Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Education Senior Fellow, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR)
Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business
This conversation took place on February 1, 2021
Brian Lowery: Dr. Reardon, what do you think is the primary role of education in our society?
Sean Reardon: It’s important to distinguish between the role we aspire for in education and its actual function. Since the start of public education in the U.S., we have thought of education as the great equalizer: the engine of the American dream. We have thought of it as removing the obstacles of one’s birth and making it possible for any child to do or be anything they want to in America. In reality, however, America is an unequal place, particularly in the socioeconomic and racial dimensions. While schools can help overcome some of that inequality in some cases, they are not powerful enough to overcome it for everyone. The structural racism and unequal conditions in which people grow up are potent forces. Schools are not able to completely operate against them.
Brian Lowery: Dr. Drake, what is the role of higher education in society?
Michael Drake: We live in a multitextured country. The educational pathway is an opportunity for many, but it is also hampered by all the other pathways between birth and the age of 18 that can increase or decrease one’s likelihood of becoming one of my colleagues. I often say that all one has to do to determine their chance of being accepted at a university is look at their parental income at age five. That would be a fairly accurate measure for how “qualified” one will be by the time they apply to college. The opportunities that people grow up with are critical to people before they get to college. Ability and talent are distributed across zip codes relatively equally, but opportunity is not. When those few people do make it through the maze and can attend a university, they do not arrive with the same support systems or tools. Higher education can be a bridge between where one starts and the middle class or beyond, but it is not a perfect bridge, because it is not divorced from the greater world that we live in.
Brian Lowery: Often, people think about being accepted to a university as a “prize,” determined by how hard they work. How do you think about the concept of universities as serving a social purpose instead of simply serving the interests of individuals who have the good fortune to win this prize?
Michael Drake: I think that’s true for selective universities. But when I worked at The Ohio State University, we had regional campuses that were open admission. The qualification to go to one of our regional campuses is merely being 18 years old, and the qualification for transferring to the main campus is merely completing a semester or two with passing grades. This last year, the university’s overall graduation rate was at about 87%, with students coming from a variety of backgrounds. There’s a more challenging pathway at elite, private, selective, and small universities because of their capacity. Large public universities are generally better pathways and open higher education to a larger fraction of the population.
Brian Lowery: One of the truisms of America is the belief in constant progress: that things are better now than they were in the past, and they’re going to be better in the future. However, in past sessions, we heard that this hasn’t always been true in terms of race. How would you say racial segregation in education today compares to how it was in the 50s or 60s?
Sean Reardon: Schools in the South were hardly desegregated at all until at least 15 years after the Brown vs. Board decision made in 1954. Up until 1968, almost every Black child in the South went to a 100% Black school, and every white child went to a 100% white school. Compared to that standard, yes, we’ve made progress. However, we can see that progress has either been eroded or stagnated in certain parts of the country. There are some places that are even more segregated today than they were in the 70s. Although there were moments where we made real progress on the segregation front in the past, much has been lost, and we still have very unequal and very segregated schools.
Brian Lowery: What is the effect of segregation on educational outcomes?
Sean Reardon: If you live in a world without the structural racism and compounded inequality that kids experience growing up in the U.S., you can imagine that it wouldn’t matter where people lived or the color of their classmates. However, we don’t live in that world. Racial segregation almost always comes along with dramatic economic segregation. I studied data on test scores from every public school in the U.S. We looked at school districts across the country that were segregated by race or income, and we found evidence that the districts with the greatest achievement gaps were also the most segregated districts. However, this was only when racial segregation was accompanied by economic segregation. In the few cases where racial segregation wasn’t accompanied by economic segregation, the achievement gaps were not particularly large. It’s not the racial segregation, per se, that seems related to unequal educational opportunity. It’s the confluence of racial segregation with economic segregation, and it’s the concentration of Black and Latino children in high-poverty schools and white and Asian students in lower-poverty schools. That’s what leads to real unequal opportunity. In a world where those two things weren’t so confounded, I don’t think we’d have to worry about segregation at all — racial segregation always comes along with economic segregation, which becomes a real problem.
