Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Opportunity in America Volume 16 Number 2 Fall 2006

U.S. Elementary and Secondary Schools: Equalizing Opportunity or Replicating the Status Quo?
Cecilia Elena Rouse Lisa Barrow


In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “The job of the school is to teach so well that family background is no longer an issue.” As King's remark suggests, Americans have long had high expectations for their educational system. One reason they demand so much from their schools is that education is closely linked both to income and to occupation. Better educated individuals earn more and work in more prestigious occupations. Indeed, because education affects both income and occupation, it is traditionally thought to be important in determining an adult's socioeconomic status.

Figure 1 shows the relationship between years of completed schooling and annual earnings, using data from the March 2003 and 2004 Current Population Survey (CPS). On average, high school graduates with twelve years of schooling earn nearly $26,000 a year, as against about $19,000 for high school dropouts with only eleven years of schooling. Completing a high school degree is also a prerequisite for college admission, and the value of a college degree, particularly a four-year college degree, has increased sharply over the past twenty-five years. In 1979, adults with a bachelor's degree or higher earned roughly 75 percent more each year than high school graduates. By 2003, their yearly earnings were more than double (2.3 times) those of high school graduates.1

Even if an individual does not intend to go on to college, a high school diploma is a minimum education requirement for many jobs. Although direct information on occupational requirements is not available, high school graduates in the 2004 CPS Outgoing Rotation Group data are more likely than high school dropouts to work in the highest-wage occupation groups—management, architecture and engineering, computers, and the law. For example, 7.1 percent of adults aged twenty-five to sixty-five who have completed high school, but no college, work in one of those occupation groups, as against only 2.6 percent of adults who dropped out of high school. Conversely, 26 percent of high school dropouts work in the lowest-average-wage occupational groups—food preparation and service; farming, fishing, and forestry; and building and grounds cleaning and maintenance— compared with 11.5 percent of high school graduates.2

Education is thus an important driver of upward mobility in the United States. But as we document below, America's schools fail to fulfill King's vision. A U.S. child's educational attainment is strongly linked to his or her family background, and children of parents of low socioeconomic status are likely as adults to have the same socioeconomic status as their parents. In this article we investigate why family background is so important in determining a child's educational attainment, as well as how the nation's K–12 educational system perpetuates this pattern.