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How Capitalism Undermines Progressive Education Reform

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Why Doesn’t Education Reform Work?

One explanation for persisting inequality is that individuals simply have different levels of innate cognitive and intellectual skill. Some will learn a lot in school, others will learn very little; some can manage the academic demands of a rigorous PhD program, while others aren’t bright enough to make it through high school. This innate difference ultimately slots people into different economic classes. It’s a simple explanation for entrenched inequality — but the data reveal it’s just not accurate.

In researching their book, Bowles and Gintis reviewed six statistical studies that measured the relationship between IQ and educational progress over time. Four of these studies found that higher-IQ individuals do not show more educational progress than lower-IQ individuals. The fifth study found mixed results. Only one study supported the conventional view that “smarter” people learn more.

Second, even if we take IQ as a valid measurement of cognitive skill, it is not a good predictor of economic success. If that were true, then people with high IQs would have consistently high incomes, and people with low IQs would have consistently low incomes. The data show this is overwhelmingly false. IQ has only a minor correlation with one’s income.

Another explanation of inequality argues that wealthy families have access to a superior education and therefore pass on their economic status. On its face, this idea seems pretty obvious. The children of the 1 percent attend elite private schools with lower teacher-to-student ratios, significant educational resources, and so on. These students then use their education to obtain higher-paying jobs and preserve their inherited economic class. Those who can’t get a high-quality education are left with few resources and subpar services.

But if we dig into the rationale for this theory, it doesn’t quite hold up either. The standard explanation for why more (and higher-quality) schooling results in higher income is that, as Bowles and Gintis put it, “earnings reflect economic productivity.” The theory goes that “[an] individual’s economic productivity depends partly on the level of the cognitive skills he or she has attained. Each year of education increases cognitive skill levels, thus indirectly leading to higher income.” At the end of the day, income is really determined by cognitive skill, even if education is the vehicle used to gain that cognitive skill. Yet as we just saw, cognitive skill is only weakly related to income.

In a 2001 article revisiting Schooling in Capitalist America, Bowles and Gintis evaluated twenty-four studies measuring the effect of cognitive skill on earnings. Although there is some correlation, it is far less than often claimed, and there’s little evidence that “cognitive skill is becoming increasingly important as a determinant of economic success.”

There is a strong connection between the amount of education one has and the income one earns. But this doesn’t mean that more education causes increased income or wealth. In fact, Bowles and Gintis cite a series of studies finding that those who hold an HSE degree (what used to be called a GED), are almost identical to those with no credential at all. The reason? The GED “is a ‘mixed signal’ indicating to employers that the individual had the cognitive skill to complete high school but lacked the motivational or behavioral requisites.”

Lastly, Bowles and Gintis’s data show that a measure of “non-cognitive traits” like “industriousness,” “perseverance,” and “leadership” was four times more effective in predicting income than a cognitive test, and one and a half times more effective than one’s amount of schooling.

We can also look at how important employers say education is when thinking about who to hire. In their 2001 reflection, Bowles and Gintis cite a study of three thousand employers that asked “‘When you consider hiring a new . . . worker, how important are the following in your decision to hire?’” On a scale of one (unimportant) to five (very important), employers ranked “‘industry based skill credentials’ at 3.2 with ‘years of schooling’ at 2.9, ‘score on tests given by employer’ and ‘academic performance’ both at 2.5. By far the most important consideration was ‘attitude’ ranked 4.6, followed by ‘communication skills’ (4.2).”

This content was originally published here.

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