Michael Drake: From a biological point of view, race is difficult to define or quantify. Racism, on the other hand, is very easy to measure. In fact, the utility of race doesn’t seem to mean much except for racists — what are you going to use it for, except to separate people? That separation is critical to have a system with unequal opportunity and to hold people down. We could look at health, for example, and see that wealthier health outcomes tend to be much better. However, the poor white outcome is almost always better than the non-poor Black outcome. Status and race have been woven together. Whenever we found circumstances in which those two characteristics were not the overriding factors, we also found that the health and achievement outcomes largely vanished. I was born into a world where my neighborhood, street, school, parents, and friends were very segregated until I was a teenager. The effect of having all my role models be from my community was that I didn’t feel limited in where I could go. When I eventually entered a role with more opportunities, and things that my role models had never done, my view of the world changed.
Brian Lowery: To what extent should we rely on education for social mobility?
Michael Drake: At the University of California, we like when people come together and can exhibit that they can move forward and have social mobility. When social mobility measures are used as rankings of our universities, our campuses tend to do quite well. We want to continue to work on that, because social mobility is the real value they bring to society. I went to UCLA for my Ph.D. right before Prop 209 was passed (1996), which eliminated the use of race in decisions that involve public institutions in California. At that time, there was a significant drop of students of color. Prop 16, which later tried to repeal that decision in 2020, failed. What does that say about the state of our society? How do you manage that as you run one of the biggest university systems in the country, in California?
When I was the associate dean of admissions at the UCSF medical school in the 90s, we had to look at how we could affect access and excellence in education without using affirmative action. We had to deconstruct what race meant and look at things like opportunity, experience, commitment to community, etc. But race had worked to collect those interests and ensure equity and fairness in the application process. Without considering race, a few elements to consider turned into 18 elements. The UC campuses currently look at 14 elements that describe who you are, where you’re from, what you’ve done, and all those things together. This year, we admitted the most diverse class in our history: 36% of our first year students were Latino, which was more than any other ethnic group. This was the first time an underrepresented minority group had been our largest. This year, we’re about 15% up in applications and 20% up in African-American applications. Our work now is to make sure that we can continue to enhance our diversity as we go forward.
Brian Lowery: I think it’s a good sign that more people are applying. However, I also believe that it isn’t just the process of getting in — it’s also what happens after they arrive. Do they feel like it’s a space for them, a space where they can thrive? How do you make sure the students who apply and are accepted feel like they belong?
Michael Drake: This is an ongoing battle. It’s difficult not to have some level of imposter syndrome for many of us, and I don’t know anyone from an underrepresented group that can entirely divorce themselves from that. We simply have to continue doing everything we can to illustrate to students that not only do they belong here, but they’re also the reason this university is so great. We have to continue doing this work, though, because the greater world does so much to tell us that’s not true.
Brian Lowery: The fate of the propositions discussed earlier suggests to me that some parents are concerned about “fairness”; they believe affirmative action isn’t fair. A lot of that is driven by a sense that people should have an unhindered educational choice. There seems to be difficulty understanding the structural, inherent unfairness that already exists — on average, white families are 10 times wealthier than Black families. How do you think about school choice in the US — is that creating more inequity? Is it really a choice?
Sean Reardon: The frame of mind that thinks about school as an individual choice already presupposes that we think of education as a private, rather than public, good. If we think of it as a private good, then we think that we should make it possible for every family to try to do the best for their child, and the choice of one individual is all about them and doesn’t impact other people. However, once we start to think of education as a public good, then we begin to think about choice, and how we should allocate educational opportunity, quite differently. What does a functioning, democratic, just society need? It needs citizens who know how to take other people’s perspectives and understand various views. It needs citizens who can work cooperatively and collaboratively. And I believe that’s a different set of priorities than making sure my child gets the highest math score on her test, or gets into the school to which I want her to go. Once you begin thinking of it as a collective good, choice doesn’t have the same valence. We also need to remember that choice is great as long as everyone operates on the same playing field. However, people have different amounts of resources, different access to information, and different social networks in our society. When we have segregated communities and great economic inequality, not everyone is operating on the same playing field, which means everyone can’t make the same choice. The illusion that choice is fair masks a deeper structural inequality; it lets us tell ourselves that the system is fair when it’s not. It takes the form of fairness on the surface, and that allows us to sleep well at night.
