Thursday, September 1, 2011

On the Opportunity Gap

Yesterday I shared some of my more skeptical reflections on the achievement gap. I argued (1) it's not clear that the gap can be entirely closed, at least in the foreseeable future, (2) it can probably only be closed by unjust means, and (3) it's not clear why closing it would be a good thing, if that implies that every culture is expected to become nearly identical (unless the most ardent achievement gap closers want to argue that culture is irrelevant to school success, which claim I think so ludicrous as not to be worth countering).

Today I want to return to the theme of justice, and will argue, less controversially, that justice requires we close the opportunity gap, not the achievement gap, in the United States. As a basic source for my argument I want to acknowledge Moral Minds by Marc D. Hauser, a psychologist until recently at Harvard. On page 88, Hauser reports the findings of experiments conducted among several groups gathered in different venues from different cultures around the world who strive together to establish ideal, perfectly just societies. The model which emerges triumphant worldwide combines equal distribution of resources (in education, the most important are time and money), the establishment of a social safety net for those unable to rise to a minimal standard of living (in education, this would combine the minimal level of attainment and achievement expected via basic education) on their own, and the availability of rewards for those contributing well beyond the average to society as a whole. We may regard this model (rather than, for example, the social contract proposed by Professor John Rawls in A Theory of Justice) as the theory of justice most universally supported by the human species, as opposed to the norms that appear operative in other species, such as gorillas, ants, or wolves.

Applying this model to our current situation in education, we already allow rewards, in the manner of honours, scholarships, and college opportunities, to our best contributors, so this isn't much of an issue. But the United States is one of only three countries in the OECD that actually spends less on the education of the poor rather than as much or more, which is the custom elsewhere, and this opportunity gap is unjust.

The foundation of injustice in American education is the local school district. 

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