More on Equity and Equality in Education

by Harry on May 5, 2009

I’ve been invited to give a talk—and was asked to provide a reading—on educational equity, by an equity team in a local high school. I couldn’t find anything short enough and comprehensive enough, so I rewrote this post. The person who asked me had already read it and knows I’m a philosopher, so she knows what she’s getting. What follows is a slightly longer version of what I’ve written for teachers’ consumption (my wife told me to cut out the long Rothstein quote, but I like it, so it’s back in for CT; she also told me to remove a list of promising reforms, which I haven’t reinserted). It is different enough from the original post that I thought I’d post the revised version here:

The draft of Madison Metropolitan School District’s Strategic Plan Statement of Beliefs says “We believe that academic achievement is not predicted by race, class, disability, sexual orientation, gender or home language.” The draft of the strategic priorities contains the related comment that “we will eliminate the achievement gap by ensuring that all students reach their highest potential.” These comments might suggest a full-fledged commitment to educational equality. But in fact the word “equality” never occurs in the drafts – instead, the beliefs draft says that “resources are critical to education and we are responsible for their equitable and effective use.” Why equity, rather than equality? What does it mean to close the achievement gap? And how responsible are schools for doing it?

If the only unequally distributed good to which education provided access was money, then the case for giving a lot of weight to educational equality would be weak. But, in fact, it turns out that education influences who gets many unequally distributed goods that we all value: interesting and meaningful jobs, the self-fulfillment that such jobs enable people to enjoy, the status that they bring to people, control over the course of one’s life and over day-to-day aspects of one’s life, the freedom from stress that goes along with that, better health and, eventually, the greater longevity that accompanies better health. Since education mediates the competition for all these things the case for giving a lot of weight to educational equality is strong.

The problem is that if we take the fairness argument to its logical conclusion, we seem to reach a very radical principle of educational equality. It is not only unfair that some people are born into worse social circumstances than others; it is also unfair that some people have talents that are less valued by society than those of others. Some would say that it is unfair that some people are born with seriously cognitive disabilities, whereas others aren’t. Certainly nobody thinks that people with severe cognitive disabilities deserve them. In that case it looks as if educational equality demands equal outcomes for ordinary children and children with severe cognitive disabilities, so that they can compete on a level playing field for the benefits to which education provides access. In other words the reasoning supports the following:

Radical principle of educational equality: An individual’s prospects for educational achievement should be a function neither of that individual’s level of natural talent nor of her social class background.

In other words, as the draft of MMSD’s beliefs nearly puts it, “academic achievement should not be predicted by race, class, disability, sexual orientation, gender or home language.”[1] But this principle faces a serious objection. Even spending enormous resources on the cognitively disabled wouldn’t suffice for preventing disability from predicting achievement; we’d have to seriously demoralize and disable ordinary children – leveling down their achievement to the best that those with severe cognitive disabilities can manage. And that sounds absurd

In the face of this objection I, personally, cheerfully hold on to the radical version of the principle of educational equality. This is because I think that it is only one of several principles governing social justice in education, and some of the other principles are more important than educational equality. Here are some examples:

1) A principle upholding the psychological and physical integrity of the person is vital to justice, and prohibits disabling the cognitively normally-abled.
2) It is more important to arrange social institutions to maximize the prospects for a flourishing and enjoyable life of those whose prospects are worst than it is to ensure educational equality. In so far as we can improve the conditions of society to benefit the worst off by training the talents of the talented and getting them to put those talents to work, that’s what we should do. This gives us a powerful reason to foster the talents of people who are likely to develop the wealth and technology that can improve the lives of, for example, the severely cognitively disabled.
3) A flourishing family life is extremely important, and so measures (like removing all children from their children at birth and subjecting them to equally good educational experiences in some sort of super-orphanage) that would implement educational equality at the cost of seriously jeopardizing familial relationships would be wrong.

The point is that we should admit that there are many moral considerations, and there is a hierarchy which helps us to decide what to do in the circumstances. But the fact that one value is more important than another in some circumstances does not imply that the less important value is not important at all. Just that there are limits on what we should do to pursue it.

