Recently, Stanford researcher Raj Chetty came out with yet another new study on the jagged landscape of opportunity facing America. Analyzing the relationship between young people’s exposure to innovation and the likelihood that they would go on to become inventors, the study highlights an alarming rate of what the authors dub “lost Einsteins”: young people who show promising potential but who, due to lack of exposure to innovation, appear far less likely to pursue careers as inventors. Perhaps unsurprisingly these gaps fall along demographic lines. Children from high-income (top 1 percent) families are 10 times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families.
The consequences of Chetty’s specific findings are profound. Society is passing up entire reservoirs of latent innovation potential in the next generation.
The findings are also a microcosm of a broader reality facing the education establishment in an age of stark income and geographic inequalities. If Chetty’s research tells us something about schools, it’s that all the academic interventions in the world may not add up to tackling opportunity gaps that shape students’ ability to realize their potential as inventors or otherwise. In recent years, education reformers have focused relentlessly on K-12 achievement gaps and college graduation rates as proxies for leveling the playing field. But Chetty’s data suggests that opportunity gaps don’t merely spring forth from gaps in achievement or attainment—they are based on exposure. They are also social and geographic in nature.
The study underscores a fundamental truth about opportunity: it depends, at least in part, on our inherited networks. Inherited networks, Chetty’s findings suggest, are fundamentally bounded. They can propel some young people into certain careers, but keep others out. Luckily, however, new tools and approaches emerging across K-12 and higher education could begin to disrupt the boundaries of students’ inherited networks.
Tools to address opportunity gaps
For the past three years I’ve been tracking tools and models that expand students’ access to relationships that might otherwise be out of reach—because of where they live, their family’s networks, or the structures of the schools they attend. These emerging tools and practices offer a small but vibrant beacon lighting the path forward to address the social side of opportunity gaps.