I wonder where David Brooks gets his numbers. In his column today, he states that in 1960, the "average American" had almost 14 years of education. I assume this number comes from the book by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz that provides his other evidence. I don't know where they pulled that from, since, according to the census and every other source I can find, fewer than 20% of American adults had even a year of college education in 1960 and the median educational level was 10.5 years (12.3 among adults between 25 and 29). The graph at right is from Education of the American Population (1976).
Of course, if you define "average American" as "average white, male American," as Brooks does, his numbers are much closer to reality.
But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. What struck me as the most bizarre was that, in a column on educational inequality and the achievement gap, Brooks completely ignores race.
By discussing the "average American" and focusing on the overall rate of high school completion, Brooks buries the lede, which is that the achievement gap is between students of different races. Yes, "socio-economic status" is a big part of the gap, but black, Latino/a, and Native American students are being out-performed by white and Asian students at all income levels. A lot can be achieved by erasing inequality between poor, middle-class, and wealthy students, but pretending that race does not matter is foolish.
In this column, Brooks is advocating investing in education and closing the achievement gap, and I agree with him that these are top priorities. Yet, I think heaping the blame for educational stagnation on "family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years" is wrong x 10.
I was a TFA teacher, and no one has devoted more time and energy to finding research-based evidence on the achievement gap than TFA. If you have a few free hours, go read through the data and overviews on the TFA site. After only two years in the classroom, I totally agree with the TFA research that says that funding and family are not the major problems holding kids back: a lot has to do with teacher quality, expectations, and fostering a culture of achievement. Lots of factors go into teachers'/administrators' low expectations, but I really believe that many people in education hold lower expectations for African-American and Hispanic students specifically because of their race.
I taught at a school that with a predominantly Mexican-American student body, though there were also students from Central America, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Portugal, and smaller populations of black and white students. Just like at the school I attended when I was a child, free lunch was the norm. Many of the students at our school came in with a full complement of educational disadvantages — parents with low levels of education, few English skills, low-income families, limited vocabularies in any language, etc. Some teachers dug in to fight the good fight, but others just threw up their hands and declared the situation hopeless.
It is undeniably true, as Brooks notes, that educational inequality starts early in life. By now, most educators are familiar with studies that have found that by age 3, the gap in language skills (a prerequisite for reading in any language) between the richest and poorest children is astounding. The error is in assuming that since children from some families start out at a disadvantage, they will inevitably lag behind their peers. In our current system, they will indeed lag, but it is NOT inevitable. Explicit vocabulary instruction, evidence-based pedagogy, and high expectations can do wonders for even the most disadvantaged students.
The trouble is that too many teachers and schools see poor students (particularly black, Hispanic, and Native American students) as unteachable. That might sound harsh, and I certainly don't mean all teachers or all schools, but there is a lot of that going around.
I've seen a lot of amazing teachers work wonders with kids and families, but I've also seen awful teachers who blame their own failures on the kids and the parents. A teacher cannot get the best results out of a student if that teacher assumes that the student is irredeemably lazy/ignorant/hyper/stupid/worthless. The things I've heard teachers say out loud about students would blow your hair back, and that's not even taking into account unconscious prejudices and systematic injustices (ex: systematically denying Latino students access to the Special Education services to which they are legally entitled — I'm looking at you, Alum Rock Union School District in San Jose, CA).
Brooks is right on his large point: investment in human capital is necessary to the nation's health. But honestly, blaming educational stagnation on the largely mythical declension of "the home" is not a solution. By all means, invest in early childhood education. But don't pretend that race is unimportant.