All this helps us to understand why education scholars and administrators started talking about “educational equity”. Scholars seem to use ‘equity’ as a kind of signal that they are concerned to promote educational equality but that they are not monomaniacal about educational equality, recognizing that it is just one important principle among many, and also signaling that they don’t want to get into a deep philosophical debate about exactly what the other principles are or about how much weight they should have. It means, in other words, something like this:


Children should have roughly equal prospects for educational success, but there are all sorts of limits on what we can, and all sorts of limits on what we are permitted to, do to achieve this, and it is very hard to articulate or get agreement about exactly what those limits are so we’re not going to try and get much more precise, because right now there are some quite practical measures we can and should pursue to make things somewhat more equal than they are.

Adopting a principle of educational equity usually signals giving some priority, in state and district-level policy, in the policies and design of a school’s instructional mission, and in classroom practice, to raising the prospects for achievement of the lower achievers, but allowing appropriate room to give some weight to improving the achievement of other students, and to compromise with the barriers that will be placed in the way of improving low-end achievement.

So the phrase ‘educational equity’ helps people to evade the long philosophical discussions about exactly how to understand “educational equality.” This makes sense because prospects for achievement in America are radically unequal, much can be done to make them more equal without violating other values, and schools could not make them completely equal even by violating other important values.

Educational equality and equity are moral values, or principles of justice. So debates about them can, understandably, get fraught; disagreeing about the importance of equity is disagreeing about something fairly fundamental, and moral in nature. This is a very different sort of disagreement, though, from disagreements about what sorts of practices and policies one should adopt to implement equity. I’ll mention three disagreements about in-school practices:

  • Full inclusion instead of special-education classes
  • Differentiation within heterogeneous classes instead of tracking or skill-grouping within subjects
  • The demand for culturally-relevant curricula and hiring more African-American and Latino/a teachers

The demands for full inclusion, heterogeneous classes, and culturally relevant curricula and more minority teachers are sometimes treated as if they are, themselves, principles of justice, and educators sometimes feel inhibited from having open and deliberative discussions about them for fear of being thought to have the wrong values. But in fact people who share exactly the same values will disagree about exactly which practices to adopt because these are complex and nuanced judgments based on empirical evidence the implications of which are not self-evident. Take heterogeneous classes (in high school) for example. The evidence we have suggests that tracking has usually been bad for equality; but this has usually been because schools have given less priority to the achievement of the children in the lower tracks than those in the higher tracks. This is unsurprising in an environment in which schools are accountable to parents, and the parents of the higher achieving kids are more able to press their demands than those of the lower achievers. If children were sorted into skill based groups, and more experienced teachers were assigned to smaller classes with the lower skill groups, that might be better for equality, and perhaps better for the pursuit of other values, for all we know, than heterogeneous classes, especially if heterogeneous classes are suddenly established without large-scale investment in preparing teachers to differentiate effectively within the classroom. Or think of the demand to hire more African-American and Latino teachers. No-one I know of says that we should hire fewer – even the conservative commentators Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom say that we probably should hire more – but the evidence suggests that children from racial minorities perform best when they have well qualified, experienced, and highly skilled teachers regardless of their race suggesting that getting skilled and experienced teachers should be prioritized over getting same-race teachers if what we care about is educational equality.[2]

Think, finally, about full inclusion. Inclusion is interesting because there may be quite difficult trade-offs within the principle of equality. We owe a lot to the cognitively disabled, but we also owe a lot to children from families which are multiply disadvantaged. Including cognitively disabled or emotionally disturbed children in a class of highly motivated upper middle class children may well do little to inhibit the achievement of those children, and even if it does we might say that is a price worth paying for equality; but including them in a class largely populated by children who come to school not well-prepared to learn and who have great difficulty concentrating may damage those children’s prospects quite a bit, and those are children whose bad performance is part of the problem of inequality.

