At the other end of the scale, half the men who did not complete high school are doing as well as those who completed high school, although as an entire group the high school graduate earns more than the high school dropout.
In a related research project entitled Socioeconomic Background and Achievement, Duncan found that education is only one of several variables influencing a person’s occupational status and income later in life. What accounts for the assumed relationship between education and occupation and income are a number of underlying variables related to education such as family origin, family education, inherited IQ, and socioeconomic class. For example, parents with high incomes are able to provide more education for their children, just as they spend more on food and housing, and therefore the children of the affluent attend better schools and obtain more education and go on to higher-paying jobs. Parents with high educational levels themselves are more likely to expect and to motivate their children to continue further in schooling. There is also a relationship between social class and intelligence of parents and, in turn, the inherited IQ and education of children; thus, those with higher measured IQ scores are more likely to attain higher levels of education.
Duncan synthesizes the relationships between intelligence, socioeconomic position, education, occupation, and income in what is called a path-analysis diagram –indicated below in words:
1. Family origin or socioeconomic class is correlated with IQ, but the correlation is low, indicating that IQ is a result of other non-measured environmental or heredity variables.
2. A person’s IQ has a direct influence on how much education he or she gets. Independent of education, IQ also has some direct influence on the status of occupation and income.
3. The socioeconomic status of a family has its main influence on education; it has some direct influence on occupational status and it has virtually no direct influence and income.
4. Education is highly correlated with occupational status (or type of job) and therefore has an indirect influence on income.
5. The main determinant of how much money a person earns is the status of his or her occupation. Education and IQ have less important direct effects on income; family origin has a greater impact.
The Unaccounted Factors: Luck
In the previously mentioned and highly controversial research project on education and social mobility, entitled Inequality, Christopher Jencks also studied the effect on income for the following variables: (1) father’s occupational status, (2) father’s years of schooling, (3) father’s IQ, (4) respondent’s IQ at age 11, (5) respondent’s Armed Forces aptitude test, (6) respondent’s years of schooling, (7) respondent’s occupational status, and (8) respondent’s income. Jencks found that the number of years of school does not significantly predict income. For white males with the same family background and initial ability, an additional year of elementary or secondary education increases future income about 4 percent; an additional year of college, about 7 percent; and an additional year of graduate school, 4 percent. Controlling for IQ, the top fifth of the population earns seven times as much as the bottom fifth, whereas it should only account for 1.4 times as much; this suggests that other factors are related to inequality of income.
All the eight variables (including education and IQ) combined explain only 25 percent of the existing differences in income. This means that if everyone had the same family origin, if everyone had the same IQ and education, and if everyone had the same occupational status, most of the existing differences would remain. Jencks calls this luck. If, by “luck,” one means all those variables not included in the Duncan model and not accounted for by Jencks (or for any research study), then Jencks is correct.
To call all these variables luck, however, is not a very good choice of words, because it implies that people have little control over their economic fates.  Moreover, most of us in the business of education find it hard to accept that luck, or factors unrelated to schooling, has much influence (actually more influence than schooling) in the outcomes of life. To believe such a thought would mean that our intelligence and efforts are somewhat meaningless. More important, all our reform efforts have limited value. Jencks argues that two brothers who are brought up in the same family and who have approximately the same IQ and years of schooling may earn considerably different incomes. One becomes a surgeon who earns $500,000 a year; the other becomes a college professor who earns $100,000 a year (my example, my figures). There is considerable difference in their incomes, but this difference could be the result of other personal decisions or psychological/emotional factors over which both brothers had full control.
Rather than conclude that individual success is largely based on luck, it might make more sense to say that economic success is only partly related to family origin, ability, or education, and there are many other intangible factors –such as motivation, disposition, drive, and overall personality and people skills –influencing income differences among individuals. Of course, education cannot neutralize the wealth or political connections of the Rockefeller, Kennedy, or Bush families, nor can it neutralize the possibility that someone might inherit Daddy’s franchise business consisting of 15 McDonalds restaurants or 5 Wal- Mart-anchored retail centers. The list of factors is not endless, but it goes way beyond teaching and schooling. It is important for educators to understand and accept that there are limitations of what schools can do to bring about equality, despite the philosophy of Horace Mann and John Dewey, despite the faith all of us have in schools as the instrument of equality, and despite the additional billions we spend annually on compensatory programs for low-income/ minority students.
