It is not true that schools are a weak force or actually cause inequality.
Governments have limited resources. When policy makers ask how to invest those resources to reduce inequality, schooling is one answer. We suggest that schooling has the capacity to reduce social inequality, even taking into account gross inequality in the home and school environments.
There is a huge debate about whether schooling has the potential to help us overcome the inequality we see in the United States, the United Kingdom and other societies. Some say that giving kids an equal opportunity to learn is a good way to equalize opportunity. Others say that because society is so unequal and schools are so unequal, kids who already have social and economic advantages would benefit more from school.
We believe that schooling can be a powerful tool for reducing inequality. It isn’t true that schools are a weak force. But the amount and quality of early schooling matters a lot.
Learning encompasses academic skills and social skills
We wondered whether experience in school increases or decreases equality among children in terms of academic skills but also as it relates to behavior regulation and ability to pay attention and get along with others. These skills are intrinsically valuable, but they also predict health, longevity and well-being, as well as how successful people will be in the labor market.
"The capacity for schooling to reduce inequality could be dramatically increased by investing in more and better schooling at every stage, particularly when kids are little."
We reframed the question by examining the potential contrast between how much you would learn if you were in school versus how much you would learn if you weren’t.
How much you would learn depends on the quality of the learning environment you would experience in school or at home – the input –but it also depends upon your learning rate, which is the rate at which you gain skills. A key assumption, backed up by research, is that your capacity to gain from input increases the more you already know. A highly skilled person gains more from instruction than does a low-skilled person.
Research suggests that when children are young, socioeconomic differences in skill are small. So rich and poor kids have similar potential to gain from input at that age, giving us good reason to expect that schooling early in life should substantially reduce inequality. To understand why, we have to think about the quality of the learning environments children experience at home and at school. When disadvantaged children go from home to school, they experience a very significant improvement in input: the learning environment at school is much more favorable than the learning environment at home. In contrast, when better-off children go from home to school, the contrast in input is not as great: the learning environment at school is not so different from the learning environment at home. Since both children have, on average, similar capacities to benefit from input, schooling should reduce inequality.
Things change as kids get older. Since they get better input at home and at school than poor kids do, rich kids will tend to benefit more from future input. The skill differential between kids from high- and low-SES backgrounds becomes greater and greater, so the capacity of high-SES kids to benefit from input grows as well. As a result, the capacity of schools to reduce inequality decreases and actually reverses. This leads us to predict that, for older kids, an extra dose of schooling increases inequality.
Exploring inequality in four situations
We examined four instances to analyze schooling’s effect on inequality:
- Universal prekindergarten: The evidence is overwhelming that kids from families with a lower socioeconomic (SES) status benefit more from prekindergarten than do more well-off kids.
- Extending the school day: A study that randomly assigned kids to half- versus full-day kindergarten found that children from lower-SES families improve their literacy skills more in full-day kindergarten.
- Summer recess versus year-round school: This research is decisive that kids acquire more academic skills when they’re in school than when they’re not, but the benefit of attending school is more pronounced for kids from lower-SES backgrounds.
- Increasing the duration of mandatory schooling: Kids who would have dropped out sooner in the absence of laws requiring them to attend school until 16 years of age—and these are mostly kids from low-SES families—benefit from the better jobs and greater earnings that result from additional schooling. However, research indicates that the benefit of an extra year of schooling accrues more to high-SES kids. One main benefit is that if you stay in school an extra year, you are more likely to get a degree, which makes it more likely that you will get another degree, which leads to higher earnings. However, this benefit is far more pronounced for high-skill than low-skill adolescents. Unfortunately, by the time they reach adolescence, rich kids have significantly higher skills than do poor kids, on average, given the prevailing education system. Increasing the amount and quality of schooling early can reduce this kind of inequality.
Quality early childhood education is an investment in better futures
If we can increase the amount and quality of schooling when children are young, we can delay the skill divergence that will lead to inequality later. We know that well-off kids are exposed to a better environment at home and at school; if we have more schooling and better schooling, then schooling’s capacity to reduce inequality will be preserved further in the course of life. If you start early, you don’t see as much skill divergence.
Investing substantially in early childhood education increases the benefits of later investments and enhances skills later on. We still have to invest down the road, but the benefits of the later investment are enhanced by early investments.
According to our model, schools could be doing a lot more to reduce inequality by equalizing the education that poorer and better-off children receive.
Schooling’s capacity to reduce inequality could be dramatically increased by investing in more and better schooling at every stage, particularly when kids are young. Putting kids in school or school-like environments when they’re young, coupled with longer school days and longer school years, would tend to reduce inequality.
The most counterintuitive conclusion from our research is that even though rich kids get better schooling than poor kids, schooling is equalizing. Why? Because the inequality in out-of-school environments is far greater than inequality in school environments. In other words, even though schools are unequal, spending more time in them decreases inequality. That’s a shocker, but I’m convinced it’s true. Imagine what we could do if we could actually equalize schooling!