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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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Nearly nine out of ten students in California finish high school, eventually. But averages are dangerous abstractions. Imagine that you are in a Starbucks when Bill Gates walks in.

On average, you just became a billionaire. Right?

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 versus 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.)

Educational failure is expensive. 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 social costs are real and high

A small increase in the growth rate of high school graduation rate translates to billions of extra dollars.

When children don’t get the education they need, everyone loses. The cost of failure is enormous. Scholars have tried to quantify the social costs:

  • A 2014 study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project estimated that the impact of social losses caused by high school dropouts costs the state $37-$56 billion per cohort. Besides the consequences for the state of California, this loss affects tax revenue too - they estimated that the aggregate impact for California taxpayers is a loss of $11-$17 billion per class cohort.
  • A 2013 report by Fight Crime Invest in Kids summarized the costs with a report from the perspective of law enforcement under the provocative title I'm the Guy You Pay Later.
  • To examine how investment in the quality of public elementary schools affects crime rates, researchers at the University of Michigan followed the outcomes of two groups of students. They found that improving the quality of public schools is an effective way to reduce crime in the long term. Specifically, students who attended the better-funded elementary school were 15% less likely to be arrested by age 30 than those who did not.
  • In a 2021 study of national data by the University of California San Diego, researchers found that every $1,000 per pupil spent by a school district led to a 2.35% decrease in property crime.
  • In 2009, as the nation was emerging from a recession, a report by McKinsey argued that the failure to address achievement gaps created what amounted to a permanent recession, causing the US economy to underperform by many billions of dollars.
  • 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 picked up the topic, commissioning research and coining the rather optimistic term opportunity youth for youth aged 16-24 who are neither in school nor working. The term changed again, (to disconnected youth) in a series of reports from Measure of America, a project that compiles data about this costly, hard-to-serve segment. (See interactive charts.) In the aggregate, if America could persistently "connect" all young people as full participants in America's economy, our nation's balance sheet would expand on the order of about $5 trillion in taxes paid and direct costs avoided. That was trillion, with a "T," in case you missed it.

The cost of a year of prison is about seven times the cost of a year of education. This ratio is even higher in California than in most other states, but the long-term rising costs of incarceration are a national challenge. Since 1970, in every state expenditures for incarceration have grown faster than investments in education.

Don't get confused by this statistic. Keeping someone in a prison for a year is much more expensive than educating a student for a year, but there are far more students than prisoners. Governments spend significantly more on their education systems than they do on their prison systems. In context, investing in young people is cheap - and worth it.

Taxpayers are not the only ones that benefit, of course, when an at-risk student (or opportunity youth or disconnected youth) persists in school. The biggest beneficiary is the student. 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

Schooling advances social mobility, especially for those who need it most... but not equally for all.

Social mobility is the movement of individuals or families within or between social strata in a society. This can happen within a generation or intergenerationally. However, not all children have the same magnitude of social mobility. For example, Black boys are less likely to move up the social ladder. A New York Times article allows you to make your own animated chart to explore the income mobility of different social groups. The Opportunity Atlas offers another interactive graph of child outcomes in neighborhoods across America. A study by Raj Chetty and others indicates that schooling, combined with efforts to achieve racial integration within neighborhoods and schools, can help minority children advance social mobility.

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.” In the 2019 report, this advantage was unchanged.

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 behind earnings for white men.

Deficit-Attention Disorder

Because the social cost of failure is 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 2017 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 and how success is defined from their perspective.

Updated May 2, 2017 to incorporate new info about the comparative cost of a year of prison vs. school.

Updated May 2018, February 2019, August 2021, and July 2022.


What effect does education have on expensive social problems like crime?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 13, 2022 at 6:31 pm
Education vs Prison costs:

You can find a 40 state data analysis in the link below:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 13, 2022 at 6:31 pm
Education vs Prison costs:

You can find a 40 state data analysis in the link below:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 13, 2022 at 6:31 pm
Education vs Prison costs:

You can find a 40 state data analysis in the link below:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 13, 2022 at 6:28 pm
USA Facts complies data on high school drop out rates sliced and diced into many different categories. Gender, ethnicity, etc etc. the link below includes data up to 2020.
user avatar
June 26, 2018 at 9:32 am
Please speak up NOW to increase investment in CA K-12 education. AB 2808, supported by the CA PTA, to increase the LCFF base grant, is now in the Ca Senate Education Committee. You can support this bill - within seconds - on the FREE Click My Cause Two-Tap app. When the bill needs your voice, a PTA Council will send you a mobile alert. Then, Tap 1: open mobile alert, Tap 2: message Sacramento decision-makers.
user avatar
Sonya Hendren September 3, 2018 at 3:32 pm
Looks like this bill is still in progress: What else can we do to support it?
user avatar
Caryn September 10, 2018 at 9:29 am
Great question, Sonya. You should always feel free to contact your state legislator. Ed100 readers, any other suggestions for Sonya?
user avatar
francisco molina August 12, 2019 at 9:54 pm
I believe we need to send an invitation to the legislators to enroll in the ED100 program. We need to educate them, too!
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
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
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
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
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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