Public school does not enable class mobility

We hold tightly to the idea of a public education system in the United States because while rich kids have been getting an education forever, poor kids have historically remained uneducated. Americans think of the public education system as the insurance that we truly live in a meritocracy where hard-working kids can rise above their family’s socioeconomic stature.

Behind this idea is a truth that doesn’t measure up. In the 1800’s you could come to America as a poor immigrant and make your way to the top. But around the same time we implemented compulsory education, we had a massive stagnation in social mobility.

Presumably, educators realize this, because it is well established that it doesn’t matter what sort of school you go to—good or bad, rich or poor—you will end up in the same social strata that your parents are in.

I had always thought that educators were trying to figure out what sort of education reform could overcome this stagnation. But then I read something stunning in Fast Company’s series on the death of the American Dream: No one knows why social mobility in the US is so bad.

We know why there is relative economic equality in smaller countries like Sweden and Denmark: homogenous, tiny countries are easier to govern. But we don’t know why Canada, a country that is similar to the US, has a much more financially fluid society.

Bhash Mazumder, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago says, “Why is the U.S. less mobile? I don’t think we really know with any great definitiveness what are the reasons of cross-country difference. That’s sort of an active area of debate.”

We have no idea what is causing the lack of social mobility in the US, yet we are spending billions of dollars to solve it with school. It’s an impossible situation. You have to know the cause of a problem in order to solve it. In the meantime, since we don’t know how to raise kids out of poverty, we should use public school as a way to make their life in poverty more livable. There should be fun and play and friends instead of school and homework and rules.

We have no evidence that school makes their adult life better, so we should at least use school to make childhood more fun.

65 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    In the inner-city neighborhood where I go to church, the schools are only desperately trying to keep the kids from sliding *deeper* into poverty.

  2. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    A work ethic is what gets you out of poverty. Class is a relative term. Lots of people with piles of money have no class. I grew up in poverty, my husband grew up in poverty. We valued work. We have always worked. We took an educational route in life, but it was work which changed our life circumstances. I never expected a piece of paper to take me anywhere. Hard work distinguishes people from one another. People have told me that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. It makes me laugh out loud. So I agree, education does not take you out of poverty. Commitment, self respect,teamwork with a spouse, faith….these things provide a rich life. Money is not the provider, but it is more available to people who are willing to work hard, even in unpleasant circumstances.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Wow. This is really offensive. It has been shown ten billion times that people in poverty work extremely hard, often holding down two or more jobs and and dealing with impossible commutes because of lack of train fare or no car, or whatever. Poor people often work hungry. They go home to broken families and get no respite from difficult problems.

      At the same time, rich kids get tons of breaks — they can flunk out of college and their parents just enroll them in another college, for example.

      It feels offensive to me to imply that poor people are poor because they don’t work hard. Additionally, the Atlantic publishes a lot of research about how it’s harder to make good decisions when you are poor because there are more decisions and there are more difficult decisions than if you are not poor.


      • Mark Kenski
        Mark Kenski says:

        Katarina and her husband have climbed out of poverty. Not been lifted. Climbed.

        And when she takes her time to reflect on what she thinks provides some insight into this, I think she’s entitled to be heard and not ostracized. I happen to think that her answer makes a lot of sense and is empowering to people: get your head on straight, get your values right, and work your butt off. Yes, it is hard. It seems impossibly hard, quite often. That’s what makes it noble. Keep doing it till your kids are better off than you are. Instill in them that same desire and williness to fight for a better life, as Katarina’s parents obviously instilled in her. This is how families climb together out of poverty. The miracle is they can have a rich life without much money, rewarding, dignified, and even a happy life despite–maybe even because of–this struggle.

        As far as I know, you were not born in poverty, and you did not climb out of poverty. You were the beneficiary of a culture that prized the exact virtues that Katarina is describing. Your parents continued a tradition from your ancestors of doing what Katarina describes, long before there was ANY kind of welfare or government assistance. They lifted you as they climbed and now you have been convinced to be guilty about what you have, and even to turn around and burn the bridge your parents carried you across.

        She is not saying people are poor because they are not working, you put those words in her mouth. She said that the way you get out of being poor is by having an ethic, by developing character, including the willingness to work very hard. By cultivating a certain well-known set of virtues; something, by the way, that is made almost impossible by government schooling.

        Are today’s poor inferior to your ancestors? Are they defective? Are the poor just dumb animals? Unable to do what your family did? Because you’re making an argument that what has worked for all of history, no longer works: the poor are screwed, there is no mobility anymore, the American dream is dead. Give up and blame society.

        I think the numerous reports of the death of the American Dream have been greatly exaggerated.

