Educational Equity and Educational Equality

by Harry on March 31, 2009

Lots of schools these days have “equity and diversity” committees My guess is that no-one wonders much what diversity is in “equity and diversity” because we all have a pretty good sense of what it is – acceptance, toleration, and perhaps celebration of the various ethnic, racial, national, gender and sexual orientations in our midst. But what on earth is equity?

People (teachers, education students, other scholars in education) ask me this reasonably often, because they think that, as a professional philosopher who thinks a lot about education I ought to have an answer. I used to shrink from the question because the term “equity” is on that I never use, but recently I have become bolder. A School of Education recently asked me to prepare a lecture on “Equity, Equality, and Social Justice in Education”, and in the talk I just talked about equality and social justice, and said, bluntly, that I don’t understand “equity” and wish people would stop using the term.

After saying that, I thought I should do a couple of bits of research. The first was to run a search in amazon for books with the words “equity” and “education” in the title. 7,235 results. Fortunately, most of them seem not actually to have equity in the title, and when I looked at the 107 books published in the last 90 days I found that many only use “equity” somewhere in the text, and a few of those (including Hidden Markets by my colleague Patricia Burch) use “equity” in the way that is standard in finance circles, to mean capital. But there’s enough to confirm that equity in education is a standard phrase that ought to be easy to understand. The second thing I did was to read a bunch of books by scholars concerned with school improvement and the internal life of schools whose work I admire, to see how they use the term “equity” and figure out whether there was some obvious meaning that I was missing (Ronald Ferguson’s excellent Toward Excellence with Equity: An Emerging Vision for Closing the Achievement Gap, which I promise to review in the “Books Every Teacher Should Read” category when I get a chance, is the only one with “equity” in the title, but all the school reform improvement/reform books I’ve read recently use the term, and most of them prefer it to equality).

Having done that research I think I was wrong to wish that people stop using it, even though I’ve been right to resist using the term myself. It is a vague concept, but the best authors who use it do so knowing that it is very vague, and feeling, rightly, quite comfortable with that. I’ll explain.

Here’s roughly how I think about educational equality. There are several principles of justice in education. One of them is principle educational equality. In what is undoubtedly (and annoyingly [1]) the best paper published on educational equality in a philosophy journal (here, PDF, no paywall) Christopher Jencks shows how difficult it is to give a satisfactory definition of educational equality, by showing that all the most likely candidate definitions involve some counterintuitive consequence. In fact I have ended up thinking that one of Jencks’s candidates is the right one, even though implementing it fully would have counterintuitive consequences, viz, what I call the radical version of the principle of educational equality, which demands that children face equal prospects for educational achievement regardless of their social background or their natural level of talent. (If you’re interested in more detail, see this paper with Swift, and pp. 6-12 of this one without him, both PDF and free. Note that Swift, as ever, is responsible only for what’s right in the paper, and not for anything that’s wrong, and not for anything in a blog post).

You can’t just choose what you are going to mean by “educational equality” or “educational equity”. These are moral terms, and they need to be defined by reference to our best moral understandings. I think the radical version of the principle of educational equality is best supported by one of the moral reasons that we should care about equality, which is simply that we think that it is unfair of society to set things up so that some people’s lives will go worse than those of others despite the fact that they are not responsible for doing anything that makes their lives go worse. Society doles out the goods that it produces very unequally, and makes education one of the key instruments for succeeding in the competition for them, so when educational success is dependent on factors for which the person bears no responsibility that is, in itself, unfair.

It should be obvious why the radical version of educational equality has counterintuitive consequences: since some children have very low levels of cognitive capacity, implementing it fully would require serious leveling down of prospects of achievement; requiring that we lobotomize the cognitively able, and resulting in very low levels of achievement for all.

