The distribution of rewards in America today is still relatively merit-based. However, the extent of economic and social mobility is difficult to assess. One optimistic indicator of mobility is that wealth differences across siblings remain fairly high. Another optimistic indicator is that educational attainment continues to rise with each generation, particularly among immigrants. On the pessimistic side, the trend toward smaller families tends to reduce sibling variation, and my guess is that it reduces the deviation of children's social standing relative to their parents.
Another pessimistic trend would be more stratified marital habits. Fifty years ago, a college-educated male was much more likely to meet and to marry a female with average or below-average cognitive ability than is the case today. Stratified marriages will produce stratified children. As cognitive skills become increasingly important determinants of wealth, we may see a reduction in intergenerational mobility across income classes.
Despite the strong incentives, the percentage of people with college degrees has been growing only modestly. Between 1995 and 2005, the share of men with college degrees inched up to 29% from 26%. And the number of high school dropouts remains stubbornly high: The ratio of 17-year-olds to diplomas awarded has been stuck around 70% for three decades.
...The problem is a lack of elementary self-discipline: failing to stay in school, failing to live within the law, failing to get and stay married to the mother or father of your children. The prevalence of all these pathologies reflects a dysfunctional culture that fails to invest in human capital.
Other, less acute deficits distinguish working-class culture from that of the middle and upper classes. According to sociologist Annette Lareau, working-class parents continue to follow the traditional, laissez-faire child-rearing philosophy that she calls "the accomplishment of natural growth." But at the upper end of the socioeconomic scale, parents now engage in what she refers to as "concerted cultivation" -- intensively overseeing kids' schoolwork and stuffing their after-school hours and weekends with organized enrichment activities.
Brink is probably right to curb my enthusiasm about the rate at which educational attainment is increasing. But I think he's wrong to quote a sociologist whose work I'm betting would be demolished by Judith Rich Harris.
Rick Hanushek shows that working with great teachers four years in a row can eliminate the performance gap between low income and high income students However, what makes a great teacher has little to do with education or experience. He says that the missing factor is unknown but probably innate.
I suggest that the missing factor is the ability to gain a student's trust. The ability of a teacher to convince a student to disregard that giant data set called her community and instead believe the message the teacher is painting. This often requires disregarding parents as well.