Although many may disagree with Jencks’s reference to the unexplained variance of income as luck, he may be right in concluding that equalizing opportunity or equalizing education will not reduce inequality. Jencks, who is a revisionist, argues for the redistribution of income –taxing the upper-middle and upper classes and distributing revenues to the poor. Now, if that sounds un-American, or like some “Commie plot,” then we have two other options to further the goals of equality: (1) quicken the pace of affirmative action and related requirements of quotas and (2) turn back the repeal of estate tax and increase taxes for the superrich which is even more difficult since the accumulation of wealth is sanctioned by religious scripture, folklore, a host of conservative economists and pundits, and those in political power who write the laws. Of course, we can always take the position that if the poor get poorer, so what, they can eat cake. If they keep their noses clean, live good lives (meaning don’t cause trouble or challenge the system), and believe in Christ, Muhammad or Buddha (or hope, faith and charity), they will be rewarded in the hereafter. I guess that is one way of sedating the poor. It has worked in the past, at least for the last 2,000 years.
Suppose luck could be broken down and analyzed, although I would argue it is fuzzy and nuanced. Part of luck is being in the right place at the right time: Then understanding the potential, seizing the opportunity, and making the most of the moment, etc. How do people get in the right place at the right time—and know this is the time to act? Perhaps it is the personality factor. Some people act—others do not.
Why is it that some people do great things: Constantly outperform their competitors, build a major company from the bottom up, earn not 2x or 3x more than colleagues in the same field but 10x or 25x more. Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, in their 2012 best seller book Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck, refer to “luck events”—in terms of good or bad luck, the timing of luck and size or impact of the luck. The key point is not “are you lucky”—we all have the potential for good and bad luck—but the “returns on luck” or making the most of our luck.
Bill Gates was more than lucky. Yes, he was born at the right time and place. Had he been born ten years earlier or later, or in another country, he would have missed the PC electronic age. But he wasn’t the only whiz kid in math that attended Harvard. Thousands of other smart people could have done the same thing at the same time but did not. The difference was his personality—and his ability to produce a huge return on his luck.
We all have our share of good and bad luck. Some people give up or get knocked out of the box for good. Others learn from mistakes, deepen their commitment, increase discipline and persist. They just keep going, pushing, marching, working and making the most of their chances. Collins and Hansen would call in “return on luck.” I would just say a tiny percentage of us are super lucky, and fall into the third deviation of the bell-shaped curve. But most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the curve. It’s a matter of simple statistics. There is little room in space available at the third deviation of the curve.
Aptitude vs. Achievement
By the turn of the twenty-first century, the debate continued about the influence of schooling and improved cognitive test scores and whether academic outcomes affect economic earnings. Schooling explained only a modest amount of the variation related to academic achievement, highlighted by James Coleman; and academic achievement explained a modest amount of the variation related to income, highlighted by Christopher Jencks and Otis Duncan. Although employers value what students learn in school and are willing to pay for it, they also value other skills.
Most of the variation in economic outcomes can be attributed to noncognitive factors such as special talent, physical characteristics, personality, motivation, reliability, social and group skills, decision-making skills, honesty, and creativity. Since social scientists have spent little effort analyzing these characteristics, the cognitive factors remain masked (by noncognitive factors) and for the time being appear to have less impact on jobs, productivity, and wages (or income) than what educators would like to hear.
The best analyses of education and earnings since Coleman, Jencks and Duncan is by Susan Mayer (formerly part of the Jencks’s team) and Paul Peterson (a Harvard professor); those by David Grissmer and his colleagues at the Rand Corporation; and the publications of the Brookings Institution, and the Urban Institute. In general, these reports do not repudiate Coleman and Jencks, or the Duncan model, or the unaccounted variances related to economic outcomes (what Jencks calls luck). We are told that schools help promote intergenerational mobility, although they do not themselves provide sufficient opportunity to break the general socio-economic class structure. Given our information age, in which knowledge is crucial, formal education should increase mobility; however, we cannot dismiss growing economic inequality when students are completing more school years. Students at the bottom of the social order tend to be “frozen” in their parents’ status; but for the small percentage who can rise above low status, the schools are the chief route to success.