The reason I am not troubled by this is that I think other principles of justice – educational and otherwise – are more important than educational equality. To give an obvious example, a principle upholding the psychological and physical integrity of the person is an important principle of justice, and that is what prohibits lobotomizing the cognitively normally abled. To give a less obvious, and less frequently discussed, example, I think that 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 equality of opportunity (or educational equality). In so far as we can improve the conditions of society in a way that benefits the worst off by training the talents of the talented and getting them to put them to work, that’s what we should do. This principle gives us a powerful reason to foster the talents of people who are might develop the wealth and technology that can improve the lives of, for example, the severely cognitively disabled. A final, and perhaps most obvious, example, I think that 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 not be acceptable.

The point is that rather than trying to find a single principle which incorporates and balances all the relevant moral considerations, we should admit that there are many moral considerations, and that there is a hierarchy which helps us to decide what to do in the circumstances [2]. 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.

So what does “educational equity” mean? People use it to mean 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”. Adopting a principle of educational equity commits you to giving a fairly priority, in state and district-level policy, in the policies and design of your school’s instructional mission, and in your own practice, to raising the prospects for achievement of the lower achievers, while giving you 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.

By adopting the term “equity”, the authors I admire who use it evade the long philosophical discussions about exactly what the place of equality is relative to other values. And this is sensible, not only because to do so would be distracting, but because in the actual circumstances of American education prospects for achievement are radically unequal, and there is no possibility that schools could make them completely equal with, or without, violating other important values. I think that using “equity” helps people to feel that they have not failed when they do not reach full equality, and also helps them to screen out a lot of disagreement that is irrelevant to their practice right now.

So, in the end I think it’s fine to use the term. But there are two dangers. First, the looseness of the term, once it is understood, can let people feel they are off the hook for improving low end achievement: “well, if all you are saying is that we must try and do something, we are doing that, as long as we do something we are free to give lots of attention to the more advantaged students, for example by putting our energies and money into Gifted and Talented programs, or AP, or whatever”. In fact, there are lots of good reasons for putting energy and money into G&T and AP, and the like, including, ironically, that in many districts in order to be able to serve the bottom third well you have to keep the parents of the top third on board. But “equity” shouldn’t let you off the hook – my guess is that most districts, many schools and teachers, and of course many of the advantaged people whose only positive contribution to schooling is that they pay their taxes, could be doing a lot more to help raise the achievement of the low achievers than they currently do, and could do so without undermining their own family life or careers.

Second, it can be very confusing, because people sometimes naturally seem to think it has a well-defined meaning, and that it should be possible to distinguish it very clearly from “equality”. Not so – it is deliberately vague, and you should just accept that when you hear it used and use it. And because it is vague it cannot be very clearly distinguished from other related concepts, some of which, like equality, it partially incorporates. It was to help avert the possible confusion that I wrote this.

[1] Why “annoyingly”?. Imagine that you are a sociologist who (rightly or wrongly) considers yourself an expert in educational equality, and you discover the best sociological paper on the topic, which happens to be published in the best sociology journal, is 20 years old and is by a philosopher who is extremely eminent in his or her own discipline. Wouldn’t that be annoying?

[2] It is not annoying that the sentence this note refers to expresses exactly what Jencks said to me when I was explaining how I disagreed with him, but it is a little annoying that I only understood my and Swift’s own approach properly when Jencks said this.



Kathleen 03.31.09 at 8:09 pm

More equitable school systems are a good thing on their own merits. But if we suspect that some students are not going to be very good at school *no matter what kind of school they go to*, it seems utterly heartless not to look at the larger equity problem at the same time. I know I am not the only university professor who has many students who cannot possibly be enjoying their college educations, because they find the reading, writing, and discussion involved fundamentally baffling. They remain enrolled anyway, often scraping out a degree, because they stakes are so incredibly high. There simply are not very many good career options (I know, I know, about the anecdotal zillionaire plumbers and electricians, yes, but look at the broader statistics) for people who stop their educations at the high school degree. Why should smarts be so disproportionately rewarded? There is nothing even remotely fair about it; shifting the “equity” discussion from life at large to school seems to me worthwhile in a limited sense, given the gross inequity of current school systems and the high stakes attached to education, but a bit of a red herring if one is concerned about fairness in general.