I’m not trying to advocate for or against any particular policy here; just pointing out that these are policy choices rather than value judgements. Which practices help us to implement equity, and move toward equality, depends on which improve the achievement of lower achievers more than that of higher achievers in the particular circumstances in which they are adopted. This is not a question of values, but a technical question, answering which requires considerable evidence and a good deal of judgment (because the research is almost never unequivocal and is never ever about a school in your exact circumstances). Treating inclusion, or heterogeneous classes, as if they are matters of principle, rather than difficult technical judgments, makes it harder for people to learn and think responsibly about them.

How practical is it to demand that educators and schools take up the task of implementing educational equity? This is what school leaders and policymakers do when they demand that schools “close the achievement gap”. Just as the phrase ‘educational equity’ demands interpretation, so does the phrase “achievement gap”. In fact there are numerous achievement gaps; but the two current foci are the gap in achievement between children from different racial groups (and, especially, between white children on the one hand and African-American and Latino children on the other) and the gap in achievement between children from different socio-economic backgrounds. There are, furthermore, two different ways of understanding what that gap is. Some people worry about correlation between social class or race and achievement at all levels – in other words, they think that race and class should have no influence at all on levels of achievement. Others worry mainly about the influence of race and class specifically on educational failure; that is, they demand just that no-one should fail because of their social class or racial membership.

The principle of educational equality demands that race and class have no influence at all on achievement. But if this is what policymakers are demanding, it is strange to think that schools, and especially high schools, where children spend only the four years of their childhood in which they are the most difficult for adults to influence, are the sole appropriate instrument. As Richard Rothstein puts it:


If you send two groups of students to equally high-quality schools, the group with greater socioeconomic disadvantage will necessarily have lower average achievement than the more fortunate group.
Why is this so? Because low-income children often have no health insurance and therefore no routine preventive medical and dental care, leading to more school absences as a result of illness. Children in low-income families are more prone to asthma, resulting in more sleeplessness, irritability, and lack of exercise. They experience lower birth weight as well as more lead poisoning and iron-deficiency anemia, each of which leads to diminished cognitive ability and more behavior problems. Their families frequently fall behind in rent and move, so children switch schools more often, losing continuity of instruction.
Poor children are, in general, not read to aloud as often or exposed to complex language and large vocabularies. Their parents have low-wage jobs and are more frequently laid off, causing family stress and more arbitrary discipline. The neighborhoods through which these children walk to school and in which they play have more crime and drugs and fewer adult role models with professional careers. Such children are more often in single-parent families and so get less adult attention. They have fewer cross-country trips, visits to museums and zoos, music or dance lessons, and organized sports leagues to develop their ambition, cultural awareness, and self-confidence.
Each of these disadvantages makes only a small contribution to the achievement gap, but cumulatively, they explain a lot.

If what policymakers are demanding, however, is that schools address, narrow, or close, the achievement gap in the second, weaker, sense of eliminating failure, then that seems more feasible. This must be what the drafters of the MMSD strategic priorities mean when they say “we will eliminate the achievement gap by ensuring that all students reach their highest potential.” After all, if some have more potential than others then getting them to realize their highest potential will result in inequality of achievement. But nearly every child has the potential to be literate and enjoy reading, to be financially literate, to enjoy being artistically creative in some way, to speak a second language proficiently, to cook home meals, to play complex and enjoyable games and sports, and to understand something of the history of their country and some other countries as well as the basic workings of the institutions that frame their lives. It is not only reasonable for high schools and educators to demand of themselves that they make sure that every child reaches certain goals, but it seems odd that they would be satisfied with less. (This is really what my dad is talking about here).

How might schools and education policymakers help to eliminate educational failure? By tapping into the knowledge we have of the ways that disadvantaged children can learn better, and by directing the productivity gains yielded by feasible school improvement partly to disadvantaged students. Failure probably cannot be eliminated by schools acting alone, and teachers and school leaders have reason to resent the assumption, sometimes made, that the rest of society bears no responsibility for helping to raise the floor of achievement. But it does seem that a good deal can be done by educational policymakers and schools, and much of this can be done while schools simultaneously ensure that other children achieve at a high level

[1] The actual version says “academic achievement is not predicted by race, class, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or home language”. The use of “is not” makes the statement just false; empirically some of the factors do, indeed, predict academic achievement. An aside to CTers: the reluctance to use openly moralized language is not unusual, especially in these sorts of documents, but I still find it a bit bewildering especially when it leads to statements that are so obviously false on any natural reading of them.

