Thursday, July 12, 2007

Education and Social Justice

There is a lot of talk around, particularly on the liberal side of the spectrum about social justice in education, particularly at the K-12 level. Of course, the problem is how to define social justice and in that respect many liberals cannot do so because it is a floating definition greatly dependent upon one's personal point of view and predilections. However, Matthew Ladner has a couple of questions to ask yourself:
Place yourself back in First Grade. Given the chance to choose any of the following options for your personal schooling, select the education you would like to receive for the greatest chance of success later in life:

A. Washington, District of Columbia inner city public schools
B. Los Angeles, California inner city public schools
C. Chicago, Illinois inner city public schools
D. none of the above

Was your answer D? According to John Rawls’ theory of “Justice as Fairness,” if those schools are not suitable for you in theory, then they are not suitable for low-income children in practice.

Every child in the inner city public schools has very limited opportunity. What you see is what you get. Think about this multiple choice question from your perspective. You can’t go back and change the place or the time you were born, and because of your environment and your family’s economic and social status, you had absolutely no control over the educational opportunities available to you. This is what Rawls referred to as the “lottery” – economic, social, educational opportunity is a matter of chance; a very small number of people win the lottery, and an unbelievably large number of people lose. While many contest Rawls’ philosophy, it is hugely influential in left-of-center thinking.

For a moment, put yourself behind this “veil of ignorance” in which you cannot determine the school you attend. Without knowing the odds or whether you might end up a Rockefeller or in the slums, you (and everyone else) would work a little harder to make sure that if you end up on the bottom rung, that ladder is not greased down by neglected school districts, underpaid teachers and minimalist resources.
Of course, the knee-jerk reaction that has occured with regular frequency for over 40 years is "spend more money on those districts." While that may have had an initial impact in the 1960's, the fact of the matter is that urban school districts spend far more per pupil than even the wealthiest suburbs and probably twice what is spent in rural districts. So clearly, money is not a shorthand for "social justice." So what is the solution. Ladner suggests that we need to revamp the teacher compensation structure (read merit pay) and increase choice programs. Both, in conjunction may provide some wonderful benefits, but there is one major obstacle--the unions, who have fought tooth and nail against both options.

However, the best question to ask the unions is "What, in your view, is social justice in education? How, specifically, do you think we as a nation should try to implement that vision?" Unfortunately,there is no answer from the NEA and the AFT.

Ladner poses this final proposition:
Answer one final multiple choice question.

Place yourself back in Twelfth Grade. Given the chance to choose any of the following options for your personal schooling, select the education you would like to receive for the greatest chance of success later in life:

A. Ivy League
B. Any Top University
C. The Perfect Match, Post-Secondary School for Your Learning Abilities and Future Goals
D. any of the above is fine

Was your answer D?

Here is the ultimate question.

What needs to happen to reform our educational system such that any child who began with the first multiple choice question would be able to have the final multiple choice question?

Answer: by putting student interests first. Until we do so, the lottery will remained fixed against disadvantaged children.
So once again, we return to my Commandment #1 for Education:
Thou shall never forget that the most important people in schools are the students, first, last and always. Nothing trumps their importance, not your job or your cousin/uncle/aunt/mistress' job, not your favorite policy, not the school principal, not the school board, not even the teachers. Nothing!!
Too much of the debate about education forgets this basic factor and we need to be reminded of that everyday.

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