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Lesson 1.4

Social Context:
The High Social Costs of Educational Failure

How much would you pay to keep a kid from breaking bad?

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The last lesson mentioned that, on average, about a third of California's students do not finish high school. Averages are useful but dangerous abstractions. Imagine that you are in a Starbucks when Bill Gates walks in.

On average, you just became a billionaire. Right?

In order to make sense of averages, it is useful to find meaningful subgroups within a data sample. In the Starbucks example, we can probably refine our understanding by taking Bill Gates out of the sample - he is clearly an outlier. But that still would give us a flawed understanding of the wealth in front of the counter vs. behind the counter.

"Dropouts" are not random

Let's leave the coffee shop and return to education. The classic symptom of educational failure is when a student stops coming to school. Students that "drop out" are not random – they are disproportionately African American and Latino, and they disproportionately come from low-income families. (Persistent, systematic differences in educational attainment by ethnicity, income or gender are known as achievement gaps, a subject much studied in California by Education Trust-West.)

Median earnings for young workers (age 25-34) varies considerably by educational attainment and gender. This chart is an annual feature of the widely-read Median earnings for young workers (age 25-34) varies considerably by educational attainment and gender. This chart is an annual feature of the widely-read "Education Pays” report by the College Board. Copyright © 2013.

In the dry, neutral language of social science: low educational attainment is correlated with various social costs, including unemployment, low taxable earnings, homelessness, crime, and poor health.

The costs are real, and high

"When a black male graduates... on average taxpayers benefit to the tune of about $294,000." -RAND

It's pointless to be neutral, though. When children don’t get the education they need, everyone loses. The cost of failure is enormous, and a variety of scholars have tried to quantify it.

  • In 2009 the RAND Corporation evaluated the likely average long-term benefit to taxpayers when a student graduates from high school rather than dropping out, adjusting for gender and ethnicity. When a black male graduates rather than dropping out of high school, RAND estimates that on average taxpayers benefit to the tune of about $294,000.
  • Work by McKinsey found similar effects, characterizing achievement gaps as the economic equivalent of a “permanent national recession.”
  • In 2011 the NAACP issued a report, Misplaced Priorities, to "track the steady shift of state funds away from education and toward the criminal justice system." In 2012, the White House Council for Community Solutions commissioned research in a similar vein, coining the rather optimistic term "opportunity youth" for youth aged 16-24 who are neither in school nor working. The report slices and dices the data about the massive direct and indirect costs to society associated with this segment. The report estimates that in the aggregate, opportunity youth burden our economy's balance sheet to the tune of approximately $5 trillion just in lost taxes and direct costs. That was trillion, with a "T," in case you missed it.

Taxpayers are not the only ones to benefit, of course, when an at-risk student persists in school. The biggest beneficiary is the student. Even leaving crime out of it, the personal stakes of educational attainment are huge. According to year after year of data from the US Census Bureau, economic prospects improve dramatically with every additional year of educational attainment.

Educational success benefits everyone

The College Board updates its ambitious Education Pays report every three years. According to the 2013 report, "during a 40 year full-time working life, the median earnings for bachelor’s degree recipients without an advanced degree are 65% higher than the median earnings of high school graduates.”

Wage chart Chart Source: “Education Pays” Copyright © 2013. The College Board.

As in the coffee shop, averages can lie. The Education Pays report does a good job of sketching the broad systematic variations. For example, at any given level of educational attainment, earnings for women and minorities lag earnings for white men. In 2010, Full Circle Fund (the sponsor of released a set of policy recommendations under the one-word title "EACH." The focus was on creating new policies that support thinking about education in terms of each student instead of in terms of averages, or even subgroups.

Deficit-Attention Disorder

Because the costs of failure are so high, it's easy to hyper-focus on the problems, ignoring the experiences of the young people who do quite well. Dr. Robert K. Ross, President and CEO of the California Endowment, calls this phenomenon "Deficit-Attention Disorder." In a 2016 report "The Counter Narrative," UCLA Professor Tyrone C. Howard flips the focus, exploring patterns of resilience and success among black and Latino males in Los Angeles County.


According to RAND, what is the long-term average aggregate difference to taxpayers between a black male student who drops out of high school and a black male student who graduates?

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user avatar
Jeff Camp December 9, 2016 at 1:52 pm
Ed100 Lesson 1.4 quantifies the high costs of educational failure, especially for boys of color. Because these costs are so high, it's easy to hyper-focus on the problems, ignoring the experiences of the young people who do quite well. Dr. Robert K. Ross, President and CEO of the California Endowment, calls this phenomenon "Deficit-Attention Disorder." In a 2016 report "The Counter Narrative," UCLA Professor Tyrone C. Howard flips the focus, exploring patterns of success among black and Latino males in Los Angeles County. The report is well-written and includes a two-page summary of action recommendations. I thought the four-bullet summary on page 24 was particularly clarifying. Download it here:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 17, 2015 at 12:56 am
The cost of a year of prison is about five times the cost of a year of education. This ratio is higher in California than in most other states.
user avatar
davidstephen72 August 26, 2015 at 9:59 pm
Not surprising is information that now reveals a host of predictors for dismal future failure for youth: the absence of a father in the home, alcohol, drug use in the home,
low attendance in school, etc.
user avatar
hannahmacl March 15, 2015 at 1:15 pm
Does education have a formal role in preventing expensive social problems? Should it?
If this suggests that the schools undertake responsibility for solving social problems, then I would say 'no'. However, if education would highlight and publicize and advocate, then 'yes'. In Los Angeles, issues such as inadequate housing, health challenges, and low wage jobs, exacerbated by inadequate transportation, none of which are within schools' purview, profoundly impact students' education.
user avatar
davidstephen72 June 17, 2015 at 9:40 am
Where else does socialization and respect for oneself and others occur if not in our schools?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 20, 2015 at 11:46 pm
Hi, David. The role of school in developing character skills and social skills is explored in Lesson 6.13 and 6.14.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 6:42 am
It's always about the $$$$$$. How do you define "at risk"? There are plenty of wealthy kids in our district who have the same problems as the hispanics and blacks. Schools need to be given enough funding to provide programs to both students AND parents who need help - no matter their race. Quit focusing on testing and achievement scores and give kids a reason to attend every day. Our school is so engaging that our kids WANT to go every day - they DON'T want to be absent. The incentive is that they love their teachers and genuinely enjoy going to class. Teachers are underpaid yet they show up every day ready to teach. THAT is what a successful school looks like and THAT is why kids will come to school. Also - at least in San Diego transportation is the responsibility of the parent. It requires that I work part time, just to get my kids to school, because the district doesn't get them there in order for me to work. Providing transportation doesn't really give kids a reason not to be to school, on time, ready to learn.
user avatar
davidstephen72 June 17, 2015 at 9:44 am