Harry 03.31.09 at 8:16 pm

Kathleen — I agree completely. This kind of theorising belongs to non-ideal theory, I think.

But if you are a school district official, a school principal, or a teacher, you have no ability whatsoever to have any impact on the inequality prevailing in the society the children will enter. But you do have some capacity to affect the quality of education that the children get that prepares them for that society, and some capacity to affect how tolerable the time they spend in school is. In one of those positions it is not a red herring to figure out what you are obliged to do, given the unjust circumstances the children inevitably face.


Paul K. 03.31.09 at 8:46 pm

I think that using “equity” helps people to feel that they have not failed when they do not reach full equality, and also helps them to screen out a lot of disagreement that is irrelevant to their practice right now.

That seems right to me, and the discussion that precedes this conclusion seems a very good account of why the use of “equity” here might be perfectly benign. I think I had a similar–though by no means similarly contemplative–response when I encountered frequent uses of “equity” in the health care context.

Frustratingly, the fact that people are talking about equity here and there (e.g. in education and healthcare) makes this all the more difficult and daunting. For once you’ve solved the problem of what equity is in education and Normal Daniels solves the problem of what equity is in health justice, we then seem to face the question of what equity is at the higher-order level that covers both domains. Let’s see Jencks solve that one! :)


engels 03.31.09 at 8:55 pm

It’s vague and it’s also a little pompous. My guess is that it refers to the same thing that ‘justice’ would but does so in such a way that implies that this is just one value among others, perhaps a rather subordinate one. Pace Cohen I do think that when most people recommend doing something as a matter of justice they are saying that doing so is obligatory. Saying that ‘equity’ gives a reason for doing something seems less forthright and seems to allow that it would be a nice thing to do in an ideal world but not necessarily here in the real world where we all have more pressing concerns… (Maybe why it is so popular with policy-makers, economist, etc?)

One relevant perspective might be the use of the term in the history of English law. Here, crudely put, it referred to a separate branch of law that developed directly under the authority of the King whose purpose was to recitify injustices caused by the operation of the ordinary law, which at that time was based on a rigid system of ‘writs’. So I think the idea also fits into a liberal picture where you have the rules — rights, property, etc — which are held to be necessary to regulate our conduct in society but whose application can lead to outcomes which are manifestly wrong, and this creates a need to to ameliorate the most egregious instances after the fact by appealing to something higher.


Kathleen 03.31.09 at 9:58 pm

Harry — I agree completely. But, given that I am not a school principal etc. but an armchair pontificator about The Good, I do feel that to the degree citizens and policy-makers get drawn into conversations about the particulars of education, its merits, how it could be done better, etc. etc. they are *not* having conversations about the brutal injustices of meritocracies (no matter how “fairly” designed they are in their own terms — everybody gets the same quality of education, no bias in the classroom, no cheating on the tests, etc. etc. etc.: the outcomes remain ruthlessly sorting).

As a teacher, I in fact feel I have minimal capacity at the university level to make education more fair. The only thing I can do is really do is devote time outside of class to students who struggle; it does help. But in many cases, not nearly enough; and in the classroom the sharp as tacks students are held back in discussing ideas when surrounded by evidently befuddled peers. University educations produce many good outcomes but more fairness is not notably among them.

In case I get the objection, “would you prefer feudalism, then?”. No, I wouldn’t. I’d prefer a world in which you have just a good a chance at having a nice life if you are developmentally disabled, “average”, or a genius; and that’s not a world produced by systems in which meritocratic education, however designed, allots the major prizes to which most citizens can aspire. If you want to tell me anecdotes about sad geniuses living in cardboard boxes and happy gajillionaires who can barely spell cat, okey dokey, but I’m concerned less with exceptions than the rule.


