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The Education Trap: How Our Homes Make or Break Our Children’s Opportunities


It’s hard to write about education knowing I could have been, but wasn’t, denied all the opportunities that have come my way. For all the decisions we have control over in life, where we go to school as children is not one of them. Yet, of course, it’s one of the most important.

Where I went to school, in suburban America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, test scores were among the best in the world, and so were college enrollment rates. My own experience was a testament to both. Had I grown up elsewhere, I doubt I would been so lucky—or done so well in my subsequent career.

In this country more than in most, the quality of education is strongly tied to location. American schools receive the majority of their funding from local, rather than state or federal, taxes. Those who earn more, spend more. As a result, they usually get more in return.

For a long time, economists only had descriptive evidence suggesting that housing values were to blame for this disparity. Then, in 1999, Sandra Black wrote a now-classic paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that confirmed what most of us had suspected all along. Black collected test scores and housing prices for a variety of Boston suburbs, and she separated them by attendance districts. In neighboring districts, she compared households close to the border. On either side of the border, the households lived in the same neighborhood. They had the same demographics. They were, by all relevant metrics, identical. The only difference was the school their kids attended.

Black found that kids living in more expensive houses attended schools with significantly higher test scores. Just to move across the border to a better school—less than one-tenth of a mile in many cases—would cost a family thousands and thousands of dollars. One can only imagine how large the gap is when the good schools are even further away.

This is not a problem that solves itself. On the contrary, it compounds over time. Children in poorer households are precisely the ones who need a better education to navigate our network-oriented employment system and complex financial system if they want any chance at escaping the disadvantage into which they were born. Instead, they wind up in a cycle of lower-end jobs and limited access to credit that leaves them with few choices, with their kids winding up in the same low-quality schools, perpetuating the disadvantage down through the generations.

What a counterproductive irony.

In development economics, there’s a term for this vicious cycle. It’s called a “poverty trap.” Developing nations often face this problem when they can’t afford to invest in the improvements that they need to escape their low standard of living.

But—I can’t stress this enough—we are not a developing nation. We are not lacking resources. We have ample means to invest in homes and neighborhoods where parents can’t afford to provide a quality education for their children.

And, what’s more, we know how to do it.

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Every other year, the American Economic Association awards the John Bates Clark Medal to the “best” economist under the age of 40. In some ways, it’s even harder to win than the Nobel Prize. This year, it went to an economist from Harvard named Roland Fryer, who has devoted his young career to finding and understanding successful strategies to boost achievement in disadvantaged students. What Fryer discovered may forever change the way you think about education.

When most people hear the word “education,” they picture a school. That’s why, when politicians talk about improving education, they focus on things like class size, per-pupil spending, and teacher training. Fryer found that none of these things are correlated with better outcomes. In fact, in multiple papers with various co-authors, Fryer has found that sending kids to better schools only reduces the “achievement gap” by a small fraction.

Education, Fryer teaches us, is not just a school. Education is a community. Education is home.

The most effective education, according to Fryer’s research, is a program like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which combines high-quality schools with community programs. They prepare the kids before they’re old enough to attend school. They run after-school programs like karate, dance, and tutoring. They counsel the students through the college admissions process. They offer health services and even tax preparation services to the families.

When you really think about it, Fryer’s work isn’t surprising at all. Those of us who had the good fortune to grow up in stable homes and communities know that we were shaped and guided and aided by more than just our classrooms. We had parents and doctors and mentors and coaches who helped us and encouraged us and gave us what we needed to excel in those classrooms.

The only surprising thing is how easily we forget all these diverse factors that make up a child’s education.

Education starts at home, and the influence of that home doesn’t end when children go to school. They carry their home everywhere they go, from the sense of safety they feel in their neighborhood to the resources they can access in their locally-financed classroom.

Some of us grew up in homes that afforded us the educational opportunities we needed to achieve the American dream. Many did not. For them, and for the generations who will come after them, we must break this persistent trap.

These are our children. They didn’t ask to be born into their homes. They didn’t choose to go to their schools. It’s up to us, as guardians of our nation’s future, to open the door for them to access the America we have been so blessed to enjoy.

This article is written by Dr. Raphael Bostic. He is the Judith and John Bedrosian Chair in Governance and the Public Enterprise at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Photo Credits:

Roland Fryer photo courtesy of Nathalie Azoulai, January 2016


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