Statistical reality tends to mask the effects of school reform (smaller classes, better teachers, early child education, etc.).  Common sense tells us that the amount and quality of education has a greater impact on low-income students and low-achieving students than their middle class counterparts because of regression factors to the mean. Since low-income and low-achieving students usually start school far below the mean, they have the greatest potential for improvement. Statistically, if someone starts at the 20th percentile on standardized tests or family income, they have a greater chance to show upward movement or gains, that is to score closer to the mean (50th percentile), on future tests and income rankings than someone who started at the 80th percentile. Statistically the middle-class group has a greater chance to regress to the mean than they do to improve and score above the 80th percentile on future tests and future rankings of family income. It’s a side note worth considering, given the volume of the school reform literature.
Now Mayer and Peterson in Earning and Learning argue that both aptitude and achievement result in adult success but aptitude is more important because people who learn more quickly are more useful to their employers than people who learn slowly or with difficulty. Their model also assumes that “the entire school curriculum is a prolonged aptitude test, and that the specific skills and knowledge taught in school have no economic value” because people who easily learn Latin also easily learn algebra, computer skills, or financial banking skills.
Most educators and policymakers prefer the achieve- ment model, arguing that academic outcomes and schooling count, and what you know counts more than how hard you need to study to learn it  – or what potential you have for quickly learning new knowledge or solving problems. For this group, outcomes count more than the learning process. Math or verbal scores count because employers seek someone with math or verbal skills, not because the scores indicate the worker’s ability to learn other skills. Mayer and Peterson ask us to imagine two groups of adults with similar math (or verbal) scores: one with less math training but high aptitude and the other with better math training but low aptitude. According to the achievement model, the two groups have an equal earning potential. But the aptitude model assumes that the high aptitude group with less math training can learn more than the low aptitude group with better math training. Most people have no problem with this analysis until they realize that aptitude is a form of g and suggests heredity.
Mayer and Peterson further maintain that schools can exert considerable influence on the child’s experiences, and these experiences affect achievement. In general, each additional year of schooling beyond high school increases wages 2 to 4 percent, not considering the effect of aptitude or intelligence. However, in Class Counts, Author argues that “most of the variation in occupational status and salaries has little to do with education and is not measured by conventional tests. Employers seek reliable, creative, honest, and socially skilled persons.” Pedigree, nepotism, parental social contacts, and how someone talks and dresses also affect economic outcomes. “But social scientists have devoted little time and effort to measuring the effects of these characteristics.” That said, before we alter the classroom and students’ instructional experiences, we need to know how much achievement would vary if we treated all children alike and how assigning children with different aptitudes to different environments would alter the variance of achievement. In this way we could determine (in theory) which changes have the most influence and how our resources can be earmarked to improve achievement.
A slight variation to the aptitude-achievement model is the idea presented by Tiger Tyagarajan, the CEO of Genpact, a technology management company. The most important characteristic he looks for in hiring personnel is the desire to learn (as opposed to the ability to learn). Are you curious? If so, then you learn. If not, then you won’t learn. Curiosity leads to questioning more and the likelihood that you will work hard to learn. “In today’s world, if you’re not curious, you’re dead, because every day is so different from yesterday.” Hence, curiosity and the willingness to learn is the key, not just aptitude or ability.
Grissmer, in Improving Student Achievement, takes us to the final step in the debate about family and school characteristics, and   their effect on achievement. He speaks in terms of family capital and social capital. Family capital refers to characteristics within the family passed from parent to child, the family’s quality and quantity of resources, and the allocation of these resources toward the child’s education and socialization. Social capital refers to long-term capacities within the community and school district that affect achievement –for example, peer group, parents’ involvement in the community, the community’s safety and support structure, and the community’s ability to support and pay for schools and social institutions (community centers, theaters, libraries, athletic clubs, children agencies and events, etc.)
Grissmer infers that family capital is more important than social capital, and this author agrees because family characteristics are relatively static (or slow to change) while the school and community can easily change (simply by the family’s moving)); moreover, the child’s earliest experiences (which are essential for growth and development) are rooted in the family. However, Grissmer points out that family and social capital are not independent, or randomly distributed, but are grouped together because of economics. “More social capital arises in communities and states having higher income and more educated families. Thus achievement scores across schools, communities and states differ partly because their families differ in their internal capacity to produce achievement and partially because families with similar characteristics are grouped in communities and states creating different levels of social capital.” In other words, high-income families tend to cluster in high-income communities that spend more on schooling and have smaller classes and better paid, and more experienced teachers.