[2] CTers might note the absence of discussion of culturally relevant curricula. I’ll figure out what to say about that some other time.

{ 15 comments }

1

B 05.05.09 at 5:36 pm

Two things can be done quite easily. Giving everyone lessons in their first language and eliminating homework.

If your first language isn’t the one used in school you need to get lessons in it to the level that you know all the terminology in your first language as well. This will help school performance more than a thousand extra lessons in the second language and is a well researched fact.

Secondly, to help even out the gap between pupils with academic parents and those without that home support, let the kids have longer schooldays and a couple of hours in study hall instead of sending them home with their homework. This will give everyone the support of an understanding adult while they are working with new material.

There are of course other stuff as well: nutritional free school lunches, access to good school libraries, supportive and well educated teachers and so on. The main thing all these solutions have in common, besides known research proving that they work, is that they cost money. It is a lot easier to just tell teachers and schools that they are not doing it right than it is to give them the resources to do it right. Tax the rich and give the nation’s children a better tomorrow!

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robertdfeinman 05.05.09 at 6:36 pm

There is (still) a fundamental disagreement over the purpose of education. On one side are those who think that the goal is to teach the accepted core set of values and “facts” that society believes. On the other side are those who think that the purpose is to teach the basic tools, especially the tools involved with further lifetime learning on one’s own after leaving school.

The former tend toward a hierarchical model of society, with leaders and followers. Authority is the determinant of what is “right”. The latter favor a more questioning view of society, with people being free to question the status quo and work for change if they feel it is necessary. I think John Dewey best represents this latter view. He felt it was essential if one was going to have participatory democracy.

This spills over into implementation. The hierarchical view leads to a natural belief in those who get special advantages since they are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. Hence private schools, segregated, suburban enclaves, and multi-generational preferences as legacies in attending college. It is sufficient to train the rest to be obedient, unquestioning and having just enough skills to perform their functions as workers.

That this is a popular position (even by those not getting the maximum privilege) can be seen by how policies are implemented in practice. People self-segregate by income and ethnicity to an extent that school segregation is now back to levels seen before “Brown”. Funding for poorer districts is restricted by means of tax policies which are based upon local real estate values, and equalization efforts at the state level are opposed and usually inadequate.

The same thing carries over to social programs designed to eliminate the socio-economic handicaps of those at the bottom. Everything from the elimination of “welfare”, to gutting affirmative action to poor health services shows that many prefer a stratified society. There are also huge regional differences. The old South is especially bad at supporting education. Partly this is because whites tend to send their kids to (segregated) private schools and partly it is because the general feeling is that support for education is not a priority. So you get education in Mississippi or Alabama being funded at a level that is half (or less) than that in the northeast.

The lofty goals of the reformers will continue to go nowhere unless they are willing to face head on the anti-intellectual attitude that is so prevalent in the US. Notice the history of presidential candidates over the past 70 years. The “egg heads” were derided and generally lost. Someone like Clinton emphasized his good ol’ boy roots and not his Rhodes Scholarship accomplishments. Then there was Bush who made a point out of being ill educated. Obama seems to have broken the mold. Let’s hope it is a sign of change…

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omega Centauri 05.05.09 at 7:34 pm

Isn’t there a problem when they start out with: “We believe that academic achievement is not predicted by…”. When in fact the whole reason for the exercise is the fact that we are unhappy that achievement is to a substantial degree predicted by those things. Denying the truth is not a good way to start out.

