First, thank you for the thoughtful and well-written responses and questions. I would love to discuss further. I’m going to try to address as much as I can somewhat succinctly. I’ve developed a more full theory of change here and would love to hear your thoughts if you get the chance. I’m going to address these by point rather than as a whole because it gets confusing.

I’m not sure that I agree: Schooling is a socio-economic policy. From an economic perspective, schooling involves (perhaps among other things) the production (or development) of human resources. Schooling (at least as it is typically practiced) is also a very social process. The legislative decision to require a minimum amount of schooling, whether motivated by a desire to ensure a capable workforce, to support a strong democracy, to build a more beautiful society, or any of a number of other reasons, is a social policy with economic implications. As part of the socio-economic system, schooling has the potential to contribute to the reduction of socio-economic inequalities.

Yes, this is a comment/question that arises frequently in conversations and this is a classic view — specifically it’s a classic economic, or sometimes political science, lens. This is one valid purpose for schooling — the need to serve current socio-economic institutions — a.k.a. social efficiency. It’s one of four different purposes we have for schooling. I know you’ve read the next piece on the purposes of schooling, but the terms I use here (i.e. “aims”, “purposes”, and the different labels) are more fully defined there. The framework presented there was developed to help us identify and name our implicit or explicit assumptions about the purpose of school (and thus our theories of change), and to differentiate purposes from aims.

As with each of the four core purposes, social efficiency is a valid purpose of all formal schooling, and most education. Every society needs a way to ensure the social and economic institutions function efficiently. In the best sense social efficiency means that those who have skill in, and enjoy, certain functional roles are prepared to undertake them. In Dewey’s words, “social efficiency as an educational purpose should mean cultivation of power to join freely and fully in shared or common activities” because “a society is stably organized when each individual is doing that for which he has aptitude by nature in such a way as to be useful to others” (Dewey in Democracy and Education).

However, the practice of schooling itself cannot be organized to achieve social efficiency. Social efficiency is an instrumental purpose: it uses schooling as an institution to achieve pre-determined, extrinsic ends. The aims do not relate to the process of schooling, but rather the production of certain kinds of workers. Success from a social efficiency perspective is not measured through the intrinsic process of schooling — it is measured through extrinsic metrics like growth in gross domestic product, economic performance relative to other countries, or the number of STEM professionals produced. Often, scores from international standardized tests are used as proxies for measuring how successfully school is achieving these aims.

I won’t go into too much more depth since it’s covered more in the next article, but in addition to identifying that you’re implicitly applying a social efficiency purpose in your statement, my point is there is a big difference between a purpose (a reason why we have schooling), and the aims for which we should organize the actual practice of schooling. How to organize what happens in school is a logically separate question from why we might have or sustain schooling as an institution.

To further explain, I need to rely on some philosophy and logic. Drawing on Rawls’ “Two Concepts of Rules” (Rawls 1955), Allen (2014, 2016) discusses the need to distinguish between three logically separate justifications for schooling: 1) how we justify establishing an institution as a state; 2) how we justify sponsoring or maintaining the institution or practice over time; and, 3) the kinds of practices that need to happen within it to make it successful. These three levels are logically separate: any overlap or similarity is “merely accidental.” Allen explains the implications of this for our thinking about education concisely and eloquently in her 2014 Tanner lecture on the relationship between equality and education (read the full book here):

“Analysts of education move in a perpetual circle when they argue over its proper justification: economic competitiveness, the development of citizens, or enablement of a eudaimonistic human flourishing… the logic of education makes two different kinds of justification relevant to the practice. There is the justification for the state’s maintenance of a system of education and the justification for particular instances of teaching carried out within that system…

Rawls’ neat distinction, then, between the justification for rules that structure practices and the justification for rules that structure the activities conducted in the context of that practice helps us to see that thinking about education requires us to think on two levels. And we have to understand when each level of justification is relevant. It is reasonable to think about social utility and about how a whole educational system might achieve social utility. It may even be necessary to do that. But the justification for particular instances of educating must instead be eudaimonistic.”

In schooling, this means social efficiency can be a purpose, a reason we maintain the system, but shouldn’t be used to organize the actual practice. And it means we need to be careful about the kinds of evidence we use when examining the different levels, and even more so the evidence we use to change school practices.

When the question at hand is one of utility and related to maintenance of the system, for instance, “Should education be provided by the state?”, it is logical and valid to use instrumental aims to guide research and analysis. Questions related to aims in individual and social efficiency quadrants might include analyses of the “return on investment” of different levels of schooling at the individual and societal levels, the extent to which the collective is better off when everyone is educated, the extent to which current economic positions are being adequately filled, the relationship between test scores and different life outcomes, and more. These use the goals of the current society and assess the extent to which schooling contributes to them.

