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Symposium 2013

Proposal - Inequality, Kids, and Schools

The Challenge

Both advanced industrial economies such as the United States and rapidly growing economies such as China are exhibiting increasing levels of inequality and disadvantage. Recent research on the sources ...

Both advanced industrial economies such as the United States and rapidly growing economies such as China are exhibiting increasing levels of inequality and disadvantage. Recent research on the sources of inequality has begun the process of creating a new social science paradigm which integrates economics, psychological sociological and biological factors in order to provide a comprehensive understanding of the determinants of socioeconomic status across the life course as well as intergenerational mobility. This new work embodies a rich conception of the forces that underlie individual decision making that draws upon the insights of many disciplines. These insights are unified by conceptualizing inequality in socio-economic outcomes as derivative from inequalities that emerge in cognitive and noncognitive skills, which include personality traits as well as human capital and intelligence.

Inequality, Kids, and Schools

 

 

Children are the decision-makers – let’s give them the right incentives.

 

 

Inequality.  Some people have more and some people have less.  Why should we care?  There are many economic answers.  An economist might say, “Inequality is bad for growth; a thriving middle class is important to generate demand for consumer goods.” Or “Inequality does not allow each individual to reach his or her full potential, so the economy loses.”

But there is another reason we should care.  Inequality relates systematically to different social groups.  In every country there are pockets of poverty and social groups who remain isolated from the economic mainstream.   Some children, but not others will achieve their potential.

Money cannot just be thrown at this problem. Investment in human capital is not just investment in schools and hospitals. It is investment in norms and social attitudes.

In our solution the child takes center stage.  We see the child as the decision-maker, and the school as a social institution.  This “identity economics” view of education gives a more realistic perspective on what motivates children. The economic incentives for doing well in school are well-known.  But we have not met many third-graders who learn their multiplication tables because they want to maximize their future income stream.  Nor does this seem to be in the mind of high-school seniors working on their calculus. By and large, children and teenagers have a different calculus.  They want to feel good about themselves. They want to fit in.

Who fits in and who doesn’t?  Schools reflect the larger society.  Historical and systematic exclusion – the inability to fully “fit in” the mainstream – filters down to students and children.  They lose interest, and they drop out.  Establishing new standards and incentives for teachers will not address this basic problem.

While the world whirls outside, the basic mission of schools should be to create a community. Children who feel part of this community will perform.  Schools should teach children and teenagers who they should be, how they should act, and how they should work in school. If that can be done effectively, then all else, high test scores, reading, writing, arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, and perhaps even critical thinking will follow naturally.

These basics are actually at the heart of successful school reform programs and, historically, at the heart of all good schools. Let us just look inside one such school. When Yale psychiatrist James Comer took over as the advisor at the Baldwin Elementary School in a blighted area of New Haven, Connecticut, it was a mess.  Teachers were unable to establish order; children milled around; they yelled, they screamed; they called the teacher and each other names.  But five years after the initiation of Comer’s program, order reigned.  The cover of his book, School Power shows a classroom with all students neatly dressed, at their desks, all smiling, with raised hands.

What happened? The school got the children (and their parents) on board.  The principal and teachers were trained to teach children how to behave and how to be students. In his autobiography, Comer tells when he knew his program was a success—when he saw a student stop a fight on the playground with the words: “we don’t do that in this school.”

 

Successful investment in human capital must appreciate that schools are full of real children and real teenagers. Schools are not what is pictured by a traditional economic model. like a factory, in which the principal and teachers are the labor that transforms the raw materials, the pupils, into skilled graduates ready for college and career.  This model leads to a focus on incentives—incentives for teachers to perform and incentives for school districts to perform.

But whom are we actually asking to perform?  It is the pupils--the children and teenagers whom we are asking to study and think critically and graduate. Successful initiatives incorporate what children and teenagers care about, what motivates them, and how they see themselves in their social world.  Investment in norms and community, along with books and computers, can address fundamental issues of social and economic inequality.

George Akerlof is Koshland Professor of Economics at University of California, Berkeley and 2001 Nobel Laureate in Economics. Rachel Kranton is James B. Professor of Economics at Duke University. They are authors of the book “Identity Economics.”

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