Our Take

Our Education System Is Like Trading Places…and Not in a Good Way

Eddie Murphy was barely 22 when the film Trading Places was released in 1983. He steals every scene as Billy Ray Valentine, a street-wise hustler who’s brought into a stuffy commodities brokerage as part of an elaborate bet between the awful Duke brothers who run the place. To settle their debate over nature versus nurture, the brothers decide to switch the lives of two unsuspecting people on opposite ends of the social hierarchy and see what happens. One brother wagers that Valentine, though lacking any formal training or experience in the industry, will quickly become a success when placed in the right surroundings. He’s right.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how our education system is basically a bizarro version of Trading Places—where instead of giving opportunities to students who have all the skills they need to excel, but are missing the resources to do so, we give those opportunities to kids who already have more to begin with. It’s more nightmare than fairy tale. 

You can read the depressing details in a new report from Georgetown’s excellent Center on Education and the Workforce titled Born to Win, Schooled to Lose. It shows that even when economically disadvantaged students have above average test scores in kindergarten, those students are likely to regress to below average by eighth grade. They face constant headwinds. Meanwhile, kids from more advantaged backgrounds are likely to rise even if they are below average as kindergartners.

The authors conclude: “Thus, the likelihood of success is too often determined not by a child’s innate talent, but by his or her life circumstances.” Ouch.

The report deals a blow to anyone who thinks students from low-income backgrounds struggle because there is something wrong with their families or their communities. After all, such students had the same families and communities when they showed up at kindergarten, well-prepared and ready to conquer the world. However, the longer they spent in our schools, the less they capitalized on their potential. We documented this same pattern in Lost in the Crowd last year, where we profiled high-achieving kids from low-income families and found that their talents were often languishing in school as students advanced. The problem isn’t the kids, in other words. It’s us.

What are we doing wrong? More than anything, we don’t treat every young person like we believe in them, like we think they can do it—and give them the tools to make it happen. This is the part Trading Places got right. In early scenes, Billy Ray Valentine is incredulous that the firm executives trust him. They allow him to make decisions. They give him a fancy office and a house. They treat him like he belongs and convey that they know he will succeed. Even though they’re scoundrels, their fake confidence empowers Valentine. He thrives.

If you’ve read The Opportunity Myth, you already know this is not how school works for plenty of smart kids. Instead, they get mushy assignments and low expectations that don’t prepare them to fulfill their dreams.

These are not easy problems to solve. But the good folks at Georgetown have reminded us that this is not inevitable. Our job is to create a system that opens doors instead of closing them.

You can usually catch Trading Places on Saturday afternoon cable television. It has a satisfying ending where the good guys win. If only we could say the same for our education system.