Martin James 03.31.09 at 11:36 pm

I think the term equity is used the way you describe G&T and AP programs. Those with advantages know what equality is and what to be sure their children aren’t reduced to it. Equity is not as clear and many of those with advantages think equity means proportionality: those with more ability get more education, so opposition to equality may not be as focused.


armando 03.31.09 at 11:37 pm

Slightly OT, but in reading the Jencks paper, I was slightly surprised to find the claim that socio-economic differentiation has a *genetic* component. Surely this isn’t the current prevailing wisdom?


Kathleen 03.31.09 at 11:54 pm

Armando – one of the ways this conversation gets confused in the United States, especially, is it gets mixed up with the U.S. legacy of racism. If you think not of race but of developmental disability, dyslexia, all of the rest of the factors that can indeed lower academic capability and some of which are almost certainly genetic, the argument for pure meritocracies is revealed as brutally heartless in ways that have nothing to do with race (but might indeed have something to do with genetics).

Racists argue we already have good meritocracies because they believe [insert the race they don’t like here; in the U.S., almost inevitably black people] the current sorting of [black people] prove what is true anyway [black people are inferior]. Anti-racists argue for improving our meritocratic sorting system because they believe an outcome reflecting true sorting would inevitably be mixed-race.

You are right that the current prevailing wisdom is the latter, and I am sure the latter scenario is the correct one. But I additionally think eventual mixed-race meritocracies are just bad in a different way than what we have now. I don’t believe genetic disadvantage as to book-smarts maps on to race, but I do think it *exists*. Organizing a system to sort it out more perfectly strikes me as a really bad use of social energy and human goodwill.


StevenAttewell 04.01.09 at 12:00 am

This is a bit of a general question, but why does equality require “equal prospects for educational achievement regardless of their social background or their natural level of talent”? I would agree with the first part, but not the second. For one, many elements of “natural levels of talent” are in dispute as to how “natural” they are. For another, many elements of “natural levels of talent” I don’t think would be disputed by the radical pro-equality position. Indeed, isn’t the objection to the “social background” sources of inequality that they are unnatural, and thus the results of the imperfections in human society?

Next, isn’t the “super orphanage” conundrum avoided by programs like family allowances, public child care (a la the French ecoles maternelles), and other interventions against child poverty? This points seems a bit of a strawman.


armando 04.01.09 at 12:42 am

I don’t believe genetic disadvantage as to book-smarts maps on to race, but I do think it exists. – Kathleen

I don’t think anyone would deny that genetic factors such as those involved in developmental disabilities plays a role in educational prospects, but Jencks seems to argue that one can’t really separate environmental factors (such as socio-economic background) from genetic ones. The context of the claim I mentioned above – that socioeconomic inequality has a genetic component – is used by Jencks to undermine the notion that simply adjusting for background will result in “equal” outcomes since the poor are simply less talented. This belief obviously has a fairly major impact on what you believe fairness or equality would look like.

I think we disagree about meritocracies, on the other hand. Not that I don’t take your points on board, just that I think it would make genuine improvement to actually attempt to set up a meritocracy. I guess thats because I believe that socioeconomic level is *not* a very good predictor of talent and so the process of correcting for the former to detect the latter already sets up a notion of fairness that I think would have good knock on consequences. Not least of which would be that a real equality of oppurtunity seems to me to require a fairly flat set of socioeconomic outcomes. At least in education, which is a very expensive business that many parents still pay for privately, that seems clear.


engels 04.01.09 at 1:24 am

I think I am with Steve. Why would you want to equalise the educational attainment of people who have different natural talents? It seems that your reason is that you are resigned to living in a world in which vast inequalities in welfare are traceable back to one’s location in the occupational structure which is in turn to a large extent traceable back to one’s level of educational attainment. Since you don’t think you can do anything about the causal chain you want to contain the damage at the first stage, by equalising educational attainment. Is that right?