I tend to think of public education as having several goals. One is the investment in the skills of the future population. Another is providing a common set of experiences, so that the tendency of the community to fragment into disjoint pieces is reduced. Another is to increase the sense of belonging to that society, especially of the least fortunate. The later two goals clearly have a strong equity component, the former only weakly or perhaps inversely. In fact if we take equity too far, and invest educational effort in inverse relationship to individuals ability to learn, the societal return would be significantly diminished. Giving too much weight to any of these goals to the point of substantially abandoning the others is a serious mistake. We need to struggle mightily to give the less fortunate classes a chance to advance, but we also need to invest in the future leadership class as well -even if the later group may not proportionately reflect the societal
distribution. With a “good” system, it can reasonably be hoped by substantial numbers of the later group can come from the lower classes.

Then we have to be careful about denying opportunities for those that want to do better for their own. If a state has created a certain minimum standard for it’s educational system but a community within it wants to do more, should the state allow it? One the one hand it is a nice gift, contributing to the net value of the education of the population. On the other hand, it decreases equality of opportunity. A compromise might be to use a tax to redistribute some of the excess spending to other districts. Set that tax too high, and the incentive to provide extra local funds is ruined. Set it too low, and the sense of equity is damaged. There is no absolute right answer here. But the conflict should not simply be brushed under the rug.

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Bloix 05.05.09 at 9:24 pm

“An individual’s prospects for educational achievement should [not] be a function … neither of that individual’s level of natural talent …”

A society that identifies its best natural athletes early and devotes very significant resources to training them will win lots of Olympic gold medals.

A society that identifies its most talented musicians early, etc.

A society that identifies its most talented math and science students, early, etc.

You see where this is going.

I see nothing in this post that places any value at all in identifying and educating truly gifted people to be as productive as possible. That value doesn’t have to be the highest value, but surely we need to acknowledge that talent does exist and that equality is not the only social good.

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harry b 05.05.09 at 11:37 pm

Bloix:

“In so far as we can improve the conditions of society to benefit the worst off by training the talents of the talented and getting them to put those talents to work, that’s what we should do. This gives us a powerful reason to foster the talents of people who are likely to develop the wealth and technology that can improve the lives of, for example, the severely cognitively disabled”.

I agree there’s an independent value in fostering the achievement of those with great talent, but unlike the three values I identified I don’t think it has priority over seeking equality. I think the quoted passage, though, justifies quite a bit.

Omega C — during a presentation of the document referred to a a public meeting, the Super insisted that they are using “is” aspirationally. A young woman in my break out group said, very sincerely, “its like they are using “is” completely wrong to mean something it just doesn’t mean. In English that is”. I think that’s right — when they say “is not” they mean “should not be”. Hence my bemused footnote.

B — all of the things you say in your second point were in a longer draft that my wife made me cut… The first can be very tricky, in schools with numerous language groups, or without a way of hiring competent teachers in those languages. (eg, in our own district, in which the proportions of spanish speaking children have risen quite rapidly, my guess is that it would be hard to hire significant numbers of fluent spanish speaking competent math teachers, both because of undersupply and because the district ain’t hiring. Incompetent teaching of a subject in one’s own language may not be so great. Also, a couple of schools have significant numbers of children whose first language is not english but who are, not to put too fine a point on it, super-privileged and can very easily and quickly be taught english).

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Bloix 05.06.09 at 12:34 am

Well, your views of the purpose of public education differ greatly from generally accepted views. You’re radically individualist, and you give no weight at all to the function of education in the maintenance and perpetuation of the community as a whole. There are many competing moral interests, and you don’t acknowledge them:

The creation of educated participants in a democratic society, who are competent to participate in the political and social life of the community.
The teaching of the shared values and the perpetuation of the culture of the community.
The fostering of creativity and productivity in arts and sciences for the benefit of all, not merely for the worst off.

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harry b 05.06.09 at 12:42 am

Bloix — er… yes, I’m probably more individualist about education than many people are, but not entirely individualist by any means. This post is specifically about how educational opportunities should be distributed for the purpose of treating each individual justly, and not at all (or hardly at all) about what its content or aims should be (which, indeed, may influence how it should be distributed all things considered). Your first two examples are both values to which I give some weight (just don’t feel the need to talk about everything I think when I’m writing about something quite specific — esp when the post is already overlong).

