Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Inequality in education

There have been a couple of interesting posts (here and here) from Chris Dillow, suggesting among other things that:

Perhaps [we] should follow the examples of Texas, and equalize exam results across schools, thus ensuring no-one suffers from going to a bad school.
This doesn't seem an accurate summary of the Texan system, which rather seems to guarantee college places to the top 10% of high school graduates from every school in addition to other forms of qualification. It also carries the following rider:
After a student is admitted, the university may review the student's high school records to determine if the student is prepared for college-level work. A student who needs additional preparation may be required to take a developmental, enrichment, or orientation course during the semester prior to the first semester of college.

Admission to a university does not guarantee acceptance into a particular college of study or department, however.
It is not clear whether success in the development course, if required, is a condition of subsequent entry but it would be reasonable if it were. It also ensures that good colleges are not forced at gunpoint to lower their standards.

Richard Feynman observed that the purpose of education is to increase the differences between children. If two children enter the educational process, one with a natural aptitude for maths and one with an aptitude for languages, they would start with this small but undeveloped difference. An effective system would enhance their natural aptitudes, finding and developing the things they can do best at as individuals. They would therefore leave the education with their natural aptitudes developed and trained, and with greater differences between them than had initially existed.

This is desirable. Differences between people are good and should be developed, and admired. Educational systems should try to equip every child with basic tools, and help them find and develop areas in which they can excel.

Ways to try to open the possibilities of excellence to people in an unequal society are obvious, and indeed we had an educational system which did just that until the 1970s in England, and still does in N Ireland. In other words, a system based on excellence can always find ways to promote equality.

Systems based on equality seem in practice to be unable to obtain excellence, partly because they don't aim for it. Here's an example, from Chris' second post:
Equalizing grades across schools would help reduce differences between schools.[1] Under the current system, parents have every incentive to seek out good schools. Under my system, this incentive is greatly blunted.[2]
1. Not true, the differences between schools would be the same. The consequences of these differences would be changed. The question of excellence simply doesn't enter into this thinking, and this creates a simple logical error.

Moreover, what incentive would bad schools then have to improve? Well, still some, because in practice any attempt to subvert the market itself becomes subverted. But survival for bad schools would be easier and they would continue to fail their pupils.

2. Trying to reduce parents' incentives to help with the education of their children - by making the parents powerless - is an awful ambition. What happens to us when we become powerless to affect outcomes? We become de-motivated, time-serving, disinterested. The logical end point for Chris' idea is a society in which everybody is forbidden from trying to improve anything at all, because different people will do so with differing results.

Nowhere in Chris' argument is the idea that the absolute quality of attainment is important. So long as every child is equally illiterate, illiteracy is fine. Parents must not be able to affect this equality of squalor.

Trying to increase equality without reference to any other factors will always just worsen a system for everyone who uses it. Equally, trying to increase excellence and giving parents choice improves things for everyone.


chris said...

You're right that I didn't discuss the question of excellence. That's not because I think excellence unimportant, but merely because I was trying to show what would have to happen for schools to promote equality of opportunity.
That said, I think it's utopian nonsense to think that all schools can become excellent. The fact is that bad schools will always be with us. The question is how to mitigate the disadvantages they impose upon their students.
Your claim that "the differences between schools would be the same" is partly true and partly false. In the important sense of exam grades, schools would be equalized. So a parent wanting to increase his chances of his kid getting good grades would have an incentive to send his kid to the poorer school. There's no logical error on my part.
Your objection seems to be the quite reasonable one that excellence should have priority over equality of opportunity. This is a difference of values, not logic.

Peter Risdon said...

I'm certainly not suggesting that all schools could become excellent, and yes, bad schools will always be with us. One question is how to mitigate this, another is how to improve schools. Making failure inconsequential is not going to help. The Texan system does seem an interesting approach to the first question, but it isn't one of equalising results.

I stand on the logical error - exam grades are still consequences of the schools' teaching (this is intrinsic to your agrument).

My objection is more that while the pursuit of excellence need not be a barrier to equality of opportunity, the pursuit of equality is always a barrier to excellence.

wildgoose said...

My much loved and much-missed grandfather taught me a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson when I was a little boy:

The mountain and the squirrel
Had a quarrel,
And the former called the latter
“Little prig.”
Bun replied,
“You are doubtless very big;
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together
To make up a year
And a sphere.
And I think it no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I'm not so large as you,
You are not so small as I,
And not half so spry:
I'll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track.
Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut."

TDK said...

It seems to me that forcing higher education institutions to accept the top 10% of pupils from both good and bad schools in order to rectify inequality, presupposes that all pupil from the bad schools would be able to catch up. This is no less utopian. The alternate is that we will merely delay the day when reduced opportunity becomes apparent to leaving higher education.

A posibble unintended consequence of such a policy will be to increase the gap between the good and bad schools. We have such an example in the case of Malaya's quota policy for university admission. Chinese students were taking a disproportionate number of university places prior to a program of equalisation that forced universities to accept more ethnic Malays. The result was that the Chinese studied harder than before to gain access to a dwindling number of places, whereas Ethnic Malays now had guaranteed places, which reduced the pressure to work. Quotas did not solve the problem.

TDK said...

Damned Blogger. First time it didn't post and then when I clicked "back" it returned to an earlier pre-checked version!!! - posibble!

Final para:

The Malaysian economy has suffered a brain drain as many able Chinese leave to Singapore or beyond.