Motivation and the hope of mobility

Scanning the edublogosphere this week, I came across a recent post by Larry Ferlazzo.  He moves from a recent paper on how students’ perceptions of their future prospects affect their willingness to “persist” with academic challenges.    The paper,  “Perceptions of Socioeconomic Mobility Influence Academic Persistence among Low Socioeconomic Status Students,” (you can read a pre-publication copy here)  makes for interesting reading.

The authors point out that, while some challenges to succes that face students of lower socioeconomic status (SES) are obvious enough,  some of them are a less obvious.  What happens, for example, if you are told repeatedly that education is the path to a desirable future success in life, “characterized by stable employment and a respectable income”  but you don’t see that working out for others? They suggest that “low-SES students’ perceptions of socioeconomic mobility reflect an overarching and powerful…contextual cue that influences their psychological inclination when faced with academic difficulty.”   Therefore, they argue that students who believe that social mobility is not a fact in their society will be less motivated to persist.

It’s worth stopping here to note that “social mobility” as here defined does not necessarily equate to “upward mobility,”  whose likelihood is often measured by the probability that I will do better than my parents did.  It is widely reported that upward mobility has been stagnant in the US since the 1970s;  a widely cited study by Chetty et al. (see here for a journalistic account) suggests that this rate is not that different from what it was in the previous three decades.  In any case, I tend to agree with Neil Gilbert’s argument that “upward mobility” is not the metric for economic progress that we should be most focused on. Rather we ought to care about prosperity — economic quality of life, if you will.  Upward mobility was a big feature of American life in the middle of the 20th century — as the trend to 2-earner families gathered momentum, for example.  Browman et al’s focus on students’ expectations of “stable employment and a decent income” fits with this point of view.

The study (actually 3 studies, two with high school students and with university students) shows that if your social milieu is telling you that a good education doesn’t buy you a good job, you are going to be less inclined to persist through academic hard times.  If you see people for whom the promise tends to be fulfilled, that will provide positive motivation.    Thus, we see another link between social conditions and the development of young people’s sense of agency (or powerlessness), in this case in the important though limited sphere of schooling.It is a cautionary tale. Ferlazzo responds with a series of suggestions for ways to address students’ sense of agency, or otherwise motivating them to stick with school.

My own reflections take another turn:  If school’s value from the learner’s point of view is primarily extrinsic — the (possibly illusory) likelihood of financial reward (in the hardly-real Future) — there are very many reasons for a student to dismiss it in favor of more vivid, more accessible, and more evidently vital concerns.  This seems quite reasonable to me.  It turns out that people are not only economic beings.  While economic stability (state income and decent income) is of great importance, human flourishing encompasses more than this.

What Larry Cuban has called (in an excellent series of posts, check them out starting here) the “new vocationalism” has taken over most rationales for education (something often lamented in this space).  The rhetoric supporting this school-as-training view of education has often led to distorted representations of employment trends and opportunities — more the result of industry self-interest and special pleading than of sober engagement with education for a diverse, democratic society.  Cuban writes, in a passage that echoes the best of Gerry Bracey,

Today, high tech entrepreneurs and CEOs lament the need to outsource coding to other countries and import software engineers from India and elsewhere (but do it nonetheless on special visas) pointing to the lack of U.S. graduates skilled in programming, systems analysis, and computer support. The growth rate in such jobs will continue to escalate by 2020. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that computer and information technology jobs will grow by a half-million from 3.9 million in 2016 to 4.4 million in 2020.

Keep in mind, however, that the U.S. economy now employs nearly 164 million workers. Those technical jobs in 2020 would represent less than three percent of the overall workforce. Far larger growth in jobs will occur, according to recent estimates, in health care and social assistance (almost six million), professional and business services (nearly four million), and construction (nearly two million) far surpassing computer and information technology (half-million).

Coding for all U.S. students to prepare for jobs that represents less than three percent of the workforce?

Many who propagandize about the power of education to improve people’s lives of course really care about social improvement.  The focus on the economic/vocational argument, however, which sees the developing child primarily as a future economic factor, opens the possibility (if not the certainty) of promises that ring false to far too many.  The costs to the individuals and to society are incalculable.  Even as we face the gathering storms of climate change, and the continuing threats of war and social chaos, there are few “values” issues more important to engage than the nature of education.


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