Do school characteristics by themselves shape academic outcomes? No. Family and social capital differences lead to academic differences. For instance a review of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, which now test students in 44 states and are considered the best indicators of national achievement, shows that achievement levels are directly related to family and social characteristics across states and only a tiny portion of test results is related to what schools do. Moreover, it is difficult to discern which school policies succeed because so many of the measures concerning school spending, classroom size, teacher education levels, and so on are related to family and social capital. There is some indication that changes in school spending and classroom size count, but these results are “inconsistent and unstable…to guide policy” and sometimes even based on “noncredible estimates.”
James Heckman’s 2011 article in American Educator points out the value of equalizing educational opportunity and achievement in order to improve the workforce and increase economic productivity. His emphasis is on the quality of early childhood programs yielding the best results for individuals and society, and economic productivity in general. Undeveloped human potential detrimentally impacts our economy, maintains the Chicago economics professor. Although equity (fairness) and efficiency are often constructed as competing goals, there are times when they are compatible – stimulating investment (which benefits rich and poor alike) or early childhood programs (in an attempt to equalize the disadvantaged child’s potential for economic success which benefits society as a whole).
He agrees that cognitive and psychological factors influence education and life success, and these factors stem from family differences in income, mental health, emotional support and child-rearing practices – and whether the family unit is a one-headed or two-headed household, broken or intact. Good parenting (providing security, love, support, proper stimuli and modeling, etc.) is more important than socioeconomic status. While higher income correlates with good parenting, it does not guarantee it. All things being equal single parents are at a disadvantage because of added stress and the high cost of living. That makes quality parenting difficult. We are never going to have all children raised in two-headed households; in fact, the trend towards a single mother has rapidly increased in the last 20 years. To that extent, according to the 2010 census, only 25 percent of the U.S. households consist of a nuclear family – a mom and dad. Society is not going to dwell on whether families are socially or psychologically equal or unequal. That is too controversial. But it is in this day and age, American society needs to recognize this problem and make proper social and economic investments to fill this household gap by focusing on nurse-family and school-family programs.  
The net result of Heckman’s data is he affirms the Coleman/Jencks research that family characteristics are more important than teacher or school factors. Again, this may be a hard pill for single parents, teachers and reformers to digest, but it’s a trend that cannot be ignored if society wishes to deal with the problem of educating all of its students – and providing equal educational opportunities. The need is to play closer attention to the role of the family and the relationship it has toward nurturing the child and working in conjunction with the school and community. To ignore the family factor is to dilute the chances for educational opportunity among disadvantaged groups.
In their best-selling book, The Triple Package, Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld have entered the cultural and racial minefield by examining family values and behaviors among eight “superior groups” or minority groups of people in the U.S.  As measured by test scores, college admissions, occupational status and income, these ethnic and religious groups do much better than others in the U.S. economic and social pyramid. Chinese mothers make the best mothers, we are told, and have more successful children than other groups. They are “tiger moms”—pushing their children in school to outperform and get higher grades than their classmates, and pushing their children on the job to be better than their colleagues. The two Yale law professors, branded as “racists,” claim successful family groups share three characteristics: a superiority complex, that is, thinking they are better than others; a sense of insecurity, that what you do is never good enough; and the need for impulse control, meaning to curb instant gratification. This “triple package” yields an excessive drive to achieve. America used to represent this “triple package culture,” but it has lost its way (some 50 years ago) and succumbed to instant gratification.
Most Americans are not ready for a world in which all behavior, worthy or unworthy, superior or unsuperior, is conceived to be culturally or genetically based. The more one believes in equality of outcomes, the more one must consider the role of government intervention. The more one believes that hard work, delayed gratification, and honor for the family affect the outcomes, the more one is inclined to accept the inequality of outcomes. The more one accepts Chua’s notion of “Chinese Tiger Mothers,” the likelihood is that the Coleman-Jencks family variable is the acceptable sorting-out model. Family is crucial. The more one is reluctant to put emphasis on personal responsibility, hard work and individual differences of achievement or ignore family life as a factor in determining school and occupational success, the more one is likely to degrade excellence and high standards, and emphasize an anti-intellectual, anti-subject, anti-testing, anti-teacher argument.
