Slow Growth, the Opportunity Gap, and Education

Robert Putnam's Book "Our Kids" argues that poor children of all races are increasingly not even making it to the starting line of the race for economic opportunity.

Robert Putnam’s Book “Our Kids” argues that poor children of all races are increasingly not even making it to the starting line of the race for economic opportunity. (Photo by Matt Mitchell – Stanford Invitational Cross Country Meet)

Speaking in Princeton last month just after the receipt of the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics, Professor Angus Deaton related a broadly optimistic message about economic progress. He also, however, shared one of the dismal pronouncements for which his profession  is so famous. Deaton’s dark message had to do with the effects of a growth slowdown in the richer, developed countries:

“That slowing growth poisons everything. It makes politics much harder. It makes people’s lives noticeably worse, especially the people on the bottom. And if you put that together with rising inequality there are many people in the rich world who are really suffering.”

This statement, bleak as it is, rang out to me as deeply true. It also inspired me to pick a book by a different academic back up — one that I had previously abandoned as just too sad to complete during the rush of getting ready for a new school year.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s Our Kids chronicles the declining life prospects of the large and growing swath of American youth growing up poor. These kids face not only poverty itself, but what Putnam labels an “opportunity gap.” In other words, Putnam lays out the case for why poor children’s prospects of moving up in society have dimmed substantially in comparison to the chances of kids who grew up poor during Midwestern boomer Putnam’s own youth.

The opportunity gap affects all poor children. While Putnam is at pains not to deny the importance of race, the whole structure of his book focuses around a series of case studies that emphasize the profound differences in children’s lives within different racial and ethnic groups. Putnam looks successively at the different family structure experienced by a poor white child and a rich white child in Bend, OR, the different parenting strategies of upper class, middle class, and impoverished black families in and around Atlanta, the vastly different educational experiences of two different pairs of Latino siblings in Orange County, CA, and the different ways in which community structure has shaped the lives of two white families living eleven miles away but a world apart from each other in greater Philadelphia.

While telling these stories of individual people and families, Putnam and his research team also bring to bear extensive statistical data as they relate a larger story about why the opportunity gap between rich and poor youth is increasing, even as American society has, in other ways, become much more equal. Our Kids is such essential reading, so easy to read, and so easily accessible in bookstores and libraries that I will simply encourage you to buy it rather than summarize all this data. I do, however, want to dig in future posts into the part of Putnam’s story that deals with the American educational system, and ways to improve outcomes for children growing up poor.

These will be my first posts dealing with educational policy. While there is no topic more important than education when it comes to urban prosperity, I’ve avoided writing about schools in the past, perhaps through fear of being too close to the topic. Putnam has several arguments about education, however, that dovetail strongly enough with my own thinking and observations from inside the system that I feel compelled to deal with them here.

In particular, Putnam makes two points I’d like to address in future blog posts. These ideas concern:

  • Incentives to get strong teachers into high poverty schools; and,
  • Attempts to improve vocational training for young people, including so-called “career academies.”

Putnam also makes critical school-related policy arguments about community colleges and  the role of extracurricular activities, but I’d like to focus primarily on the two points above and especially on the first, all-important issue concerning incentives for strong teachers. As Putnam points out himself, “The most promising educational reforms involve moving kids, money, and/or teachers to different schools.” Doing this, however, is much harder than it sounds. I want to look into why, and into creative ideas to do something about it