What does for the benefit of all, mean, though? How is an arrangement for the benefit of all if the worse positions within the arrangement would have been better under some feasible arrangement? Surely then its just for the benefit of some. (I am using “worse off” here, because I agree that not only the worst off matter).

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jonm 05.06.09 at 12:43 am

I thought this was a really great post. All too often, an undesirable “is” falls victim to those who would deny it, or those who would take it as an “is rightly”.

Picking up on one point of Bloix’s, we are living through the best of times for exceptionally gifted students to realize their talents, especially in math and science, in that they can now freely take advantage of a vast range of online university courses or find like-minded students in a way that simply was not possible in most school systems before.

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Omega Centauri 05.06.09 at 4:28 am

Harry, I do realize -and appreciate that this overemphasis was forced upon you by politics. Clearly the odds that the hunt for equality would go to the extremes of deliberately putting roadblocks in the way of the most talented. But there does exist the potential for affirmative action type programs to go too far. I don’t contend that this has been true in the US, but I know of complaints of foreigners who felt their career paths had they stayed in their home countries would have been severely impacted by quota type systems. One of the countries I am thinking is India, where the number of positions reserved for the lower castes is (allegedly -I admittedly only hear one side of the story) quite large. One result, the average level of qualifications of filled positions is dramatically lowered. Ethnic Chinese expats from Malaysia complain of similar problems. It is probable that a not significant fraction of immigrants from these areas have come here to escape such programs.

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lindsey 05.06.09 at 6:32 am

Nice post Harry. Question: does Madison have any policies in effect that are aimed at extra-school circumstances (as addressed in the Rothstein quote)? Or other districts? I know there are those lunch programs, but is there much else? I’m just curious.

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Tracy W 05.06.09 at 8:38 am

Harry, it strikes you that you’re missing another concern. If you have compulsary education for all, and then focus on the worst-off, are you not condemning an awful lot of children to a lot of boredom? Isn’t that rather heartless? I’m far from the smartest on the planet but I remember I used to complain a great deal to my mother about being bored at school and she would tell me “Well your great-aunt Marian said school’s boring to prepare you for life, which is boring”. She stopped when, having thought about it for a while, I said sincerely “Well if life is as boring as school I’m going to kill myself, I can’t stand the thought of another 50 years of this”. (Luckily life has turned out to be far more interesting than school, which itself improved when I was 16).

robertdfeinman On one side are those who think that the goal is to teach the accepted core set of values and “facts” that society believes. On the other side are those who think that the purpose is to teach the basic tools, especially the tools involved with further lifetime learning on one’s own after leaving school.

This is a false dichotomy. If you are going to teach the tools involved for further lifetime learning on one’s own after leaving school, you need to teach the accepted core set of values and common knowledge. I use common knowledge here rather than facts because there a number of things that most educated people in society know but that they don’t believe in, for example I don’t think many people believe that Red Riding Hood really happened in the sense that a wolf had the intelligence to hop into bed in grandma’s clothes and talk, or that there was an actual Scrooge who was literally visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve but we feel free to refer to that common knowledge without explaining it further, and expect our readers to grasp the reference (as I am doing so now).

See this article by a cognitive scientist for more evidence and discussion on this.

There is also something weird about distinguishing between teaching “the accepted core set of values” and teaching the tools for further lifetime learning. If all schools aim to teach kids to learn throughout their lifetime, doesn’t that immediately become an accepted core value?

The former tend toward a hierarchical model of society, with leaders and followers. Authority is the determinant of what is “right”.

Can you cite the evidence behind your assertion? Because I can’t think of any, and I can think of a set of counter-examples. The Jesuits for example produced Voltaire, Bayle and Descartes. British legal training produced Gandhi, and possibly had a hand in Nelson Mandela. Medieval monastic education produced Martin Luther. The rise of general education in Britain in the 19th century came along with the rise of the suffrage movement, expanding the vote to both all men and women, eventually. Of course my failure to think of any examples supporting your assertion does not mean that no such examples exist, it may merely be a reflection of the limits of my education. I am very curious as to what support your assertion does have.

