Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 30 2011

#14: Is education a zero-sum game?

Over the holidays, I’ve been thinking about our role as educators in our students’ lives.  I think if you are called into this profession, one of the goals you have is to leave the world a better place than how you found it, and in teaching that means putting your students on a path that will lead to having “better lives.”(1)

The challenges of this quest are inexhaustible, but one I would like to focus on today is the possible effects wealthier families can have on poorer ones.  Namely, is the “education system” as it is currently conceived inherently a system of winners and losers and not a positive-sum game in which you get what you put in?

For the sake of clarity, I am going to define the “education system” beyond the PK-12 brick-and-mortar world that we teach.  Instead, I would like to conceive of education as the apparatus that links us from the time we are born until we are ready to enter the world as adults.

Wealthier families are able to invest more resources in their children prior to enrolling in Pre-K that can have a variety of cognitive and emotional effects down the road.(2)  But suppose we control for that.  Suppose the US invests in early childhood care and education so that each child enters Pre-K on somewhat equal footing.  Would we continue to expect to see a system of educational haves and have-nots?

This is where I can see validity in the zero-sum explanation of our system.  Insofar as “success” is tied to completion of higher education and receiving the credentials that create new opportunities, there is a finite number of slots available in post-secondary institutions.  So long as this is the new reality of our economy, our labor force will have its “winners” and “losers”.  By and large, the winners will be from families who can afford the exorbitant sums necessary to fund a college education, or have the savvy to navigate the complexities of scholarships, grants, and financial aid.

For the kids we teach, a “Talented Tenth” might emerge, a chosen few who overcome the odds and achieve this vision of success.  These students are truly outstanding and I have the distinct privilege of working with many of the students who might have been characterized by W.E.B. DuBois as part of that Talented Tenth.

But I fear that we lose sight of our purpose as teachers if we are satisfied with this outcome.  Yes, the members of the Talented Tenth prevail.  But, the majority of our students continue to academically perform beneath their age-peers from wealthier families.

How do we respond?  Our goal is ostensibly to get as many of these kids to college, but how do we reconcile this goal with the fact that there are not enough slots for every student to attend college?  Worse still, what are the ramifications for the value of a degree when an ever-climbing number of college grads will dilute its economic power in the labor market?

I worry that we are not fully preparing our students for their lives as adults by asking them first to trust us and then to follow our path to success, if only because it is not feasible for everyone.  Say you are fortunate enough to earn the trust of a high schooler, a student with marginally acceptable skills and a solid work ethic and a respectful demeanor.  And they buy your story, that getting into college will open up new avenues for them.  How am I supposed to let them know things will be okay if they can’t afford the debt they would have to incur to attend?  Or if they get in and take on the debt anyway, but enter a field with limited employment prospects?  After graduation, they might be working the same kinds of service jobs they could have right out of high school, but now they are thousands of dollars in debt and don’t often have the family and friends network of their wealthier peers to gain them access to those channels of prosperity.  I don’t mean to be excessively pessimistic, but the economic realities that young adults face today are chastening.

I am feeling more that we as educators then need to look the “better lives” part of the equation more holistically.  By all means, let’s get our kids college ready so they have more options open to them.  And let’s teach them to work hard and value education.  Concurrently, we need them to become fully participating citizens who can vouch for themselves and organize in a way to combat the political forces that exacerbate poverty in our country.  This needn’t be interpreted as a call to arms.  Simply, our students should be able to exercise their political strength to their full potential just as they are entitled to exercise their academic potential.(3)


(1) A rather nebulous goal, of course.

(2) I recommend Jonathan Cohn‘s series on the subject for The New Republic.

(3) And just as income is a heavy predictor for educational success, so too is it an indicator of political clout.

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