Education and the mirage of equal opportunity

It’s common to hear people say that they don’t believe in economic equality, but they do believe in equality of opportunity.

But one of the points of getting a lot of money and a high social position is to give your children advantages over other people’s children.

One of the ways of doing that is to enroll your children in elite private schools. I read an article by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic about how students who attend the top private schools get a head start in life that’s almost impossible, or at least very, very difficult, for anybody else to overtake—even students in highly selective public schools.

In a just society, there wouldn’t be a need for these expensive schools, or for private wealth to subsidize something as fundamental as an education.  We wouldn’t give rich kids and a tiny number of lottery winners an outstanding education while so many poor kids attend failing schools.

In a just society, an education wouldn’t be a luxury item.  We have become a country with vanishingly few paths out of poverty, or even out of the working class.  We’ve allowed the majority of our public schools to founder, while expensive private schools play an outsize role in determining who gets to claim a coveted spot in the winners’ circle.

Many schools for the richest American kids have gates and security guards; the message is you are precious to us.  Many schools for the poorest kids have metal detectors and police officers; the message is you are a threat to us.

Public-school education—the specific force that has helped generations of Americans transcend the circumstances of their birth—is profoundly, perhaps irreparably, broken. In my own state of California, only half of public-school students are at grade level in reading, and even fewer are in math. When a crisis goes on long enough, it no longer seems like a crisis. It is merely a fact.

Source: The Atlantic

The Chronicle of Higher Education meanwhile reported on how colleges are doubling down on efforts to keep black students from failing and dropping out. 

This could be good.  I think many affirmative action programs push young black people into positions where they’re over their heads, then leave them to flounder and blame them for their failure.

More mentoring, and more attention to the individual and less to improving numbers, would help. 

But what may very well happen is that colleges will increase recruitment, retention and graduation numbers for African American students while doing little to improve their actual education, and while also ignoring disadvantaged students who are white or in other non-black racial categories.

In the long run, expecting less of African-American students won’t help them.  It will devalue their degrees and send them into the world not knowing how poorly-prepared they are.

I’m reminded of Goodhart’s Law – “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” – because people will figure out how to game the system. Or, as W. Edwards Deming put it, “Give a manager a numerical target, and he’ll meet it, even if he has to destroy the company to do so.”

LINKS

Private Schools Are Indefensible by Caitlin Flanagan for The Atlantic.  “Elite schools breed entitlement, entrench inequality—and then pretend to be engines of social change.”

The Antiracist College by Tom Bartlett for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  “This may be a watershed moment in the history of higher education and race.”

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One Response to “Education and the mirage of equal opportunity”

  1. Steve in Texas Says:

    Old-time teacher here, now out of the game. The crew now running the public school system in this Texas city mistakenly believe that education can “cure” poverty.

    They’re gild-plating some public schools to sell them off to for-profit, out-of-state charter-2school companies. They define “success” as getting a small number of poor kids into “first-tier” colleges.

    They’ve got it backwards. Schools will never “cure” poverty in a society. Schools are PART OF society.

    But IF a neighborhood gentrifies, and better-off people move in, the public schools WILL get better. Influential parents, with resources behind them, will see to it.

    Like

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