        The American Dream is just a case of something that used to be quite rare becoming less rare. It was here you had the best chance to make a better life for your descendants. No guarantees–this isn’t heaven, it is earth–things aren’t perfect and they never will be. But is still worth taking pride in and doing whatever has to be done to maintain it.

        “It’s an impossible situation. You have to know the cause of a problem in order to solve it.” No it’s not impossible. And you do not have to know the cause. The solution is well known. It still works pretty much as well as it ever did. It’s just that there are very few voices explaining this solution anymore.

        They are difficult to hear over the well-meaning shouts of, “Give up what remains of your dignity and hope, for a few more government benefits. And get used to it, because this is what your life, and the lives of your kids and grandkids, will remain. Because science.” That’s what I find offensive.

          • Mark Kenski
            Mark Kenski says:

            Likewise Julie, especially this:

            “…we really never will rise above as a nation if we all don’t start learning to really listen to everyone’s point-of-view, especially when they are speaking from experience and not just quoting someone who ‘told them so’ because they ‘read it somewhere’.”

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          “Because science.”? Really? That seems odd. What do you have against science, Mark?

          • Mark Kenski
            Mark Kenski says:

            Penelope had said “it has been shown ten billion times…”

            That’s what I was referring to. What has it been shown by? I certainly wouldn’t consider it science, but I presume that those who feel something is proven or “shown” would consider it (social) science.

        • Katarina
          Katarina says:

          Mark, thank you for understanding what I was trying to say. I really appreciate it. Penelope, I’m sorry my words were offensive in any way.

        • Jim Grey
          Jim Grey says:

          Ethic is a part of it. Two other parts: not slipping up along the way (as even a minor financial setback can snowball fast), and having some good breaks.

      • julie
        julie says:

        How is a person’s personal experience overcoming poverty through hard work and implying that a work ethic is essential to rising above poverty “offensive”? As someone coming from a family that did much the same as Katarina’s, I’m perplexed by your response. So we hold to “research” and articles defining poverty allowing those authors (usually white, educated, rich) to define who is poor and why they are poor, but discredit the “poor” when they seek to be heard concerning their own experience/s and how to escape it. It is true that many poor people work hard and never rise above. I think Katarina’s point was that hard work/work ethic was part of the formula. A poor kid can work hard in school and achieve some measure of “success”, but it’s usually a combination of a good work ethic, education, and support at home. It certainly was for my father and siblings who all grew up “dirt poor farmers”, but despite their stark poverty, four out of five graduated valedictorian and went on to college/university, and all five did escape stark poverty. And don’t tell me they were “middle class”, when you are making clothes from feed sacks, you are poor.

        The “I’m offended” card usually shuts down the conversation. A pity because we really never will rise above as a nation if we all don’t start learning to really listen to everyone’s point-of-view, especially when they are speaking from experience and not just quoting someone who “told them so” because they “read it somewhere”.

        “It’s been shown a billion times that people in poverty work really hard” ~ come to Alabama where I currently live and I’ll show you that this just isn’t true. Coming here after ten years in Germany, we thought we had come to a third-world country. We just couldn’t figure out why some many people here weren’t working? Still can’t figure it out other than there is no incentive to work; translation, no work ethic.

        No, we won’t solve the problem until we know the cause and we can’t know the cause until we learn to listen to those who did rise above it. For those who did come out of poverty, it seems simple, and yet, they are the ones not heard in this debate.

        • jessica
          jessica says:

          I’m on both sides of the fence on this.

          On one hand- my MIL came up from poverty and lived a decent life, one that she credits to hard work and values and ‘things just get better.’ On the other hand, this was during the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s where you could have a lower skilled job and a good living due to the rapid changes economically after the war. Many of her neighbors went through this. The children do not have the same trajectory (unless course is changed).

          There are great opportunities nowadays, but one has to have the time to take advantage of it. A suppressed class is not good.

          Alabama is one of the poorest and least educated states in the US (a developed nation that ranks low in many areas compared to other developed nations), so you could argue the poor in Alabama have it much more difficult than say the poor in Germany regardless of appearances. One in four children live in poverty in Alabama. When it is that high I doubt it is as simple as looking around and thinking *they just aren’t working hard enough or at all*. It’s more systemic.

          Katarina’s example is valuable and commendable, the issue is that it is the exception and I think P is trying to change the rule. The risk doesn’t leave the system.

          Here’s a decent article detailing just how utterly behind the US poor class is compared to other developed nations.

          Couple that with crappy schools, crappy and stigmatized social services, and it’s really no wonder of the difficulty climbing out.

