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Photo courtesy of Facebook / Boston College: Lynch School of Education

Kirsch and Braun Stress Inequalities in American Education

Dr. Irwin Kirsch, Director of the Center for Global Assessment, Educational Testing Services, and Dr. Henry Braun, Boisi Chair of Education and Public Policy, Lynch School, presented on their ETS funded project entitled “Choosing our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America” on March 2. The talk was a part of the LSOE Endowed Chairs Colloquium Series, themed “Education Policy in the 21st Century: Perspectives from Education and Psychology.”

The talk began with Dr. Irwin Kirsch summarizing what America looks like today in terms of technology, globalization, business, and government. “For many people in this country, this technology-driven, globalized economy has had devastating consequences in terms of life outcomes," he said, "it’s not just the most disadvantaged who have been affected; it’s a large share of the middle class, many of whom have lost in these changes and many of whom are struggling to hang on.”

The significant concern at play is that the current distribution of human and social capital is influencing the transmittance of opportunity to subsequent generations. In fact, a report made by Kirsch and Braun seven years ago, America’s Perfect Storm , which analyzed the shifting demographics, changing economics, and education of the country, predicted that the distribution of adult literacy in American society would shift to the left--become less literate -- and would widen -- become more polarized and unequal. This has proved to be true. And when looking at millennials, who have been thought to be the best educated group in history, America has underperformed fifteen countries in literacy, has ranked last in numeracy and problem solving, and has ranked first in the inequality of literacy distribution.

“The simple yet disturbing fact is that across our country, children are beginning life from very different starting points,” says Kirsch. Children born to privileged families versus those born to struggling families have vastly different experiences in terms of parents, neighborhoods, schools, and public investment. “And these different starting points place these kids on distinctly different trajectories of growth that leads to vastly different outcomes of results. For instance, more than 16 million children live in families below the federal poverty level and nearly 1.3 million public school children were homeless at the start of the 2012 school year.

“When we think about the children and the importance of focusing on the children in terms of interventions, we forget the fact that children inherit not only their parent’s genes, but also their life circumstances,” he noted, “So if adults don’t have good opportunity and are living in compromised situations, it’s likely that their children will face the same, and that’s where these dynamics come into play.”

Over 115 million Americans are between the ages 18-44, and far too many lack the qualifications and skills needed to succeed in today’s labor market and society. “This is in part due to localization and accelerated infusion of powerful technologies into all facets of the economy, I would say even in everyday life,” said Kirsch, “And although there have been some positive impacts from that, there have been a lot of disruptive effects for far too many people.” The economy used to expand and contract in very predictable ways, but now, a lot of the jobs that have been lost will not be coming back because they required skills that a high school graduate would possess and those skills have become generationally obsolete. “The real winners in the marketplace have been those with a college degree or more,” he said.

The talk then turned over to Braun, who continued by addressing the role of social capital, its changing relationship to human capital, and the resultant implications for growing inequality. “Over the last generation or two, there is an increase in stratification of social capital by education and skills and by income,” said Braun. This is indicated by data on the widening trust gap associated with education level and by data on the increase of residential segregation by income.

“What we’re seeing here is that you get this compounding of advantage and disadvantage, and you get this self-sustaining dynamics that are in fact widening the polarization,” he said. “One of the sources of that compounding is the phenomenon of assortative mating where today, highly educated men and women are more likely to meet and marry and partner with each other.” One of the consequences of this differential is the tremendous difference in the resources parents invest in their children, and this private investment in potential is then compounded by public investment as well.

“We define opportunity as pathways to development of human and social capital, and we describe some of what we call gates or barriers along those pathways. The factors that determine whether those gates are open, slightly ajar, or closed are such factors as family resources, neighborhood characteristics, school quality, access to healthcare and nutritious food, and features of social networks,” he continued. “And what’s important to realize are that these factors are not operating individually, but rather in concert, so the effect of one amplifies the effect of the other for good or for ill.”

“And moreover, those factors are not only operating at a particular point in time or particular transition but over the full developmental trajectory. So a child who faces closed gates early on is also more likely to face closed gates as they progress,” said Braun. “And that concatenation of advantage or disadvantage over the developmental trajectory produces very substantial differences in accumulated human social capital as they enter adulthood, and therefore to no surprise, very different prospects in terms of adult outcomes.”

While the overall message of the talk had a downbeat tone, Braun said, “We have put together a framework that guides strategy, and the hope is that we can use this framework, or modifications of this framework, to help structure conversations around the country about what needs to be done and how communities can work together to really make a difference, as they have in Kalamazoo (with the Kalamazoo Promise).” The key points of this framework are that it has to be systematic, systemic, sustainable, continuous, and adaptable.

To close, Braun said, “We, and many others, believe that if, as a nation, we do nothing, then we will continue to drift apart -- economically and otherwise -- placing an enormous strain on the country’s social fabric and imperiling its democratic character.”

For more information about The ETS Opportunity Project, visit

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