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Volume 30, Number 2
March/April 2014

Income Inequality and the Future of Public Education

An interview with Richard J. Murnane


For more than 40 years, Richard J. Murnane, the Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has made the education of low-income students the focus of his research. With Frank Levy, he was among the first to forecast the implications of technological change on labor markets and schooling in their groundbreaking book, Teaching the New Basic Skills (The Free Press, 1996). In his newest book, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education (Harvard Education Press and the Russell Sage Foundation, 2014), Murnane and coauthor economist Greg J. Duncan examine what is and isn’t working to better prepare low-income students for a changing economy. Harvard Education Letter editor Nancy Walser sat down recently to speak with Murnane about the implications of the growing income gap for educators.

You are a labor economist. What got you interested in education?
I was born to two parents who were public school educators. My mom was a middle school English teacher; my father was a high school history teacher and then a high school principal. So I have been listening to people talk about education around the dinner table for as long as I can remember.

Nearly 20 years ago you argued that students would need different skills to be able to compete for middle-class jobs. What has changed since then?
Technological change has continued. As computers have gotten faster, it’s been possible to program computers to do a growing range of tasks. ATMs and machines that provide airline boarding passes are old news. If you want to apply for a mortgage today, you can get an answer in 20 seconds instead of waiting for days. Consequently, the jobs of moderately skilled individuals who did fairly routine tasks—such as deciding whether to give someone a mortgage or not— are disappearing. So as computers have advanced, the skills required for well-paying jobs have continued to increase. The skills that are increasingly valuable are the problem-solving, teamwork, and communication skills required to do tasks that computers do not do well.

Basically, we’re asking schools now to teach all children skills that only a modest minority of children acquired in the past—and they were primarily children from relatively affluent families. Now we are asking children who come to school with many fewer advantages to master the quite-demanding skills that are reflected in the Common Core standards.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.