Education and the Impact of 'The Other Fifth'

Last week, the New York Times ran a piece by Thomas B. Edsall called "How the other fifth lives," a clear-eyed look at the lives lived by those in the upper quintile of the country, and what happens when that upper fifth separates itself from the lower four-fifths.

The education system in the US is an important area to see the impact of that one-fifth/four-fifths gap. That was on painful display at this week's Education Writers Association's National Seminar this week in Boston where sessions like "Hunger on Campus" drew attention to the dismal fact that our nation's community college students too often face hunger and homelessness: 20% are food-insecure and 39% housing-insecure. (More here.)

The impact of that gap is obvious in both public and parental spending, with greater investment being made in the upper-income kids. No one disputes that well-to-do kids perform better overall in almost every academic metric - almost ensuring that they remain well-to-do later in life.

I'm often shocked by the embarrassment of riches available to students from well-off families and communities. I don't mean millionaires and billionaires; I mean my kids and, quite likely, yours. This isn't about public versus independent schools; public schools in high-resource communities are often dramatically different from those in low-resource communities.

Students on the top slice of life's economic ladder - let's call it the top 20%, which NPR pegs at $111,000 - are being successfully educated. Yes, schools struggle with resources, and there's never enough time for learning, but by and large, the top 20% of children in the US will grow up to live lives at least on par with those they live now. This isn't only about Wellesley or Westchester, where $111,000 doesn't go far.

For the top 20%, establishment education is working reasonably well.

I'm likely talking about where you live. I'm likely talking about your kids...and mine.

But that's leaving the rest of the country's students in tough shape and, as Edsall points out, that gap is growing and its impact is being felt. But, because it's not being felt by us, it rarely makes news and there's no movement to address this with the urgency it requires.

Because today's tastemakers, trendsetters, and talking heads on TV all fall into that top 20%, do they know enough to care about education? Has the case been made loudly enough that we have to pay attention?

While the political analysis du jour highlights voter concern about the growing wealth gap and the rise of the billionaire class, the real culture clash in the US involves those with 6+-figure incomes and everyone else. When it comes to education, if your family earns 6-figures, your kids will end up just fine. The rest of the country (a staggering 80% of the population) has been voting "no confidence" in education for decades - but not being heard (look at the growth of charter schools for evidence).

The top 20% drives the bulk of the agenda in the US - the focus, debate, buzz, media coverage, and dialogue - and has very little insight into the remaining 80%. Policy makers and lobbyists earn more than $100K. Editors make more than $100K. The media brags about its percentage of readers/viewers with college degrees (New York Times: 80%; Washington Post:72%; LA Times: 71%). 74% of Facebook users have a college degree. "Voters" make more than $100K, creating an income-related voting gap for both parties that Edsall notes.

Even the people dedicated to "fixing" education - the education establishment - comfortably keep their kids in the Top 20%. Payscale pegs median Superintendent income at $113,000. Ironically, Supes in the country's biggest cities (and with the poorest populations) routinely earn more than twice that.

Executives at Education companies, from textbook publishers to innovative EdTech disruptors, earn 6-figures (when I worked at those companies I often reminded people that "we aren't our customer"). Their board members eclipse $100K in income. The venture capitalists and investors fueling the education industry's growth easily bring in more than $100K. Community College Presidents, often at institutions that serve our lower earners, bring in an average salary in excess of $160,000. Even with the shameful average teacher salary of $50,000, a 2-income family breaks that 100K mark.

The impact on education is this: families in the top 20% (even those of us dedicated to improving education) educate their children in a different America than everyone else. Because of their economic and electoral clout, everyone from marketers to the media keeps that 20% (our 20%) in a state of ignorant bliss regarding education, so they don't know. And you don't know. We don't know.

It doesn't directly affect our kids, so we have the luxury of the status quo.

But now we must care.

The families that some in the media have called the "neglected majority" - the 60% of Americans with no more than a high school education- put their children in education systems from which most of us are insulated. And that is education's greatest shortcoming - when the education system fails, it doesn't affect our families or us.

When voters rebel, the political class rolls out slogan-ready programs like No Child Left Behind or Every Student Succeeds (not to mention Jeb Bush's Right to Rise), and continues to educate its children as it always has. But that failure is resulting in a population left out of a 21st century of opportunity, and thundering their anger and frustration at a political, economic, and education establishment that continues to leave them - and their children - behind.

Every child has a right to a high quality and equally effective education, regardless of their family's socioeconomic status. For the sake of our country's future, let's hope the shockwaves from this political season wake up "the establishment" to the struggles of the rest of America, and starts providing an education that works well for all.

Follow me @JosefBlumenfeld