        • Melissa
          Melissa says:

          Social class and economic class are not exactly the same thing. You can have low-class families that earn more than middle-class families. That’s why these “I climbed out of poverty” stories seem so myopic. When a company hires people with a certain level of “professionalism” who are a “good cultural fit” it’s more indicative of how the company values social class distinctions and not necessarily education or work ethic.

          These traits are learned at home, not at school. The myth is that education is enough to overcome or unlearn the low-class indicators that a child is born into. That the child will grow up and be able to turn their back on their family, community, and adopt a completely different way of talking, dressing, acting, etc. But without the encouragement or understanding of their home environment.

          I’m sure that you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in Alabama, certain job opportunities are closed to you simply because you have the wrong accent.

          Just because most Americans lack the vocabulary to talk about social class distinctions doesn’t mean that we aren’t all exquisitely and unconsciously sensitive to them. The situation doesn’t get better because we don’t confront it publicly.

          I suspect that the Canadians take their cues from the English, who at least have a long tradition of talking about the lack of class mobility, rather than pretending that there’s an easy solution.

          • Cate R.
            Cate R. says:

            Valid point about accents. This is just one of many many examples of this dynamic. Another one is teeth. Rich, or even normal income kids automatically get braces. Both my hubby and I come from backgrounds where it was not a priority for anyone to get our teeth looking socially acceptable. When you have teeth jumbled up and sticking out, we all know it’s wrong but, but don’t try to pretend this isn’t the case: the person interviewing you views you a certain way and it’s not to your advantage. It’s not fair.

            I agree with Penelope somewhat but I don’t think it’s as hopeless as that… but I have to say it’s naive to make a blanket statement that “hard work” is all it takes to get out of generational poverty.

        • Katarina
          Katarina says:

          Thank you, Julie. I appreciate your understanding. I truly wouldn’t want to ever insinuate anything negative about other people. I was, as you said, sharing my own experience.

        • Emily
          Emily says:

          I was born and raised in Alabama, and my parents and in-laws still live there. My mother is a former public school teacher, and one year recently she taught a job readiness course for those who were transitioning from welfare to not being on welfare anymore due to government rules.
          Her experience was so eye-opening. The individuals in her class were mostly female. Some of them had a high school diploma; some of them had a GED. Most of them had neither.
          Most of them had more than one child, and the children did not have the same fathers. These women were not receiving child support. The women were not interested in learning how to put together a resume; they didn’t have much to put on one. They were not interested in learning how to dress like a professional, or at least professionally enough to be hired at a store such as Best Buy. For example, one woman became irate when told that wearing a hot pink bra under a white t-shirt to the job interview would probably not help her be hired.
          The women in her class were not interested in practicing their interview skills.
          Those who showed an interest in some of these things were overwhelmed by their life circumstances. For example, a college about 45 minutes away was offering free tuition for those seeking a nursing degree who were also enrolled in the job readiness class. One woman with 4 children was interested in attending the training, but she had no money or method of transportation. She was able to attend the job readiness class because the public transportation picked her up and took her home, but it did not have a route to the college. She had no money for childcare for her 4 children; she was not receiving child support.
          A few men also came through the class, but for the most part, they had been successfully employed at some point and laid off from their jobs. Their struggles were different from most of the women in the class, and most of the men had an idea of where and how to start looking for work and were willing to do so.
          My mom felt overwhelmed by all of the issues being faced by her class.
          I certainly don’t have the answers, but having lived in Alabama for years and seen some of the struggle, I wanted to offer the insight I have about some of the problems in at least one area there.

      • Cáit
        Cáit says:

        I completely agree with this.
        Also, blaming poverty on government programs or shaming people for using them is really culture specific. In Europe everyone would take every benefit they are entitled to without a second thought.

        We don’t shame handouts for rich people in the U.S. No one says “only take the home mortgage interest deduction if you really need it.” But food stamps and Medicaid are supposed to be a huge moral dilemma.

      • Susan
        Susan says:

        My thought is many of them work hard, but not in jobs offering significant growth opportunity, such as the corporate world. It’s difficult to know what your employment options are when you haven’t been exposed to them. Instead of sitting a child down for 6-7 hours a day and learning a white washed version of history, or to write a 300 word essay following rules good writers break all the time, I think time would be better spent introducing them to more options and helping them connect with relatable mentors out in the “real” world.

  3. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    I should add that value systems do more to determine life circumstances than we realize. Our values dictate our attitudes, actions and reactions. Poverty is often a state of mind. My mother, as a single parent of 4 kids, refused to take food stamps and other assistance because she thought it would make her kids “think poor”. I never saw us as poor…just without money. Not the same thing. I am not putting down food stamps but simply sharing her approach. And she felt guilty buying tuna and canned peaches for supper while people with food stamps had more meat snd other stuff in their grocery carts. She was afraid she was depriving us. We ended up in better health for it.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


      It seems really simplistic to suggest that values or a state of mind can alleviate poverty. I wouldn’t ever suggest that people aren’t working hard enough or they just need to accept a different set of values. Life is tougher all around for those in poverty.