Of course the educators of Martin Luther, Voltaire, and Gandhi may have intended to produce a hierachical model of society with leaders and followers and authority being the determinant of what is right (and certainly the early Protestants were on side with authoritarism). But they don’t appear to have achieved it in the sense of stopping their ex-students from questioning society. This fits in with the idea that teaching your students a set of common knowledge is at least useful for giving them the tools for life-long learning.

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harry b 05.06.09 at 11:51 am

Tracy W — yes, completely agree with that, and I did have a reference to it in another draft. Its partly an interest in not being (too) bored and partly an interest in being challenged. And it is independent of an interest in actually achieving (though, presumably, it leads to achievement). I’ll get it back into the powerpoint… (So as not to give a misimpression, I never had any experience like that in school, where I found the academic learning a huge challenge — until the last couple of years I got Bs through working very hard, and they were well deserved Bs (that is, this was not a function of mean-spirited marking). I thought school was great, designed for someone like me, and expected the rest of life to be a big disappointment, so its been a bit of a relief that it hasn’t been. But then, I guess I never really left).

OC — yes… but this is about providing educational opportunities for development of skils, knowledge, etc.. Which is rather different from reserving positions for people who have not developed the skills, knowledge etc. Once Tracy W’s concern, and concern with educating the talented for the sake of the less advantaged, etc are all taken into account I’m not sure there’s another worry. (IN fact, one of the objections to heavy handed AA schemes (I don’t know which are this heavy handed, but doubt that anything practiced in the US has been) is that it lets governments off the hook from providing the education that would prepare lower caste/disadvantaged to compete for positions on a level playing field (which would cost much more, and be much more just).

Lindsey — almost nothing. There are school districts and states that do take into account the out-of-school stuff, and MMSD is definitely moving that way a bit, but not systematically. More on that.

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robertdfeinman 05.06.09 at 1:25 pm

Tracy W:
Citing a handful of people who were able to challenge authority over a period of several hundred years does little to bolster your case. Education is meant to control the vast majority of people, and it has done that quite well. All the people you mentioned ran into severe problems when they tried to express themselves. The vast majority of the leadership were perfect examples of the educational system and did their utmost to suppress the dissident’s thoughts. You neglect to mention others who ended up, not just in prison, but executed for their thoughts.

As for documentation, I think the vast quantity of work published by John Dewey and others of his school and the continuing efforts to eliminate evolution from the classroom provide enough material. There is a difference between teaching 2+2=4 (and calling it a core value) and isolating students into parochial schools where they can be fed misinformation and shielded from other viewpoints.

You don’t even have to get out of your chair for this:
Democracy and Education

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Tracy W 05.06.09 at 4:20 pm

Harry – thanks for your reply.

robertdfeinman Citing a handful of people who were able to challenge authority over a period of several hundred years does little to bolster your case.

You are the one who claimed that a set of educational practices “tead toward a hierarchical model of society, with leaders and followers. Authority is the determinant of what is ‘right’”. If you want to make this case, the burden of proof is on you.

The suffrage movement in 19th century England (both for women and for universal male suffrage) was not supported by merely a handful of people. Of course the suffrage movement may have arisen for reasons independent of the British education system, I am not saying that the British education system caused the suffrage movement to happen, I am just saying that this movement is a problem for your hypothesis that education that aims at teaching a set of core values and common knowledge causes obedience.

As for the leadership trying to suppress opposing views, is that because of their education system or is that because they wanted to remain in power? Critias was a violent oppressor during the time of the 30 Tyrants in Ancient Athens, does that mean that Socrates was a teacher who wanted his students not to think for themselves and instead follow authority blindly? This is hardly compatible with his views. Or how about the Communist leaders who installed dictatorships after having criticised dictatorships thoroughly themselves? If people think for themselves there is no guarantee that they will only think liberal thoughts.

You neglect to mention others who ended up, not just in prison, but executed for their thoughts.