Brian Lowery: I’m going to present a suggestion, and I’m curious what you think about it. People argue that universities produce students aligned with the stature of their reputation: The highest schools get to select students who already have the best chance of being successful. What if students who met minimal qualifications were randomly assigned to universities (public and private)? With random assignments, those high-status institutions would be forced to produce better students without the benefit of selection. What do you think could be the downsides of this?
Sean Reardon: I would say that if you’re waiting until college you’re starting too late. You’ve already baked in 18 years of structural and social equity, and it’s hard to imagine that colleges could undo that in four years.
Michael Drake: I have great faith in the capacity of human beings — it amazes me just how much people can thrive when given the necessary opportunities. In California, we have the community college system, and although it isn’t exactly like what you’re saying, the only requirement to attend is a minimum age. We’ve seen that students who eventually transfer to competitive institutions do quite well. And there’s data that shows that students from challenged high schools do better at competitive universities than universities that aren’t so competitive. So I don’t think that selectivity is the issue — it’s the opportunities people can take advantage of. In medical education, we’ve found that the educational experience is much stronger when there is more diversity, even if they’re not as selective as some other institutions.
Brian Lowery: What would you tell the parents of people who benefit from structural advantages, care about equitable education, and wonder how they should engage with the education system so that they aren’t inadvertently reinforcing existing inequities?
Sean Reardon: If we want to substantially address equal educational opportunity, we need to think about changing things early in kids’ lives — as early as the elementary and preschool age. We need to think about a more progressive tax structure and more of a redistribution of wealth or policies. We need to think about housing policies that don’t lead to neighborhoods of highly concentrated poverty that are predominantly African-American or Latino. Education is one lever in the solution to a big problem. If we think of education as the path for my child to get ahead and eventually have a lucrative career, people will feel like they’re giving something up when we start to change the structure of the system. However, suppose we change the conversation to thinking about how all of our children can grow up to be healthy, respectful, cooperative, collegial, functioning members of our society. In that case, people will start to see the value in diversity and the value in schools that aren’t stratified by race.
Michael Drake: I agree: education is just one prong, and it’s not everything. We have to do everything we can to support people from birth. Being nonracist is a good thing, but it’s not the same as being anti-racist. Being nonracist is saying, “Well, things are tipped, and I’m not going to tip them anymore. I’m just going to flow the way it goes.” But that leaves you with a racist system. What we need to do is say, “Yes, things are tipped. How are they tipped? What can we do to untip them? How can we give more people the chance to reach their human potential?” That’s a challenge for everybody, but particularly for those who are advantaged by the tipping. It’s easy to bike fast and congratulate yourself for it without noticing that there was wind going the same direction that was helping you along. If we want to work against these things, we have to be hypercognizant of them.
Brian Lowery: What do you tell a parent who says they would be failing at their job if they didn’t do the best they could for their child and deploy all the resources they could to support their success?
Michael Drake: We all want our children to succeed to the best degree they can. However, I think we can also want the world to be the best place it can be and try to have those both be the same. Would I want my child to earn a high income in a life of crime? No. We can support our families while also supporting our communities, and then our communities can support our families. That’s the idyllic virtuous cycle.
Sean Reardon: Although families should undoubtedly care about their kids (and always will), they should also care about society. If the ship goes down, it doesn’t matter how well your kids are doing — we’re all going under. We need a balance between the public vs. private good — something that is out of balance today. That doesn’t have to mean that we don’t care about our kids and we solely care about the collective. Although our country started to have the conversation around structural racism last summer, I’m worried that some of the other stuff that’s going on will overshadow it.
Brian Lowery: What’s your prediction of the consequence of the pandemic in terms of educational outcomes?
Michael Drake: This has been a horrific challenge for the world in so many ways. Within our university community, we work every day to try to keep things moving forward. I’m more concerned about the K-12 world and children losing vital years of their life in a precious time of development. We’ll need to try to regain the time lost by students. COVID-19 has been an incredible magnifier of inequality, particularly for younger people. As a country, we have to focus all of our time and attention on getting that ship to shore.
Sean Reardon: The pandemic has compounded our already prevalent structural and economic inequality. The economic differences in families are dramatically greater than the economic disparities in schools. Although schools differ among communities, they don’t differ in the same magnitude. Schools have been an equalizing force, even if they’re not entirely equal. Everyone is suffering from this pandemic in different ways, but the kids whose families don’t have resources will feel it much more strongly.