      Whenever I have the bug spray lady come to my house I get the opportunity to speak with her and catch up on her and her family’s life. She and her husband own their own bug spray business. They work HARD and OFTEN. They have 6 children that they homeschool through a charter school. They live in a small home with only one bathroom. She is like a drill sergeant with her family. We have a different set of values and the way we are raising our kids reflects that. When we exchange stories I’m sure she thinks my kids are spoiled, and I believe she is too strict and authoritarian with hers. But maybe that is how she needs to be to ensure that her children get what they need in life. For example, she told me that she refused to go back to the house to get shoes for a kid that forgot to put them on and forced them to walk around without shoes for that activity. My kids are being raised in a way that I think will be best for them. In that example, I have less kids to worry about and I can tell when they don’t have shoes on before we leave, and if I didn’t I would have gone back to get some shoes. It is very different.

      People like myself have something that the poor do not have: Money (Studies show that even a little more income helps a family feel more secure and children benefit greatly), Freedom (I have all sorts of options available), Time (some people work 2 or 3 jobs and never see their family or get time to reflect), and Family to fall back on (Mine has paid for school and down payments on a house). I won the birth lottery and I know that I am privileged and I try my best to donate, give away, and vote in a manner that will help the poor. I do not think schools are doing a good job at all in trying to help in this area, the current set up is no longer relevant

      Kudos to you and your spouse for finding a way out. That helps me understand your perspective when you comment a little better.

      • Katarina
        Katarina says:

        Penelope thinks there is a simple formula, as she indicated in her comments.

        Since I come from the story of broken home (multiple marriages for both parents), no marriage skills, no decent salaries, none of this, none of that, my personal experience *is* my science. My life is my own laboratory. I don’t need to read a scientific article. Those articles weren’t around when I was trying to make decisions about how to live my daily life as a kid in that environment, and they wouldn’t have helped me, either. And for all the strangers my husband and I hosted in our home over the course of 25+ years, to help them get on their feet, so they could avoid poverty, the value system I mentioned worked for them, too. Multiple times, different people, different life stories.

        Who knows? I may end up in poverty again, for some reason. I may not be able to get out of it again. But I will not stop working. And for me, getting out of poverty doesn’t mean that my goal is to make big bucks. It never was. I’ve never been about “getting rich”. Probably my ideas seem strange and “off” and offensive to people so I had best keep them to myself.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Hey Katarina,

          My science question was to Mark, not you. I never said you offended me and I enjoy your comments. I only offered the opinion that your solutions seemed simplistic. While it clearly worked for you, and I am really glad it did, it doesn’t mean that it is the standard or the rule, but rather it is the exception.

          I don’t think that blaming people for circumstances they were born into is particularly helpful. Neither do I think that telling people that they didn’t work hard enough, have the right values, pray hard enough, do this enough or do that enough, is helpful. Poverty is a systemic problem, and while outlook is important one shouldn’t pretend as if the problems don’t exist. There are safety nets for a reason. I gladly pay taxes into that system and am truly glad there is an option there that could have helped your mother if she wanted it. I wish that we could do away with the stigma that comes with receiving temporary help. No man is an island. We all need a little help sometimes in life.

          • Katarina
            Katarina says:

            I’m perplexed. What did I say to imply blame of any kind on anyone? Did I say, “People stay in poverty because they are unwilling to work hard.” No, I did not. I said that I agree that school does not lift people out of poverty but that work does. Is that blaming anyone?
            When do I pretend that problems don’t exist? When I bring total strangers into my home and feed them for months at a time and try to help them learn how to navigate difficult choices?
            When did I say that safety nets are not necessary? I specifically said I had nothing against those services but only tried to explain how my mother raised me. So the fact that I am the exception basically negates the facts of my life. I don’t like to argue with people (truly, I don’t) but I feel like everything here I say gets twisted.

            I take my son to homeless shelters to work, to play with kids who are homeless. I do not run and hide from systemic problems. I do not minimize the seriousness of their causes. I do not think that everything is simplistic. I know, by my own life, that it is never simplistic, even to this very day.

            What is so ironic to me is that people here on this blog have chosen to go against the “norm” of public schooling because they see how ineffective it is, and they trust their own guts. This is not the norm. So when a person goes against the “system” in dealing with poverty, that person is immediately branded as judging people who go through the system set up for poverty.