Overview and Outlook
All these reports and policy implications may be hard for the reader to follow, so let me sum up. The easiest and most explicit way is to rely on the New York Times Op writer David Brooks' ditty: "Liberals emphasize inequality… Conservatives believe inequality is acceptable so long as there is opportunity." Now let me advance on step further. Most communities in the U.S. are stratified by income, and public schooling cannot compensate for tremendous variations in wealth and status. But within the community, the people spend about the same amount of money on each student and are inclined to let the best student go to Harvard or Yale and the best person to win in economic matters.
When great economic divides exist, the solutions are unclear and open to more debate. New York City, for example, with 8 million people has roughly 700,000 residents worth a million dollars or more and another 1.5 million residents living in poverty. How can education, or that matter any policy short of redistribution of wealth, rectify this gap, the inequality between the rich and poor. The public generally accepts wide discrepancies in achievement and reward, partially because of the notion of the "self-made man" and American dream. Nonetheless, it should be opposed to excess or extremes at both ends of the scales –and without critics stifling debate by using labels such as "socialist" or "redistribution" in a derogatory and divisive way.
When inequality is defined in terms of unequal outcomes (both cognitive and economic), we start comparing racial, ethnic, and religious groups. In a heterogeneous society like ours, this results in some hotly debated issues, including how much to invest in human capital and schools, how to determine the cost effectiveness of social and educational programs, who should be taxed and how much, to what extent we are to handicap our brightest and most talented minds (the swift runners) to enable those who are slow to catch up, and whether affirmative action policies should be continued or whether they lead to reverse discrimination. Indeed, we cannot treat these issues lightly, because they affect most of us in one way or another and lead to questions over which wars have been fought in the past.
In a more homogeneous society, such as Japan, South Korea, Norway, or Germany, the discussion of race, ethnicity, or religion would not deserve special attention nor require judicial measures. Although it is doubtful if increased spending in big-city schools (where poor and minority students are concentrated) would dramatically effect educational outcomes, poor and minority students still deserve equal education spending-better-paid teachers, small class sizes, high-tech resources, new textbooks, and clean bathrooms-as in affluent suburbs where expenditures often are twice or more the amount in adjacent cities.
Students deserve equality of expenditures simply on the basis that schools are public institutions, not private. In a democracy, citizens and their children are entitled to similar treatment, especially because intellectual capital is a national concern, not designed for the benefit of one class or group of students nor the exclusion of another group. It can also be argued that the poor are entitled to special treatment because in the long run the health and vitality of the nation are at stake. Sadly, in comparison to other industrialized nations, the U.S. enrolls the largest percentage of poor students, approximately 24 to 25 percent. Since school performance reflects the social and economic system, this high percentage of poverty explains why, among other factors, the U.S. students on international tests score consistently behind their industrialized counterparts.
The Hazards of Merit
There is no question that other factors arise that prevent equal school spending that are not simply symptoms of racism or class prejudice. They deal with notion of social and moral values and the rights of people: the preservation of neighborhood schools, concern about big government and state- imposed policies directed at the local level, fear of increased taxation and why someone should have to pay for someone else's child's education, and the inability of politicians to curtail well- to-do parents from supporting their own neighborhood schools and property values. The question is how much education equality should we strive for? We can have greater equality by lowering standards or tracking bright students into heterogeneous classes. We can have more equality by handicapping bright students (as in affirmative action) or by providing an enormous amount of additional resources for low-performing students (as in compensatory funding and early school and family programs). But eventually we come to a slippery slope and ask: How much money? Who is to pay for it? Who is to be handicapped or overlooked? How can society improve family structure – or should it be ignored as too controversial?
If we stop and meditate a little, how both sides of the political aisle embrace the vision of America and how the "meritocrats" and "egalitarians" of society phrase their words in the public arena, we can get a better feel how divided the American people are on the issue of opportunity and mobility. The Republicans during the Bush administration cut the tax rates of the rich at the same time when they were amassing huge fortunes and while the gap between wealth and working people were widening. The Democrats during the Obama administration tried to protect safety nets and entitlements, despite the fact there were insufficient revenues to meet these obligations. In addition, the Democrats seem married to a system of affirmative action that judges people on the basis of race –not merit –and are less inclined to embrace standardized tests for schools and colleges or jobs that result in making decisions based on performance.
