When President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law in December, he gushed about Antonio Martin, the eighth-grader who had introduced him. “He’s taking advanced classes to get a head start on high school credits. He plays the violin. He plays sports. He volunteers. He owns one share of stock in Tesla. So he’s clearly going places. I’d invest in him if I could,” the President told the press corps.
These days “investable” is high praise for a 13-year-old, and Antonio was in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building as a poster child for the latest round of federal education reform. But there’s a central contradiction in American education rhetoric between the universalism and the outstanding example: How can every student be exceptional?
The name of George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind Act was roundly panned in liberal circles as another egregious example of the administration’s doublespeak — John Kerry called it “one of those Orwellian names you pull out of the sky.” The law’s plan was to raise every student to adequate performance in testable subjects and create a floor for American education. It didn’t work out that way (unsurprisingly), but the law’s framing stuck. After all, no politician wants to run on leaving some children behind to ignorance and menial employment.
As a name, “Every Student Succeeds” ups the ante on “No Child Left Behind.” Adequacy is by definition a low standard, and being merely satisfactory doesn’t necessarily lead to better life outcomes than inadequacy. If public schools are preparing some students to succeed (and they had better be), then the schools must set up all students to succeed, or at least provide them the opportunity. “We want to make sure that through this piece of legislation, with our hard work, with our focus, with our discipline, with our passion, with our commitment, that every kid is given the same opportunities that Antonio is getting,” Obama said.
The President says he’s talking about opportunities, but he’s also talking about outcomes. It’s one thing to want all kids to have access to advanced classes, music instruction, sports teams and volunteer work. It’s another to expect them to take advantage of all of them at the same time. President Obama described Antonio as “doing his part” with his full load of curricular and extracurricular activities, but every student can’t be prepared for college: There just aren’t enough seats. Because admission is limited and competitive, only the top two-thirds or so can be, by definition, prepared for higher education. No matter how hard they work, how brilliant they are, the lowest-scoring cohort will be labeled unprepared and accused of not “doing their part.”
When American politicians talk about the benefits of education, they typically use a “rising tide lifts all boats” model. In his signing speech, President Obama said that “knowledge is really the single biggest determinant of economic performance.” He mentioned it in the context of competition between countries, but it’s the same way we think about individual kids. Education is what economists call a “non-rival” good; that is, my learning something doesn’t stop you from learning the same thing. No one can use up the periodic table or “Macbeth.” So if knowledge is abundant, and knowledge determines economic performance, then every student can succeed. Why not? They just need to study hard.
The boat metaphor is not a good one when it comes to performance. Knowledge is non-rival, but once the economy starts measuring, comparing and paying for it, competition enters the picture. And lifting all the boats doesn’t make much of a difference if they’re racing. High school is highly competitive; students fight for grades and extracurricular distinction and if they’re successful, a slot in a college freshman class. When every student gets A’s, analysts call it grade inflation; when every player gets a trophy, commentators call it coddling; and there aren’t enough university dorms to fit all the 18-year-olds in America. There is no possible way every student can succeed by these standards. American success, unlike knowledge, is relative and scarce.
Federal education rhetoric — Every Student Succeeds was a rare bipartisan bill — doesn’t make any more sense than printing a million dollars for each American as a solution to poverty. If you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor, a rising tide does not increase the number of spots on the winners podium. If every student works as hard as Antonio, then the competition between them becomes fiercer, the distinctions between winner and loser less defensible. Education serves competition, not the other way around.
In his statement President Obama used the word “work” 14 times, but not once did it refer to Antonio or other students who are expected to “do their part.” Instead, student “get opportunities” or “receive experience” or are “provided” with education. Such passive language hides the cutthroat work expected of successful students. The real winners are the people who benefit from all this student work: Employers, who get all the skilled labor they need at a competitively low cost.
If more education means more success, then the improving high school and college graduation rates should lead to greater success for more people. But, as Branko Milanovic of the Luxembourg Income Study Center details in a useful graph, we’ve seen the opposite: inequality just grows. Income from capital and labor has increased for decades. Capital income — real American success that comes from owning stuff — has a Gini inequality coefficient, which measures resource concentration, over .9; a 1 on the 0-to-1 Gini scale indicates a state of maximum inequality, where a single individual possess the full total.
Every student can’t succeed, either within a competitive scholastic system or the labor market it prepares most of them to enter. The vast majority will end up putting their hard-earned knowledge to work generating capital income for a small class whose membership is largely predetermined. In a September 2015 survey of U.S. and Canadian workers, 70 percent of Millennials expect to be in a management position within five years. Most of them are wrong. When President Obama declares the floor for educational achievement is now the ceiling, he must know it’s not any more possible than the government leaving no children behind. But to say the simple truth — kids are being prepared to fill roles in a deeply and increasingly unequal economy — is unthinkable.