Education Policy is Social Policy

  Education Policy is Social Policy
Sara Goldrick-Rab
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Interview with Sara Goldrick-Rab  (Audio Only)         Print Friendly and PDF

Great relief swept over me when I saw the theme for this year’s AERA – finally, we are led by a team of scholars who recognize the intimate connections between our educational institutions and broader societal structures, and encourage us to talk about those connections without fear that we are downplaying the urgency that schooling requires.

I came to occupy a School of Education with a doctorate in Sociology and training from professors who steeped me in the study of stratification, especially urban social change, segregation, and the politics of poverty and place. Frequently I have felt as a fish out of water, as I constantly draw on lessons from social policy arenas such as welfare and workforce development when I think about the challenges faced by educators and students.  The parallels are, to my mind, completely natural and informative, and large-scale solutions seem unreachable without consideration of how social and educational policies interact in intentional and often unintentional ways. I often argue that the only educational policies with real hope of generating meaningful improvements in closing achievement gaps, stimulating student engagement, or creating stability in the teacher workforce are those that have reframed these things as social challenges.

Is it really possible to address racial, gender, or income disparities inside schools or universities without attention to the powers that lie beyond the schoolhouse walls?  The short answer, I believe, is no.  Poverty manifests itself not only in the opportunities for learning students encounter, and the ability of their parents to interact with teachers but in the daily home settings they experience, the neighborhoods that surround them, the quality of the air they breath and food they eat, and in the labor market structures which surround their parents’ financial lives.   Schools are not total institutions, as asylums or militaries are apt to be; they cannot shut out the world, containing the children within.  Nor should we want them to. They reflect and affect our priorities, principles, and policies, and thus our growing educational failures are indicative of the wide-ranging misunderstandings and inattention this nation has paid to poverty itself.

This year witnessed the anniversary of Michael Harrington’s The Other America.  In 1962 Harrington made the nation uncomfortable by exposing us to an “underclass” of the truly disadvantaged we had all managed to ignore.  But apparently we were not made uncomfortable enough, since forty years later we live in a country that is tolerating the rapid rise of an even more devastating crisis: the childhoods of hunger being experienced by the eighty percent of poor children who do not receive any cash aid. While we educational researchers argue over teacher value-added and how to properly place students in remediation, elsewhere politicians are making decisions that will ensure that students arrive at school hungry and scared for decades to come.  That’s squarely in the domain of things we must understand and do something about, and while it is always easier to focus on one task at a time, we need to take it upon ourselves to reflect these competing interests in our research agendas and our policy work.

The reauthorization of the Temporary Aid for Needy Families block grant program, otherwise known as welfare reform, is long past due.  Reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act is pending in the next year. When Congress finally acts on this legislation, educational researchers must be involved.  Six years ago my colleagues and I published a book about the detrimental effects of those two policies, supported by Bill Clinton and many other liberals, which sharply curtailed college access for poor women.  That barely scratched the surface of the ways in which those “non-education” policies affected schooling.  There is much more work to do, given that welfare and workforce policies and the neoliberal paternalism guiding them affect the families raising the students we all care so much about.

The conference theme, Education and Poverty, is thus nothing short of a clarion call for a rethinking of the role of educational researchers.  In my optimistic view, it will spur Schools of Education to broaden their horizons, to adopt new frameworks to become Schools of Education and Social Policy, and to cross-train our students to think both big and small as we seek to address educational inequity.  That would be an enormous step towards relevance and impact, and it cannot come too soon.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She blogs at

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