The assumption is, however, more people would be willing to accept some kind of affirmative action program based on income and thus widen the idea of equality for more Americans. Of course, self-help and personal responsibility are crucial. The goal is not to bury test scores, nor provide a free ride for slow runners or less deserving candidates. But the goal should not be “survival of the fittest.” Some kind of balancing act is needed, one which provides additional help for those who need it while rewarding various forms of excellence for those who exhibit it.
While consideration for efficiency and objectivity are good reasons for relying on standardized tests, they should not be allowed to distort or limit our notion of talent. There are many different forms of talent –creative, artistic, athletic, etc.— that don't correlate with or rely on academic emphasis, nor are measured by standardized tests. The demand for talent is crucial in a bureaucratic and complex society, but the importance of formal education is not always paramount for nurturing special skills and special kinds of talent. Special skills and talent can be developed outside of schooling, often requiring specialized or one-to-one training, apprenticeships, or the willingness to take unusual risk –pursue an idea or product in the midst of people criticizing or making fun.
There are not only talented physicians and engineers to nurture, but we need also to recognize talented plumbers and talented chefs. While we need to reward different forms or types of talents, society needs to be realistic and discourage negative talents like the ability to pick pockets or deemphasize esoteric talents such as the ability to read lips or stand on your head. A democratic society must recognize multiple talents, and not only talents based on academic or cognitive intelligence. That is the genius of a progressive and democratic society.
Essential good services –housing, education, health, etc., (as well as leisure activities such as watching a baseball game)—have increased far more than the median wages of workers ($36,000 annually) or household incomes ($50,000) as of 2012 (both about the same they were in 1980, after considering inflation). It now takes two spouses to work in order to live a "middle class" life style, when 50 years ago, it took one working spouse to live a similar life style – portrayed in Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and I Love Lucy. For the time being this middle-class lifestyle seems to work for a married couple, both who are college-educated and working. The model breaks down in one-head family households or when one of the two spouses lose their job or stay home to raise children.
If you want to feel even less optimistic, consider that most U.S. politicians seem committed to protecting the rights of the rich and superrich via a tax code that favors wealth over work and wages. The dominance of capital and investments over income and salaries not only reduces the importance of education, but it also favors those children who start from a position of hereditary privilege that schooling cannot easily, if at all, overcome – and in turn reduces social and economic opportunities and mobility.
Given this scenario, the notion of intelligence, and the policy reports discussed in the paper, it’s possible that both Michael Young and John Gardner (who were introduced in the beginning pages of this paper), along with multiple reformers, have overstated the effects of education (more so for working and middle-class children than from the lower-class or from households of the bottom 20 percentile of income.) The major concern is that education cannot fully neutralize the effects of privileged birth status. The American Dream still exists but not in the same manner or frequency we would like to think. We would rather not have to admit to these new “realities,” but that’s the way of the world.
We must also recognize that plenty of dull, dim-witted, slow, and uneducated people will somehow rise to the upper class, and plenty of bright, capable, creative, and educated people will somehow fall to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. There are sufficient numbers of unaccounted for and unpredictable factors such as motivation, drive, character, personality, social skills and dumb luck that undermine the sorting out process based solely on merit and talent. Nonetheless, those involved in education – our parents, teachers and principals – must ask themselves how to promote equal educational opportunities for less privileged children and youth as well as for individuals of varied degrees of ability, as well as excellence in education. Both goals are essential for a fair and just society as well as an efficient and productive society.
Coleman, J. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Grissmer, D. (2000). Improving student achievement. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.
Heckman, J. J. (2011). The economics of inequality. American Educator, 35(1), 31-35.
Jencks, C. (1972). Inequality: A reassessment of the effect of family and schooling in America. New York: Basic Books.
Mayer, S. E., & Peterson, P. E. (1999). Earning and learning: How schools matter. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Ornstein, A. C. (2007). Class counts: Education, inequality, and the shrinking middle class. Lanham, MD: Rowman& Littlefield.