But it seems to me this is a very instrumental (mis)use of education to try to attack problems which have their source and proper solution elsewhere. I think education should be aimed at enabling people to develop their inner potential (talents, dispositions, aspirations) in a natural way. I am sure that if the distorting effects of social class were cleared away we would not see the pathological variations in outcome, the obvious waste of human potential that we see now. But the outcome can’t possibly be an equal level of measured attainment for all individuals; they would not be different individuals if it was. Trying to make it so seems undesirable in theory and impossible in practice.


Helen 04.01.09 at 5:15 am

On the run here, but here’s a brief summary of the problem in Australia- I’m talking secondary education here:

(1) Our public school system has been systematically run down by various State governments, while
(2) the Federal government has skewed the system by giving federal grants to public and private schools based on a formula which has failed to direct the most federal money at the most disadvantages schools, in fact, has directed quite a healthy whack of the funds to the richest private schools,
(3) 1. and 2. plus huge marketing has caused middle class parents to panic and fall over themselves / get into debt to put their kids into private school, or failing that, to a selective high school
(4) So the public schools are losing their ablest students as well as their funding
(5)We are drifting towards a situation where the public system is in danger of being made a safety net for the most disadvantaged.

Blind Freddy could see that one very simple and effective reform would be for both State and Federal governments to re-prioritise public education to the point where all or most private schools are of similar quality to the selective public schools now, so the middle class don’t panic and pull all their kids out.


M. 04.01.09 at 5:30 am

It’s unfortunate that everyone seems to assume that education is mainly a private good. It’s seen that way because of the evaporation of well-compensated trades–there can only be so many of the gazillionaire plumbers that Kathleen alludes to.

Too many kids are crowding into college because they feel they have to in order to get a decent job. They are not there to enjoy the life of the mind. Sadly, with more people getting four-year degrees, the value of the four-year degree has eroded and now the common wisdom among students is that a college degree is the new high school degree, and you need to go to grad school to get a decent job. So now students have suffered through (or, very often, dropped out of) college to find themselves competing for low-paying service jobs. We say lots of pious, self-congratulatory things about Social Justice and Fairness in encouraging these kids to attend college, but in the end, how much private good have they been able to enjoy?

Meanwhile, my experience is similar to Kathleen’s (do we teach at the same place?):
“in the classroom the sharp as tacks students are held back in discussing ideas when surrounded by evidently befuddled peers. ” They’re not just held back, they’re alienated and frustrated, and they become disengaged. That’s a real shame, and I wish this were brought up more often:
“I think that 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 equality of opportunity (or educational equality). In so far as we can improve the conditions of society in a way that benefits the worst off by training the talents of the talented and getting them to put them to work, that’s what we should do. This principle gives us a powerful reason to foster the talents of people who are might develop the wealth and technology that can improve the lives of, for example, the severely cognitively disabled.”

I agree and would take it further: the proper view of education should be mainly or even exclusively as a public good. We should stop seeing it as merely the admission ticket for the game of White Collar Employment Musical Chairs.


harry b 04.01.09 at 3:33 pm

Since you don’t think you can do anything about the causal chain you want to contain the damage at the first stage, by equalising educational attainment. Is that right?

No, quite wrong. Educational equality is more urgent when the surrounding context is one of unjust inequality than when background inequalities are small or not unjust. But even if the basic socio-economic envrionment is egalitarian (which I think we could, indeed, reform it to be) there would still be a matter of justice about who received how much education, and one (but only one) of the consdierations would be raising the achievement of the “naturally” cognitively disabled (which is demanded by educational equality, but also by other principles).

That said, the point about this being mainly a debate in non-ideal theory holds. In the US, some 10-20 percent of children (possibly more) get through the schools without acquiring the basic skills necessary to have a significant amount of control over their lives either at work or outside of it. I don’t believe that by raising all of their achievement we’d be raising their prospective incomes by much (but by some, sure); but I do believe that we’d be increasing by some the control they have over their lives (eg, their ability to control their emotions and feel some sort of self-confidence and know where to go when confronted by the arbitrary use of power by a manager; their ability to join and participate in a union; their ability to use credit effectively, etc). This may all be covered by the corollary of the difference principle to which I refer in the post. But whatever the principle, we shouldn’t falsely promise this population that we have some egalitarian alternative that they might inhabit in the near future (not that I’m suggesting you or Kathleen think we should, I’m just trying to justify the independence interestingness of justice in education in an unjust world).

