We Can’t Educate Our Way Out of Inequality

I’ve been talking about this in my courses for years:

We’re the only nation in the developed world that relies so heavily on education for addressing core inequalities in the economic system.

The entire transformation of schools into test-prep factories in being done in the name of preparing students for the many jobs requiring higher levels of education.  Every week, I see someone argue that our schools — and our economy —  are failing because kids can’t pass the tests of knowledge that they need for competing in an increasingly technological world.

Today, the New York Times published an analysis about why education alone can’t account for growing income inequalities.

There is good reason to resist the proposition that education and technology are solely responsible for growing inequality. It provides political leaders an excuse to cast the problem as beyond the reach of policy.

“It can suck all the air out of the conversation,” Professor Autor acknowledged. “All economists should be pushing back against this simplistic view.”


Professors Katz and Autor agree that an array of policies is needed to address the labor market’s lopsided distribution of economic rewards. They range from a higher minimum wage to help lift the income of service workers at the bottom of the market to a larger earned-income tax credit.

More technical training could help upgrade the skills of high school graduates. Steeper income taxes on the very rich could curb the accumulation of income at the top. Perhaps most important, the design of macroeconomic policies might give more weight to maintaining low unemployment.

“Education is certainly part of the answer, but it is certainly not a complete answer,” Professor Katz said.

Yes.  Education is certainly part of the answer and we need excellent schools for all children.

But the air has been sucked out of most any other conversation, especially conversations about creating the same basic safety nets and social policies that support children in so many of the countries with those elusive higher test scores.

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