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The Learning Curve: The Missing Question in a Billionaire’s Education Essay

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An essay by Nick Hanauer [1], a billionaire venture capitalist, has turned a lot of heads, including one of a former president [2], on the internet in recent days. Hanauer’s essay makes a lot of great points about how the United States needs a multi-pronged, tax-the-billionaires approach to ending poverty – rather than solely relying on education to cure society’s ills.

That’s an essential point, but the piece tipped me off to a strange belief that apparently has been going around in billionaire circles: “A failing education system,” they say, is actually the cause of poverty and inequality in America. Hanauer tells us how he has seen the light and no longer sides with his well-heeled buddies.

I’m not so naïve as to think billionaires don’t have some goofy beliefs about the society they float above. And I’m not surprised to see the contortions they’ll make for a self-serving argument. If you are a member of the Walton family, for instance, which has given millions of dollars to ed reform projects, it is laughable to believe the education system, rather than low-wage jobs, cause poverty.

This odd billionaire theory at the center of his argument throws off the entire framing for what is, in every other way, a convincing essay. For myself and many other people, the animating question was not whether flaws in the education system cause poverty (the answer there is a hard “no”) it’s whether a supercharged investment in education can help put marginalized groups on a closer-to-level playing field. Can education have an equalizing affect?

That doesn’t solve the problems of low wages and affordable housing, as Hanauer points out, but it does seem like a question worth asking.

San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten brought it up recently [3]. In her 2018 State of the District speech, she endorsed an idea that has propagated from the founding of the country up through President Barack Obama: “Great teachers, great schools, powerful supports make a real difference in the lives of children. They result in higher college attendance rates and increased earnings. … Education is, in fact, the great equalizer.”

Hanauer’s essay argues, implicitly, that the great equalizer theory is a myth.

“The lower your parents’ income, the lower your likely level of educational attainment. Period. But instead of focusing on ways to increase household income, educationists in both political parties talk about extending ladders of opportunity to poor children,” he writes.

Is that something we should stop talking about?

The achievement gaps between white and brown students and rich and poor students are persistent and stubborn. (They are the result of opportunity gaps, engrained in many parts of society, including the education system.) Very few schools or districts have been able to overcome it.

But there are some lessons on which to draw.

Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone is an example we’ve known about for years. The Harlem Children’s Zone provides a heavy suite of wraparound services, including counseling, parenting classes, pre-school and food services, for anyone who grows up in its boundaries. It has also, notoriously, burned out teachers. But at a price tag of more than $100 million per year, it delivers much higher college attendance rates for minorities than most other schools.

“This is a complicated, difficult effort. It’s not for everybody. If there is a better plan, I sure want to hear it. It will save me a lot of energy and heartache,” Canada said in 2010. At the time, no one was seriously talking about universal basic income or a green new deal.

Obama wanted to replicate Canada’s model [4]. As he was pitching his promise neighborhoods vision to the country, he said, “It can’t be done on the cheap. It will cost a few billion dollars a year.”

But those few billion dollars never materialized and the budget for the handful of pilot programs around the country was a small fraction of Canada’s yearly budget for Harlem alone. Because the program was so under-funded it was doomed to get mediocre results.

Briefly retold: We had a vision of education as the great equalizer, we laughably underfunded it and then we went about our business. The conversation about urgently “extending ladders of opportunity to poor children” through education dried up.

Hanauer’s essay is the realization of Canada’s great dread: “My fear is that in the end folks will have underfunded a program, haven’t given it the time and say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t work. Fighting poverty doesn’t work. There’s nothing you can do about that,’” he told me in 2015 about Obama’s promise neighborhoods program.

Hanauer believes in fighting poverty by different methods, namely increasing incomes. And it is good he is trying to swing the conversation toward other solutions.

He is correct when he writes, “multiple studies have found that only about 20 percent of student outcomes can be attributed to schooling, whereas about 60 percent are explained by family circumstances — most significantly, income.”

Education was never going to be a cure-all. For some people, the question was always how much can we accomplish, through a bold investment, on that 20 percent margin.

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