I can’t check back for a while, but will respond to others when I can.


Tracy W 04.01.09 at 5:06 pm

More equitable school systems are a good thing on their own merits. But if we suspect that some students are not going to be very good at school no matter what kind of school they go to, it seems utterly heartless not to look at the larger equity problem at the same time.

I suggest you look at Project Followthrough and the Direct Instruction research (see for a summary). It shows that primary schools can be far more effective at teaching disadvantaged kids, and provides reason to believe that the quality of instruction can drastically extend the levels that most people can reach, even if some will always take far longer to get to those levels than others.
Of course there will always be some kids with cognitive disabilities so severe and expansive that they cannot be very good at school, or at least there will be until medicine figures out how to fix the human brain. But as Harry says, the only way equity for those kids can be achieved is by lobotomising everyone.
And the ability to read, write and discuss at a college level is valuable not only for employment reasons, but for other reasons as well – to be an effective citizen (what would happen if those students you write about get a letter from their local council saying that a sewage pond is going to be built next door), to handle practical problems like medications or what to do when the baby swallows half of a weird pot plant, and it also provides a useful source of mental entertainment when life leaves you deprived of both TV and internet access (I remember sitting on the front of a boat travelling between two Tongan islands, watching the sun rise while reciting “Sea Fever” to myself.) Regardless of the economic structure of society, I think everyone should have as good an education as possible.


Kathleen 04.01.09 at 5:28 pm

M. — we all teach at that school, I suspect :)

Tracy W. — I don’t want to jump all over you, but just to point out that suggesting the problem with developmentally disabled people is we don’t know how to “fix” them yet is, well, ugh.

No one is suggesting lobotomies for everyone. I, at least, am suggesting thinking about how we might create broad options for a range of different kinds of human flourishing (because we value having a broad range of kinds of people around) that are not predicated on pushing and rewarding achievement along one narrow measure (school).

I also think citizenship could be usefully restructured such that being book-smart enough to read policy documents in the privacy of one’s home and formulate good opinions about them (which NONE OF US CAN DO ALONE anyway — the sewage plant is a great example, actually. Beyond NIMBY, one might wish to become informed about various options for treating sewage, new advances in sewage plant technology, and formulate a stance on the best of those options — all of which requires community discussion and getting help from others who know more, whether one is cognitively disabled or not).


arc 04.01.09 at 6:46 pm

Harry has already said that attaining what he calls ‘educational equality’ would be undesirable (as it would conflict with too many other, greater values). So the argument isn’t over what would or wouldn’t be desirable, but rather the definition of ‘educational equality’ – he thinks this should be equal outcomes regardless of natural talent, Steve and engles think it should be equal outcomes for equal talent (roughly speaking).

So it’s thereby a semantic argument – therefore uninteresting, or at least, less interesting than if Harry really thought we should lobotomise children to make them equal or anything like that.

However, Harry does seem to be supporting the idea that, while it’s low on the priority list, ceteris paribus, we should strive for equality of outcomes. I have some sympathy for this idea.

I’ll discuss what certris paribus might look like in a moment. But firstly, here are two problems for the alternative (equal outcomes for equal (natural) talent)

1) how can we tell two people have equal natural talent except, by noting they achieve equal outcomes whenever everything else (family background, prior education, motivation, time to study/train etc.) is the same?

I think what usually happens here is that if we can’t think of any other explanation, we put the differences down to ‘natural ability’ and decide it’s How Things Are.