            You would be surprised that I have driven people to the offices to register for those benefits. Multiple people. I have helped them get set up on them. Yes. I don’t think that everyone has to go without a helping hand.

            There is so much assuming going on here. It really breaks my heart. If I say one thing, I am implying a million other things.

            I am stunned that the praise of hard work, individual initiative and tenacity would be considered simplistic, judgmental or worse, offensive on this blog. I am genuinely stunned.

          • Katarina
            Katarina says:

            You mentioned gladly paying taxes. I gladly pay taxes, too. I would love for those taxes to help people. I teach piano on the side and declare it all. That is how much I am willing to pay taxes. That is also makes me the exception. I wasn’t going to respond to any of this because I am not trying to push my opinion. But I have been grossly misunderstood and I would like to be better understood.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


          How did I misunderstand you when you said this: “A work ethic is what gets you out of poverty.” and this “I should add that value systems do more to determine life circumstances than we realize. Our values dictate our attitudes, actions and reactions. Poverty is often a state of mind.” ?

          These statements are what all of my replies to you have been about.

          I am so sorry that they seemed to upset you so much! I am not the one who said you were offensive, I was merely trying to have a conversation with you, engage you with what you have said, and perhaps offer a different perspective. I was not trying to judge you or your family. I suppose I could have worded things a little differently.

          • Katarina
            Katarina says:

            A work ethic is what gets you out of poverty, not public school is what I should have said. I was talking about it in context of the topic of the post.
            Poverty is a state of mind — yes, if you think of yourself as unable to be anything but poor, it will be much harder to get out of poverty. People with no money can have a richness of spirit, and find a way. Our First Lady tells story after story of this.
            If you spend a lot of time with many people in poverty, you will see that people have different attitudes about it. I know a young couple (who lived with us) who moved into an impoverished neighborhood and made friends with people who suggested they get divorced to get better benefits. Their new friends thought they were crazy for staying married. They stayed married and both worked towards better jobs and aren’t even native speakers of English. Now they have great benefits, perks and exciting future opportunities to advance their careers and are doing better than the people who told them to get divorced. That is what I am talking about. That is what I mean about attitudes. I promise, I will stop now.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Why stop having a conversation about it? Your clarifications make more sense now. I would maybe rephrase it to say that hard work and tenacity have a much better chance at lifting one out of poverty than school. Having a positive attitude, while not ignoring the issues, makes life more enjoyable than simply accepting the hand one was dealt in life.

        • Cindy Allen
          Cindy Allen says:


          You said, “….But I have been grossly misunderstood and I would like to be better understood.” For what it’s worth, I totally get where you are coming from. Yes, I do feel you were misunderstood. Then, it just kept getting worse. I give you credit for hanging in there. Don’t worry about it though. You have a valid point and personal experience supporting your argument. “I’m offended…” Please……Words were put in your mouth.

          I’ve had personal experience with this as well, and agree that a lack of work ethic is part of the problem keeping people in poverty. It’s not the whole problem. And, this isn’t a blanket statement including every person stuck in poverty. But, I do have personal experience that has shaped my beliefs.

          I started a business when I found myself wiped out completely financially, over 6 years ago. Ihad lost my home, my job, my bank accounts were confiscated, I had to file bankruptcy, etc….As I grew my business, I actively sought people to hire, who were in dire financial straights and somewhat difficult to employ. I understood how difficult it was to hold down a traditional job when your life was crumbling, when you didn’t fit a certain mold. I wanted to give those people a chance when I could.

          I found that giving them a job with huge flexibility to accommodate their needs, greater pay than they could find elsewhere, money to buy work clothes, offers to pick them up and drop them back off after work along with lots of support, wasn’t the big solution I thought it would be. It felt like I wanted it for them more than they wanted it for themselves. And, it wasn’t as if I was asking then to do something I would not. I worked right alongside these people, doing the same work.

          Many simply walked away or disappeared after a short time, content to fall back into the situation they were supposedly trying to get out of. One young lady said she felt like she could actually make something of herself finally. Then, she started turning down work because she said she didn’t like to get up before noon. Seriously? It was baffling. Now, I hear she’s living in a hotel room with a half dozen of her boyfriend’s family members and a new baby. She’s trying to get disability payments instead of a job. It’s sad.

          I have a handful of similar stories. I finally gave up. It was affecting my business. I am a small business. I cannot absorb people who don’t know how to work, or don’t show up, don’t want to get out of bed or whatever it is that is the reason that day. I’m far pickier now in my hiring practices. I can’t ruin my business trying to help people who don’t want to help themselves.

