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Education Grawemeyer Award Winners Say Access Isn't All That Matters

school classroom
Thomas Galvez/Creative Commons
Thomas Galvez/Creative Commons

The University of Louisville has presented three researchers with the Grawemeyer Award in Education for their work examining the link between socioeconomic status and education.

Karl Alexander, Linda Olson and the late Doris Entwisle won the award for their book "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood."

The book challenges the idea that that access to public education means equal opportunity.

During their research spanning 30 years, the trio was employed at John Hopkins University. Alexander is a sociology professor. Olson, recently retired, was an associate research scientist with the university's Center for Social Organization of Schools. Entwisle, who died in 2013, was research professor of sociology.

WFPL News recently spoke with authors Alexander and Olson about their book and their research.


Why is access to education not the defining determinant in how a person's life turns out?

Alexander: It's a widely held notion that all kids have to do to make it in life is play by the rules, pay attention to their teachers and parents and things will work out just fine. But for poor kids, especially poor kids in urban areas like Baltimore, unfortunately we don't deliver on that promise to the extent that we like to think we do. There are a whole host of reasons for that. Low-income parents who lack the kind of resources and understanding to help their children move successfully through the educational system and then to use success in school as a springboard for opportunity.

Why do you think it's hard for people to believe that access to education doesn't always lead to a better outcome?

Alexander: It is hard because it contradicts our national ethos. We do believe as a country and we have for a long time in what's sometimes referred to as the meritocracy. That is, if you work hard and play by the rules and do all the right things, opportunities await you. That's a very widespread idea and it's one that we adhere to. There's a deep belief in that concept. The reality falls short of that.

What is the biggest determinant in how a person's life turns out based on the research that you've done?

Olson: We tried to look within the more disadvantaged white and black students, what were the kinds of differences that had an impact. And while they weren't always successful in education, there was a difference especially among the black and white male students and the types of jobs they got. Both low-SES (socioecomonic status) black and white males had equivalent amounts of education. In fact, maybe the whites were even less likely to graduate from high school, but yet they had better jobs. They were more often employed and they were employed at higher wages and in the more lucrative type of jobs, like craft jobs and better paying skills jobs. And what we found when we asked these students  how they got these jobs, we found that among the white men they said they got it through connections, through families, through friends. We found out that there is a social network that benefits the white men more than the African- American men.

Why are some people still not able to escape poverty, even when they have access to better opportunities through education?

Olson: One of the important things about our study is that it's longitudinal study in that it looks at these children over a long period of time and allows you to look at how advantage or disadvantage accumulates over time. When you're dealing with more well off families, they have the resources and their children do well in school. They advance … they graduate from high school, attend college and they finish college. When you're dealing with poorer children, they come to school with a lot of obstacles already. Some of these just build up over time to overwhelm them, and fewer graduate from high school. Even when they do graduate from high school … about 50 percent of them attempt some kind of post-secondary education. But only four percent of them actually get a bachelor's degree, at least until age 28 when we followed them.

What do you hope people takeaway from this book?

Olson: The handicap that poverty creates. I think that's an important lesson to be learned. We have to tackle poverty and not expect that schools can solve all the problems. That schools can only do so much unless we start facing things like poor housing, health care, employment wages and opportunities. Poverty itself has to be dealt with in more effective ways before the schools can do their jobs. I think it's also important to see how in bedded racism in things like employment opportunities are still there in our society.