One big thing to consider here is people’s actual performance always comes out of an learning environment that has a certain structure to it. If the structure changes radically, there’s no guarantee that the same people will appear to be the ‘talented’ ones. For example, our education system puts particular emphasis on reading, writing, and sitting tests – in many ways it’s quite theoretical. It’s almost certainly the case that this makes people who are predisposed to be good at sitting still and writing and reading things much easier than those who hate sitting still and thinking but like ‘getting out and doing things’ or talking to actual people. If our education system was instead structured much more around collaboration, practical experience and two-way oral discussion (for both instruction and assessment), then different people would certainly succeed more. So the structure biases certain kinds of potential over others. What is natural talent then? The potential to perform in our system? Or the potential to perform in any system whatsoever? If the former, why does it deserve any privilege? If the latter, how could we possibly tell?

2) how is ‘natural talent’, if there is such a thing, any less arbitrary and fortuitous than one’s parent’s position in society?

To put it another way, we’d like the playing field to be level for people regardless of their birth circumstances – we’d like it to be the case that if someone is born to rich and wealthy lawyers who can afford the best education and can instruct their child in the law themselves and use their connections to get them good positions is no better or worse off than someone who is born to street sweepers. We think this presumably because we think people do nothing to earn their birth circumstances, and it seems unfair to penalise or promote people’s chances on the basis of things that just fell to them and they didn’t earn. Why doesn’t the same reasoning apply to ‘natural talent’, if there is such a thing?

(It may be that the ‘talented’ can secure more goods for society at lest cost than the ‘highborn’. But that’s just a pragmatic reason for preferring a meritocracy, it doesn’t make equal outcomes for equal talent just in itself. What if it turned out to be more costly to level the playing field for social position than the expected returns for benefiting just the talented?)

Anyway here’s a plausible ceteris paribus situation involving equalising outcomes that doesn’t involve lobotomies or grand orphanages: a group of people entering your institution have the same funding, motivation, time devoted to study, encouragement from their parents and peers, etc. It comes to your attention from a recent study that if you do nothing, 20% of them will fail, but if you give them early assessment, work out who is in this 20%, and give them some feedback on where their weak areas are and encourage them to work on them, then everyone will pass. This requires a cost, but it isn’t a big one (so you’re not diverting huge amounts of resources from something that may need them before). Would doing this make your course more ‘educationally equal’, or would it make it less?

(I think this is a very plausible scenario, by the way, one quite similar to things that teachers are in fact often faced with, differing only by artificial clarity (I loathe science-fiction moral intuition pumps)).

Attributing their impending failure to lack of talent is about as plausible in this case as it usually is.

So if you really think that educational equality should be about stratifying people’s outcome by talent, shouldn’t you think that spending this extra time to identify student weaknesses and help them overcome them is making the course actually _less_ equal?


Witt 04.01.09 at 6:50 pm

I’m interested to see the philosophical focus of this discussion, because the crude colloquial context that I’m used to, “equity” is a code word. For liberals, it appears to be an appeal to American values of fairness that means “poor school districts deserve more funding.” For conservatives, it appears to be a red flag that say “If you agree with this, we’re going to take money away from your children’s schools and give it to Those People Over There.”


Witt 04.01.09 at 6:51 pm

Sorry, that should be: in the crude colloquial context that I’m used to.


LizardBreath 04.01.09 at 7:29 pm

And in lawyerese, the distinction is perfectly clear: equal would mean “measurably the same”, and equitable would mean something more like just. If we’re partners in a business and you invest 3/4 of the money and you do 3/4 of the labor, giving us equal shares of the profits would mean that out of every dollar, we each keep fifty cents. Equitable shares of the profits would probably mean, under those circumstances, that you keep 75 cents and I keep 25. Trying to apply the lawyerese understanding, I’d assume that ‘equitable’ in the educational context would mean: “We’re going to divide resources according to what seem to us to be valid considerations of justice; we don’t believe that implies an equal distribution of resources to each child.”


Perezoso 04.01.09 at 8:05 pm

Lawyerese a part of the problem; then, so are lawyers, even ones who vote Demo, and consider the AFL-CIO a liberal organization.