Tell that to our agricultural workers, Walmart's and Sam's Club's workers, and those that slave in factories and fast food eateries!

Overpaid are the administrators if I may say so.

A local Superintendent of a small district is paid $229,000.

What a ripoff!

Remember the recent hubbub about two Superintendents who made over $500,000 per year?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 20, 2015 at 11:43 pm
Hi, David. This lesson (1.4) focuses on the implications of educational failure for the individual, the community and wider society. The trends in teacher pay are explored in Chapter 3, which focuses on teachers. Administrators are discussed in lesson 5.6.
user avatar
Brandi Galasso February 7, 2015 at 8:04 pm
Its not always about not enough funding, its how your school uses funding. Our school employees 4 people in our office to do job of 1 person who doesnt do there job. And title I funds wasted on an office worker.
user avatar
Brandi Galasso February 7, 2015 at 8:00 pm
The problem is because schools are not engaging or keeping kids engagd in school. Schools need to provide a lot more than just drilling information into their heads. Kids need activities that are also not only educational but fun. Involving them in school activities and letting them feel they are a part of something. They also need to be show what more besides the streets is out there for them. Afterschool activities for the kids who go hang out on stretts.
user avatar
anamendozasantiago February 5, 2015 at 5:05 pm
I Strongly agree Sherry Schnell. The impact of not properly funding our neediest students can be seen when student with behavioral problems are passed from blaming parents to blaming teacher and no help is given to the student. When not blaming each other, parent blames ignorance and the district blames lack of funding and then they are both surprised when that same student ends up in the prison system and the same conversation continue. At our school; our psychologist offers our 800 + students four hours a week....Between paperwork and socializing, How many minutes can they offer our students?
user avatar
Sherry Schnell January 22, 2015 at 9:23 am
The state of California does not provide enough funding to meet even the basics that public schools should provide. My sense is that the "extra" money schools receive for targeted subgroups goes for things like librarians and nurses. Let's fund the basics adequately so that the supplemental is really supplemental and can be used to achieve its goals.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 22, 2015 at 9:49 pm
@Sherry: These topics are explored in chapter 8, which focuses on resources for education. The skimpy state of California's education funding is discussed in lesson 8.1. Lesson 8.5 explains the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which is California's system for targeting education funding toward districts in a manner that reflects needs. Under LCFF, districts are in control of the decisions about how to use their scarce funds -- including hiring nurses and librarians.
user avatar
Steven N June 20, 2014 at 3:00 pm
2014 California, Local Control Funding Formula = Supplementary $ for "target" students: is it fair, is it good policy (Return On Investment) to commit this money district wide, or should it go just to specific programs for specific poor students? It is so easy to not reform the system and, in a mixed district, just continue as was. Even when there is a wide documented disparity in academic proficiency - the wealth of the district will usually pull the money. To prevent this - takes a well organized and vocal group of families and advocates for the children of the poor. I'm sure no one is surprised how successful the wealthy are at advocacy.
Social welfare & the poverty gap in education - can be met by more programs for those in most need. Will California local school boards insist on this outcome?
user avatar
Michael Rebell March 7, 2011 at 7:28 am
This is important data. I would add to it the fact that the number and percentage of children living in poverty in the U.S., which is already huge, is growing. It will soon hit 25%. This is the highest percentage of childhood poverty of any industrialized country in the Western and Asian worlds ( Finland and Denmark have childhood poverty rates of 3-4%. Poverty breeds dropouts, among other things. So investments in education must ensure not only that all students have meaningful educational opportunitites, but also that the vital needs of children from poverty backgrounds for early childhood services, health, extended time and family support are met.
user avatar
davidstephen72 August 26, 2015 at 10:28 pm
Sorry, gang, but "poverty" can not and MUST not be cited for failure of students in school. Cases in point: Abraham Lincoln (attended one year of school--no Kindergartten either); Thomas A. Edison (drop out in fifth grade); and so many others.

Answer: start earlier than Kindergarten and not just Headstart or Child Care.
create a "Mommy & Me" Program long before they even enter Kindergarten.
One adult with each child in class is the key to prevent later failures in high school
user avatar
Jenny N September 22, 2015 at 5:08 pm
David, I'm not familiar with Mommy & Me programs within the public school system, maybe I'm assuming, but I am a working mom who unfortunately wouldn't have been able to spend three hours a day, three days a week in a classroom with my child. I would imagine that other working parents would be in the same situation and especially those with the burden of sometimes multiple, hourly wage jobs. I'm not sure how you can discount poverty in this discussion. There are so many day to day barriers that poverty creates. Maybe you can share more to help me better understand the program you're advocating.
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