          I do realize that social class is an issue as well. It’s a big issue. People don’t necessarily know what they don’t know. Or, they don’t know how or what to change. I get it. It holds you back. But, I don’t want to get into that whole discussion.

          Anyway, Katarina, I wanted to express support for your viewpoint. I totally understand where you were coming from.

          • Julia
            Julia says:

            inability to get up before noon sounds like untreated depression. Did you consider mental illness when judging the actions of those you were saving?

  4. Ann
    Ann says:

    I forget where I read this now, but there is a simple formula that can help anyone, no matter what SEC class you are in, a formula that we should be teaching all young people, in fact, a formula that we should especially be teaching young people from lower SEC classes….1) Get training and/or a job after high school and stick with it 2) Get married before you have children. Do those two things and you can eliminate much of the strife of dire poverty. However, we have set up public schools where we can’t teach this simple truth anymore, it might offend someone, might make someone feel bad. Bullocks.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a simple formula for kids who grew up in a middle class family. If you grew up in a home where people did not learn life skills because they grew up in poverty then it’s hard to keep a marriage together.

      And it’s harder to get married if you are earning minimum wage because the benefits to being married are much fewer if there’s not a lot of money coming in.

      The recipe for getting out of poverty is so easy for people who didn’t grow up in poverty and so difficult for those who did.


  5. Jennifer Jo
    Jennifer Jo says:

    According the Alexander Inglis’s 1918 book about the reasons for compulsory education, one of the purposes of school was to diagnose students so their place in society could be determined. They wanted students to rise only to a certain level, not beyond—society became more manageable when they could control the extent to which people progressed. And schools were to facilitate that gradation. Apparently, it worked.

  6. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I really like this post, and I agree very much. Paired with the work of people like Peter Gray (see Freedom to Learn), showing that an early focus on academics is deleterious to later achievement, and that children suffer most from a lack of play in childhood, it suggests a direction schools have sadly abandoned.

    For children who grow up direly impoverished, a safe place to play as children would be a huge change in their lives.

    As for the question of lack of upward mobility in America compared to other industrialized nations, the article linked to here suggests that “For those three major reasons—an unequal start in life, unequal salaries, and fewer progressive policies—the U.S. seems to trail others in mobility.”

    I wonder if a fourth reason might be added – the failure of early childhood education to respect the idea of childhood.

  7. sarah
    sarah says:

    Nobody wants to admit reality, which is someone has to be poor, middle class, and rich. Few people can move up, more can move down, but everyone has to be in one of those three levels. That is life.

    Many people believe their kids can move up to being rich by getting an education. But in the book Millionaire Next Door, many only had a high school diploma. It is a mind set that allows you to be rich or poor. Saving or spending.

  8. Jeff Till
    Jeff Till says:

    School is a dependence factory.

    School is an apathy factory.

    School is an obedience factory.

    Perhaps these aren’t causal to poverty, but could it possibly help reverse it?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love how poetically you put this problem, Jill. So succinct. And so clear. Of course school does not bring kids out of poverty. But it takes away from kids all the time they could be learning new skills that actually could bring them out of poverty.


      • IT
        IT says:

        Can’t help but agree with you. In physics there’s a concept of efficiency – a ratio of useful work to total work (both useful and useless).

        Now the sad thing… In American schools useful work approaches zero. Useless work approaches infinity. In plain English this translates to a lot of work that’s completely unnecessary and won’t help you in life while taking away time from something useful.

  9. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    I think the real key to escaping poverty is not “education” as our society has come to define it (test scores, diplomas) but a true appreciation for the power of learning and a hunger TO LEARN. If you are passionate about becoming better at whatever it is you’re doing by gaining more skills and insight, if you want to expand your knowledge and skills in both breadth and depth, and if you believe that it’s possible to do better than your parents (and are willing to accept the social consequences of leaving your class -WHICH ARE HUGE), then you can escape poverty.

    I grew up in poverty, but my parents both valued learning, perhaps more than “school.” That, coupled with some non-family adults (mostly teachers) who believed in me and supported me when my family couldn’t, are what enabled me to escape poverty. Also, getting married (to the right person) in my early 20’s was the best thing I’ve ever done, for both financial and all other reasons.

  10. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    In my state of CA, nearly 60% of all public school children are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch meals. This trend has been going up according to the statistics. If school had any power to bring children out of poverty then these numbers would be going down.

    If school is now more about warehousing children, then at least make it fun and engaging! If kids decide they want or need an academic track to get what they want out of life, let them be the ones to decide that. There is so much data that shows that kids learn through unstructured play and that there can be huge implications for denying them that.