Educational reform starts by terminating edu-crats and schoolmarmies, er at least terminating their contracts. And it’s not obvious that being, say, a lawyer beats being an electrician.


engels 04.02.09 at 2:28 am

Arc – Harry said that attaining ‘radical educational equality’ would be undesirable, in his view, all things considered. The point of contention between us is whether it is a desirable thing in itself. Harry thinks so; Steve and I don’t. This isn’t a semantic argument. You also seem to leaping to some false conclusions about what I think eg. I’m not calling for an education system which ‘stratifies’ people based on natural ability — my sentiments on this point are close to Kathleen’s.

Harry – I’ll just say again that I still can’t see the attraction of ‘radical educational equality’ as a principle. I was wrong (and perhaps a bit uncharitable) in attempting to second-guess your motivation for adopting it but I note that you haven’t given a principled explanation of what does motivate its choice. I don’t think it’s obvious, actually, that in the kind of world I have in mind (where your total years of schooling does not influence how much you get paid, the degree of respect people have for you or, conceivably, how satisfying your job is) how much education people received would be a ‘matter of justice’, in the sense of a squabble over the distribution of scarce goods. (I’m mostly sympathetic, I think, to the kinds of policies you say it would underpin in the real world but it’s not clear to me this is decisive, bearing in mind that all kinds of reasonable theoretical views would seem to support a similar policy agenda.)


engels 04.02.09 at 2:41 am

(If it makes things clearer, I do imagine that in the kind of world I’d like to see the distribution of educational attainment would likely be much narrower than it is at present, and people with cognitive disabilities would consume more education than others but that’s a long way from stipulating equality in attainment to be a goal in itself.)


Tracy W 04.02.09 at 7:47 am

Kathleen: I don’t want to jump all over you, but just to point out that suggesting the problem with developmentally disabled people is we don’t know how to “fix” them yet is, well, ugh.

So far from feeling jumped all over I think your reaction of “ugh” is your problem. As someone who has dyspraxia I personally would like a fix for that. And since my brother got a severe brain injury my desire for medicine to be able to fix brains has only increased. I am quite intellectually okay with doctors doing things that are “ugh” in the process of carrying out cures (I object of course to ethically-horrible things like murdering healthy young adults for their organs, I am merely talking here about things that make me feel queasy), and they seem to enjoy it also by the way they tell war stories over a meal if given half a chance, so I don’t share your objection.

I also don’t know where you got the idea that you think that I think that the problem with developmentally-disabled people is that we don’t know how to “fix” them yet – I have my faults of character but at least I am aware that my faults are far more varied than merely the dyspraxia, I most certainly do *not* believe that fixing my dyspraxia would “fix” me or any other developmentally-disabled person, and I am baffled as to where you got the idea that I did believe such a silly thing – I don’t even know anyone who has just one problem in their lives.

As for not being able to engage in policy discussions entirely in your own home, yes, that is true and I never argued that otherwise, my objection is that people who struggling with reading, writing or participating in discussions at university are going to be hampered in that participation outside university as well no matter how society is organised.


Sam C 04.02.09 at 11:33 am

I liked Engels’s suggestion that equity’s purpose could be to ‘recitify injustices caused by the operation of the ordinary law’. Perhaps we could think of it as a corrective virtue, like mercy. So, where equality is a formal requirement of justice, equity would be an ethos of – for instance – concern that no-one was being abandoned or mistreated by the formal system, as demonstrated by Kathleen above.


Tracy W 04.02.09 at 1:14 pm

To give a less obvious, and less frequently discussed, example, I think that 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 equality of opportunity (or educational equality).

On thinking about it, one could add another goal, that it is valuable to avoid suffering even amongst those people whose prospects aren’t that bad overall. Extreme boredom at school is miserable, even if random luck with parents and genetics has set someone up to enjoy a flourishing life somewhat better than those whose weren’t so lucky and even if it happens to someone who doesn’t respond to that boredom by playing up and wrecking the educational prospects of the worse-off in their class.

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