Well if you wish to count those up and add them to the tally based on their education type, feel free to do so. I think you will turn up a fair number who had an education focused on teaching a core set of values and core knowledge. After all the Catholic church executed a fair number of its own priests for hersey over the years. The Chinese government has executed a number of dissidents, though Chinese education is not famous for its teaching of disobedience, Trotsky was executed for his beliefs (the belief in particular was that Stalin wasn’t perfect), though I don’t think Russian/German education at the end of the 19th century was noted for its free thinking, etc.

I agree that my case is weak, I have done no comprehensive historical survey. What I am curious about is the evidence for your case. I know of no evidence for your case, and I know of several counter-examples. If one side of the case has only weak evidence and the other side of the case has none, I can think of no rational reason for concluding the side with no evidence is right.

As for documentation, I think the vast quantity of work published by John Dewey and others of his school and the continuing efforts to eliminate evolution from the classroom provide enough material.

I have read some articles by John Dewey. I have never come across any empirical evidence in his work that teaching the accepted core set of values and common knowledge of society tends towards a hierarchical model of society, with leaders and followers in practice more than any other education system (of course many people who taught that sort of knowledge did so with the intent of perpetuating a hierarchical model of society, eg the Jesuits, it’s just that a teacher cannot control what their student does with their knowledge). Can you please provide a full reference if you know of a paper where he did so?

…and the continuing efforts to eliminate evolution from the classroom

I thought the creationists were worried that teaching common knowledge such as the law of evolution would lead students not to be Christian – in other words they would start questioning authority. (I know that earlier I gave a couple of examples of things that are common knowledge that very few people actually believe to be true, eg Red Riding Hood, but common knowledge can and does include thoroughly tested scientific theories like evolution and gravity, although I suspect that biologists and physists find many things to complain of in non-specialists’ writing on those topics).

You don’t even have to get out of your chair for this:
Democracy and Education

I can’t see anything in here that provides support for the belief that teaching the accepted core set of values and common knowledge of society tends towards a hierachical model of society, with leaders and followers, where authority is the determinant of what is right. Of course, that does not mean that such data does not exist, it is a full book and I have only skimmed it. Can you please provide a full reference to the bit which you believe supports your assertion?

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Salient 05.07.09 at 12:32 am

she also told me to remove a list of promising reforms, which I haven’t reinserted

Shucks… With regard to the talk, any particular reasons for the cut? I’m assuming it’s from the POV of “these ideas are beyond individual teachers’ control” …but I think it’s useful to provide teachers with insight about what they could/should advocate for at their schools, from the standpoint of “so given that equity is distinct from equality, what could be done within our priority scheme to improve equity?”

If children were sorted into skill based groups, and more experienced teachers were assigned to smaller classes with the lower skill groups, that might be better for equality, and perhaps better for the pursuit of other values, for all we know, than heterogeneous classes, especially if heterogeneous classes are suddenly established without large-scale investment in preparing teachers to differentiate effectively within the classroom.

Perhaps you could also make the point that this arrangement can be thought of as more fair, even if there are disparities in the accomplishments of the different student groups.

robertdfeinman: Education is meant to control the vast majority of people, and it has done that quite well.

I don’t know what “meant” means, precisely, in this context, but yes, public education provides social indoctrination. I guess it’s worth pointing out that people were not exactly completely free of control prior to the advent of public education.

Perhaps social indoctrination through education is, potentially, a Good Thing: perhaps with enough advocacy and investment we’ll see a day when questioning strategies, logical reasoning, and skeptical inquiry are “core values” indoctrinated through public education. I spend most of my nonprofessional time investigating how to further these ends in my state, to establish an educational system that promotes inquiry and curiosity (it helps that I currently work for a land grant university, and am studying under a research group that’s intensely committed to this particular community service). It’s a struggle. But it’s a struggle that lots of well-minded people are engaged in (I consider myself fortunate to be a participant).

I think, compared to 1909, we’ve made some substantial progress. The idea that kids should think about what they’re doing, should self-assess and grapple with the meaning of the procedures they employ, is gradually gaining mainstream approval in mathematics ed. That’s a “core value” to teach kids, the value of questioning and reasoning things out and being charitable to people who disagree with you.

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