  11. redrock
    redrock says:

    so, if school helps keep kids in poverty (this seems to be the hypothesis here) then why are all the countries who are on top of this list countries with compulsory schooling and very small homeschool communities?

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I think the narrative is that schools can’t help get children OUT of poverty. Through the article linked they really couldn’t say why there is less mobility in the U.S., it is most likely a combination of many things.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      In those countries a great many social services exist exclusive of school.

      Maternity leave, holiday for all, extra monthly money stipends for simply having a child (a check recieved by deposit), healthcare that works with minimal stress paperwork or payment, etc.
      The government pays for nursery, preschool, childcare up to 6-7 (regardless of school) and it is the parents choice of where the child goes. (You can get a check from the gov which will pay for your kids tuition at a private school during the early years in some of those countries, since they have rights to childcare)

      I would argue school has little to do with the outcomes when put in the cultural context of those nations.

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        Also, strict labor laws.

        The parents aren’t going to be up and fired same day, regardless of reason. Companies hold less weight over their employees. The redistribution of wealth serves the poorer by way of free tuition to uni, childcare, benefits of not having to work if one has a child during hard times (you can get by while being home- you may go on benefits programmes but that is why they are in place).

        There is an enormous safety net for many of life’s possible difficulties.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          …. which prooves my point and the fact that the assumption that school drives those differences is gross oversimplification.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            And then there is the flip side to that coin where people think that school is a panacea for poverty.

  12. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    Maybe I am projecting but I feel like you’re in a solid place emotionally and like you’ve hit flow in your work because your writing is so meaty. If that makes any sense.

    I love this post.

  13. Shelly
    Shelly says:

    John Taylor Gatto has covered this very phenomena in some of his books. This whole class thing is a part of compulsory education’s hidden curriculum. They don’t expect children to be able to rise out of their social classes- in fact they all but completely prevent that from happening. When I first read about this, I thought it was some weird conspiracy theory- until I saw the hidden curriculum being covered in my son’s college sociology book. Parents should know this.

  14. mh
    mh says:

    “Social mobility” means moving up… Or down.
    Of course we want people moving “up.” But down is certainly also an available option. And down happens – often – in America.

    Are we talking financial social mobility, or moving from the projects to the Gold Coast? America isnt supposed to have “class” restrictions as such, but many many tv shows and movies have been successful showing class differences. The Jeffersons. Different Strokes. Pretty Woman. My Fair Lady. Trading Places. Duck Dynasty. Clueless. Crocodile Dundee. Silence of the Lambs. Coming to America.

    It’s part of the American experience – certain ways of acting go with certain situations, and they have to be taught and lived.

    People are authentically themselves, even if they are trying to instill new “class patterns” into themselves or their children.

    But the point about school is that your local public school is more likely than not to impede a student’s efforts to change. Crabs in a pot pull each other down.

  15. TS
    TS says:

    So many things go through my head reading this. First off – again a post where “big bad research says… generating a ton of controversy”. Any post where Penelope shares her personal experience usually follows by expressions of love and gratitude, but some of these research ones get downright ugly. Why? Because it’s hard to put people in a box. When we built predictive models (or if you look at causation of economic models), concrete purchase behaviour can be explained by the available variables about 70%, but go into social science models and it drops to about 30% and those models are still considered good! So, fuzzy definitions, lack of variables, low predictability of data and a lot of missing dimensions has sent us all arguing to no end. We cannot fit our personal experiences into those boxes of research P is quoting, too many assumptions, approximations and bad data in there.
    Yet I still try to fit my experience into all this somewhere. Reading all the comments, I keep jumping from thought to thought on why I and so many others have succeeded to rise above. Is it because with no money at all, we didn’t think we’re poor? Are immigrants different from people living in the projects? Did the soviet system brainwash us so well that we can be/do anything? We certainly came with nothing, many used foodbanks. Many staid with friends or strangers like Katarina. I don’t know.
    Now there’s a whole new dimension – having had a chance to climb up, I don’t want it. I prefer to revert to simple agrarian life homeschooling. So may be it’s ingrained in my mind to stay poor, which I never thought I was?

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


      “Are immigrants different from people living in the projects? Did the soviet system brainwash us so well that we can be/do anything?”

      I do think it is different. My own father was born and raised in Poland when it was controlled by the USSR. He was “selected” to be educated as a computer engineer and graduated from university with honors. Once he got enough money saved up, $10,000 (back in the 70’s) he moved to the US and left his entire family, culture and country behind. Once here he learned English, after already knowing 5 languages. He was able to quickly find work as a computer engineer and eventually was holding C-level executive position at a Fortune 500 company.

      In his case, he was very different from those who are born in the U.S. and raised in the ghetto.

