That cliche was brought to mind by several news stories in recent weeks, all related to class in one way or another, so I use it here to consider these stories and the issues they raise about disparities in education and well-being.
First, the Chicago Teachers strike revived talk about the role that standardized testing should play in evaluating teachers. In this context I have for the first time heard mention the fact that most proposals to evaluate teachers based on student test scores would reference only relative scores. That is, most organizations advocating the use of student test scores–organizations like StudentsFirst (and its high profile founder Michelle Rhee)–advocate assessing teachers based on year to year progress, or lack thereof. They would, for example, compare the same students’ performances at the beginning and end of the year as a way of evaluating those students’ teaching. These education reformers do not advocate using the test scores as some absolute measure of teacher quality, which would compare teachers within the same district, or even across a state or the nation. Rather, the scores would be used to mark relative progress among a particular group of students, as a reflection on those student(s)’s teachers. Read relevant coverage here and here.
Relativity made a few other points about class recently, including in this story which compares a certain highly disadvantaged subset of young people in Britain and the United States. The story reports an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study (2012) which shows that the British, long considered a class-bound society, are experiencing greater class mobility than those in the United States, at least as measured by access to a university degree. The study found that, in Britain, a student whose parents did not graduate from high school has a 60% chance of graduating from college, while in the United States, the prospects of a similarly situated young person getting a college degree are just 29%. The story notes that, among 34 advanced economies that OECD assessed, the United States has one of the lowest class mobility scores by this measure. Ironic, isn’t it, since the data defy the essence of the oft-touted “American dream”?
Now, I acknowledge that this finding regards a pretty small slice of the nation: the children of very poorly educated parents. Further, perhaps a smaller percentage of all young people in the United States than in Britain are the children of parents without high school diplomas, such that Britain has a wider base from which to make progress in better educating these young people. Nevertheless, this is a slice we should attend to if we truly aspire to be the egalitarian society we hold ourselves out to be–and if we want to solve any number of social and economic ills associated with lack of education.
Speaking of social and economic ills linked to lack of education … a report the MacArthur Foundation released this week (and discussed in this New York Times story by Sabrina Tavernise) shows that the life expectancy of a segment of working class whites is shrinking, even as the life expectancy of similarly educated minorities is increasing. The trend was especially marked among women. White women without a high school diploma saw their life expectancy decrease by five years between 1990 and 2008. By 2008, the life expectancy of a black woman without a high school diploma had surpassed that of her white counterpart. White men who did not finish high school lost three years of life during the same period, while the life expectancies of their similarly educated minority counterparts rose.
An excerpt from the NYT story speculates about the reasons for the trend:
The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least educated Americans who lack health insurance.
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[I]t is yet another sign of distress in one of the country’s most vulnerable groups during a period when major social changes are transforming life for less educated whites. Childbirth outside marriage has soared, increasing pressures on women who are more likely to be single parents. Those who do marry tend to choose mates with similar education levels, concentrating the disadvantage.
Tavernise also points out that “blacks over all do not live as long as whites, while Hispanics live longer than both whites and blacks.” Presumably this statement refers to all persons of all age groups, regardless of education level.
As for intra-race comparisons, these studies indicate that white women without a high school diploma live on average 73.5 years, compared to 83.9 years for white women a college degree or more. “life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma was 73.5 years, compared with 83.9 years for white women with a college degree or more.” The gap was even bigger among white men, with life expectancies ranging from 67.5 years for the least educated to 80.4 for those with at least a college degree.
Let’s be clear: It is good news that the life expectancy of racial and ethnic minorities is increasing, even though we would hope for even greater progress among this population. But the study also points up the limits of white privilege, often touted by minority groups as such a potent protective force. For those at the bottom of the ladder as measured by education level, white skin doesn’t seem much of a benefit.
Whether you’re comparing these low education whites with more educated whites, or whether you’re comparing them to similarly educated racial minorities, their relative disadvantage should be a wake-up call that this is a demographic group in dire straits.
“It’s all relative” is a statement sometimes used to dismiss the significance of a result. In all of these contexts, however, it seems that viewing the data in context–specifically by reference to other genders, races, nations or even to one’s own prior performance–teaches us something useful. And in some contexts, these comparisons could raise awareness and inform campaigns for change.