However, when the questions at hand are, “What is the best way to structure teaching and learning?” or “How should the school experience be structured?”, then the efficiency analyses are NOT relevant. These questions must be answered using intrinsic aims of individual and social possibility.

For instance, let’s say we figure out we don’t have enough people with extensive expertise in the kinds of math we need to fill computer engineering jobs. While this is important, it doesn’t tell us how to organize our math instruction to better achieve this. Right now what we tend to do is say we should better maximize math test scores (whether PISA or otherwise), but this frequently leads to more rote memorization and teaching for tests as administrators try to hold teachers accountable for growth in math knowledge, the pressure to achieve these metrics ironically ends up undermining students’ ability to develop precisely the deeper kinds of knowledge they need to be able to think mathematically and apply math to real world problems. Knowing we don’t have enough students with a deep understanding of mathematics is important — but that kind of finding doesn’t translate the way we think it does into direct control/organization/structuring of the school experience.

On the other hand, the “build a more beautiful society” part of your list is something schools can directly contribute to, but this requires a vision of what constitutes a beautiful society and the implications for how we must then learn to relate to and work with one another, and what that means for the capacities, character, and beliefs individuals within the society need to develop.


Let’s take, for example, your suggestion that “if 50% of jobs don’t pay a living wage, then 50% of people won’t have a living wage — even if everyone gets a Ph.D.” This would certainly be true if jobs were a fixed resource. However, jobs are created and destroyed, and a systems perspective suggests that we should consider how increased levels of schooling in the population could affect the creation and destruction of jobs, particularly of jobs that pay a living wage. An appropriate type of schooling may equip students to take advantage of previously unexploited economic opportunities, creating new jobs, which may or may not pay a living wage, depending on a host of other factors.

Yes, this is absolutely true. It is possible for the number of jobs paying a living wage to increase, or for people to exploit previously unknown economic opportunities. However, in the way you’ve put it here even, it’s clear that it’s not something schools can DO. Schools cannot DO job creation (particularly not for students in some unknown future). Students leaving school today are entering the most unequal economic situation in the U.S. since the 1920s. Their schools cannot address this directly. The connection between how we do school and future job creation or destruction is not linear, and it certainly is not the only factor in job creation/destruction, as you note.

You’re right in that it’s how we do school that matters (the intrinsic processes and experience) because what schools can do is create environments in which students’ core needs are met and create experiences that allow students to practice the capacities, character, and beliefs they need to make informed decisions about their lives, according to their values, and to work with others to make the world a better place — whether that includes starting businesses that pay a living wage, or working together for political change.

Done well, schooling would prepare a population of citizens who are equipped to deliberate, actively engage in, and renew the economic and political institutions if they’re not working for the majority of people. You can organize schooling to do this — the individual and social possibility purposes because this is what schools can do directly through how we structure and organize the experiences of the people in them — schools can develop and socialize individuals and create community — but if you design for the individual and social efficiency purposes, you undermine the very processes and experiences that would allow school to play its potential indirect role in achieving social efficiency aims.

Interestingly, something that’s rarely discussed is that a country’s future economic growth is more highly correlated (with some causal evidence) with trust in society than with human capital, per se, and trust is also correlated with political stability. Fostering trust within communities and within a nation is something schools could be organized to do.


Some socio-economic policies function as “breaks” on inter-generational systems dynamical processes that contribute to widening socio-economic inequalities. For example, the estate tax reduces the amount of wealth that parents can pass on to children, and this redistribution of wealth limits how quickly one family can race ahead in the accumulation of wealth (in principle, at least — current implementations of this policy may or may not be effective at accomplishing this, of course). Universal schooling has the potential to act as another kind of break on the inter-generational processes that drive socio-economic inequalities. Consider parents who have had some “bad breaks” in life and experience a reduction in wealth: These parents have fewer resources to invest into the development of their children’s human capital, which reduces their children’s chances of excelling economically. But with universal schooling, society reinvests these parents’ children with resources beyond the family’s independent means, reducing (though not eliminating) the starting gap between children from wealthy families and children from poor families.

All of this is to say that schooling is part of the socio-economic system, so from a systems perspective, schooling has a part to play in the analysis of the dynamics of socio-economic inequalities. But, this doesn’t mean that schooling must necessarily be framed in terms of competition for scarce economic resources.

