Americans have an unwavering belief in economic mobility. Most people in the U.S. think they can work hard to get ahead, even though economic mobility is lower in the U.S. than in other industrialized countries.
Americans underestimate the importance of luck and believe that people who are ahead got there from hard work and intelligence. Even something like a good photo is statistically just luck based on how many photos we take. But when we get a good photo we feel skilled.
Economists have found that the bigger a gap there is between rich and poor, the more important luck is in determining wealth, and the more important going to the right college is so you can meet the right people to have the right luck.
Public schools in the U.S. are a study of our increasingly delusional obsession with meritocracy. Kids in wealthy zip codes perform higher than kids in lower-income zip codes. Putting a poor kid in a rich-kid school won’t improve the outcome for that kid. Putting a rich kid in a poor-kid school won’t hurt the outcome for that kid. And charter schools change nothing. Which means the school has no impact on outcomes. (Parents who put their kids in school choose to ignore all this data.)
There is one exception: sports. In the past, kids in poorly funded school districts have had success in sports that provided social mobility. But not anymore.
Today the gap is so wide between well-funded schools and poorly funded schools that coaches say it’s unfair to pit the rich kids against the poor kids just because their geography puts them in the same athletic conference. The proposed solution is to segregate kids into poor athletic conferences and rich athletic conferences.
That sounds familiar. I’m sure it’ll be great.
Colleges recruit for sports that do not typically exist in public schools, like squash, lacrosse, field hockey, and swimming. The average family income for these recruited athletes is $500,000. If we segregate low-income athletic teams from more well-funded athletic teams, then the median family income for public school sports like basketball, football, and soccer will skyrocket as well.
But what about using language similar to that in Title IX? Why do girls need equal access to athletic opportunities but poor kids do not? Presently we interpret the Equal Protection Clause to ban only racially motivated segregation. Which means middle-class parents can make sure their kids don’t go to school with lower-income kids.
The one percent do not send their kids to public school. In fact, most super-rich families are trying some version of homeschooling. The middle class is desperately trying to hold onto their status by endorsing unequal school funding. The segregation of middle-class schools and poor schools in athletics is one more way to make the middle class feel like they won’t slip any lower.
Peter Arcidiacono, a professor of economics at Duke, just published scathing data about Ivy League admissions. The admission rate for Harvard overall is around 4%. But the admission rate for athletes is 87%. Once we decide lower-income kids can have unequal coaching, unequal equipment, and an unequal level of opponents, then we close off one of the last paths to social mobility.
In a society with a wide gap between rich and poor, where you go to college matters even more. But the stacked deck isn’t only about college admissions—it’s about wellbeing. Playing competitive sports makes men and women more confident, more clear thinking, and more successful throughout life.
This TED video tells girls how to monitor their school to make sure the girls receive fair treatment in sports. Where are the videos to tell low-income kids how to monitor their school to ensure fair treatment? Maybe we don’t have those videos because we don’t know where to start. Unequal opportunities for low-income kids start so early that public schools cannot bridge the gap.
So what can we do?
Stop talking about school as inherently good. School has been a way to segregate since its inception. Our school system keeps poor people poor. And the ranked college system keeps middle-class people from moving up: 40% of Ivy League students come from the top .002%.
Stop conflating education and democracy. The idea of education as a (maybe misogynist) precursor to good government is from the 1700s, before there was a mandatory public school. We don’t need public school for good government. And we definitely don’t need to imply that we are making another test people have to pass in order to vote. The only way to revolutionize who learns is to revolutionize who votes. You don’t need to be good at school to be good at voting.
Stop talking about all your hard work like you’ve somehow earned what you have. Our natural bias is to remember events that lead to disadvantage rather than an advantage. So we don’t remember having luck as much as overcoming hardship. Telling yourself everything you have is from hard work makes you scared to slow down.
The myth of meritocracy makes parents put their kids in competitive preschools and middle schools with too much homework. After college, those kids choose a competitive career that does not interest them. Because life is about showing you have merit.
If we accept that luck has big impact, then we don’t see everything we do as a judgment on our merit. We can relax and just be ourselves. Also, if you see your personal story from that perspective you are more likely to be kind, generous, and understanding.
S0 I’ve been trying to notice moments each day when I’m lucky. And there’s an extra benefit to doing that: noticing one’s luck promotes feelings of gratitude, and people who have gratitude are happier. But that’s for a whole other blog post.