      Life is very different now than it was a generation ago. There are so many options available, and the education one receives in the public and often private domain are irrelevant to prepare people for this life. This is why it is taking many youth so long to mature. The ones that choose academic education are most often saddled with crushing debt and with not many entry level corporate jobs to pay enough to give these kids a leg up. Many in the poor working class community will only work service jobs for the majority of their lives.

      It is hard for anyone to leave the community they were raised in. Look at famous athletes who are new to wealth as an example. The old mindset follows. In my father’s case, he is a massive hoarder. I mean there are boxes of old computer code in my parents home from the 80’s that he refuses to throw away.

      It is important to have the discussion regardless if we are able to produce any solutions.

  16. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    I think most Americans hold tightly to the idea of public education because they think education is a “right”. If the majority of Americans think of a thing as a “right” then this supposed “right” will eventually get enforced by the government. The idea of health care as “right” had been percolating in America for a long time so it was not surprising that government would eventually enforce this “right”, i.e. Obamacare.

    Public schools were originally set up so as to make “good citizens” of the lower class and the burgeoning middle class of the time. They were inspired by the schools in the Prussian state.
    Their ultimate aim then, as is also the case now, was control.

    To get a good idea of what public educators and administrators currently think is the purpose for public schools I would encourage readers to research the curriculum in America’s teachers colleges. I mean specifically what they are studying when they are going for their masters and/or PhD in education. It is these ideas, espoused by their professors, which they will eventually adopt and implement. It’s always the intellectuals, in this case the professors, who set the terms of the debate. I acknowledge there are sometimes students who will challenge many of these same professors in this field. I would be surprised to hear if these particular students ever make it into the public schools and then get to implement their own agenda as teachers. I say this as someone whose sister is a public school teacher and her husband is a principal at a public school. I also say this as someone who has debated (about 20 years ago) with a dean (or assistant dean) from one of the teacher’s programs here in Georgia. If you want to know why things (curriculum/agenda, organization) are going the way they are NOW within the public schools, investigate the curriculum of the teacher’s colleges from 10-12 years ago.

    I am against public schools on principle. If you all, who are sympathetic to public schools, want to see change for the “better” (by your standard) within them, then the teachers’ colleges across America should be “shut down”. And by shut down, I mean drained of any government money (including government loans for students) which support them.

  17. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    The important thing to understand about the schooling of children is that, with the Jesuit strategy of “give me the child and I will give you the man, with the Prussian strategy of an education system to build Germany into a force that could roll back the French, with the Horace Mann strategy of curing the Boston Irish of their Catholicism, education has always been a power project of the ruling class. It has never concerned itself with what is best for the children.

    • LISA
      LISA says:

      Christopher, your comment explains the introduction of charter schools, which is another power project from the ruling class that has failed to solve the so-called failures of the public schools.

  18. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    Mr. Chantrill does an excellent job of concisely stating what public schools have ALWAYS been about. Hopefully parents will keep in mind his evaluation prior to ever considering sending their child to public school.

  19. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    Most people in poverty were born there.

    So let’s say you were born in poverty. Do you want to get out? If so, how do you do that?

    To start with, don’t have any kids until you have worked your way OUT of poverty. If you have kids before then, they will KEEP you in poverty and you will never escape. If you take care of yourself first, then you have broken the cycle and one less kid will be born into poverty.

    If you never do manage to work your way out of poverty, you shouldn’t have kids. Or, you can have them anyway, but keep in mind now it’s YOUR kid being born into poverty, just like you were.

    If everyone you know lives in poverty and you have never seen anyone work their way out, then you probably don’t mind anyway, and if that’s the way you feel about it then the rest of us should probably stop wringing our hands over it, too.

  20. cindy Allen
    cindy Allen says:

    Just this morning in an earlier comment, I spoke about my frustration with people I have hired who needed a hand out of poverty, yet didn’t take advantage of the opportunity it could have been. I said I gave up. I guess I haven’t. I was just contacted by two young women who recently aged out of the foster care system and are looking for work. I’m giving them both a shot.

    I don’t know what the answers are to the problems of social mobility and poverty. But, I can still do my part and give people a shot who might otherwise be passed over. That’s it. It’s not about theories or discussions or thinking about what someone else could be doing to remedy the situation. It is what it is. They are in the situation they are in right now. I try to do what I can to help when I can. I guess I am okay with that. I’m doing something.

    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      This is a beautiful comment. And when we talk about learning, these two young women may discover that you are their real teacher. People are precious, and what people need to grow and be strong in life is not in textbooks or welfare legislation. Yes, we definitely do need those things. But without a genuine connection with someone who sees a lot of good in you, it is hard to thrive. That is for sure.

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