I agree with you that it doesn’t necessarily mean schooling must be framed in terms of competition — this is exactly the point I’m arguing: we absolutely shouldn’t frame it this way. Yet we do. This is partly because we are skittish and not having conversations about the real ways we could address our growing economic inequality (and inequality’s deleterious impact on pretty much everything — check out Stiglitz’ The Price of Inequality for a good overview or The Spirit Level for another analysis).

The truth is that we have very little intergenerational mobility in the U.S. Schools can, as mentioned, be environments in which children can have their needs met, learn and grow and socialize. This may or may not contribute to economic mobility, but this relies on many, many factors beyond schools’ control, and many beyond individuals’ control.

Further, schooling cannot make up for social policies that fail to support low-income families. Countries that are serious about providing breaks on inter-generational processes that drive socio-economic inequality do it directly — through taxes and redistribution and the provision of basic needs like food, housing, healthcare, and education.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but current debates focus primarily on the social mobility aspect of schooling (rooted in the purpose of individual efficiency). These individual efficiency aims are likely to undermine the true role schooling could play in promoting equity: that of preparing all children to actively participate in a democracy. If, “Politics is the process by which a society chooses the rules that will govern it”, then having widespread participation in determining the rules is key to ensuring those rules are fair to everyone (as Acemoglu and Robinson argue in their book Why Nations Fail — about, as one might expect, why nations thrive or fail).

Democratic institutions and capitalist markets operate in a dynamic tension — and both need the other for their continued existence. It is through political equality that economic inequality is most likely to be addressed in a democracy. Unfortunately, economic inequality has been rising in the U.S. since the 1970s, and one of the major messages of Acemoglu and Robinson’s book, is that there is strong synergy between extractive economic systems and extractive political systems. In other words, there is a positive feedback loop between increasing economic inequality and increasing political inequality. Schooling, organized for democracy, could be one of the most effective ways to interrupt that cycle, but only if it is organized for individual and social possibility aims that socialize into, and allow for the practice of, democratic values.


I seem to recall from my high school economics class the idea of production frontiers — curves that show the trade-off in the efficient production of two goods based on how society distributes limited resources: Production outside of the curve isn’t possible given the current level of resources, but it is possible to move the production frontier if the society finds new economic resources to exploit (such as new mineral deposits or new farmland or the like). In this context, I wonder what insights a socio-economic perspective could provide about the possibility of schooling for moving the metaphorical socio-economic production frontier — what kind of schooling would we need in order to create new (human) resources to contribute to social production? This framing, still from an economic perspective, pushes us away from thinking about schooling as a means for sorting individuals within an inequitable economic system and toward thinking about schooling as a means for developing individuals to increase the total economic resource base available for society.

I’m going to refer back to the top and the logic of organizing for social efficiency. Any time you assume humans are simply resources for some other economic or societal goal it will end up undermining the humanity of the people being “created”.

The truth is, you cannot manufacture humans, only cultivate them. I don’t believe in cultivating humans for social production, though I do believe in cultivating humans to foster broader flourishing and a thriving democracy (with democracy defined as a lived practice, not specific institutions ). The thriving democracy is important because humans flourish or do not flourish within their immediate and wider social context — you cannot flourish without living in a society that both ensures you the freedoms to act and also ensures your basic needs are met. When either of those preconditions are not met, individuals cannot act truly autonomously and thus cannot flourish (check out Deci’s book Why We Do What We Do for a more thorough review of the research around autonomy and core social psychological needs and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics for an exploration of eudaimonistic flourishing).

I agree that we shouldn’t try to use an individualistic (symptomatic) framing of schooling as an attempt to sidestep the hard societal conversations we need to have about socio-economic inequality. But all the same, we shouldn’t allow some other framing (social development? personal flourishing? something else? I’m on the edge of my seat to see where you’re going to take this!) to distract us from understanding the place of schooling in a systems approach to addressing socio-economic inequality.

I love this. I see you’ve already read the next piece so hopefully that satisfied the anxiety to know :) To reiterate, yes, we should frame the aims of schooling from individual and social possibility aims because this is what schools can actually do. The relationships between schooling and addressing socio-economic inequality is not as direct as economic/instrumental frames would suggest.

I’ll get more into schools’ role in addressing socio-economic inequality in future pieces. But a preview is that equity in schooling should not be based on some suppositious future economic earnings or well-being, and should instead be defined as when all children have access to schooling environments that meet their core needs and to schooling experiences that allow them to practice the capacities, character, and beliefs they need to make informed decisions about their lives, according to their values, and to be able to work with others to achieve collective goals. Schools can do this kind of equity right now if we chose to organize them this way.

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Solving systemic problems to create a more just, loving world. Transforming education for human flourishing and thriving democracy. Co-Founder @ REENVISIONED.

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