Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Educational equity

Paul Glastris thinks progressives should be concerned with how the No Child Left Behind Act punishes gifted students - the idea being that if teachers are required to put the most effort into helping the least gifted students to bring them up to proficiency, gifted students who need to be pushed to excellence get short shrift.

This strikes me as backwards - if anything, progressives should be less concerned with gifted students than with the most unfortunate students. If we're willing to sacrifice the incomes of the wealthy with progressive taxation and social welfare programs to help out the most needy, if we're willing to sacrifice the most top-notch health care in order to extend coverage to the 40 million who live in fear of financial catastrophe if they get in a car accident, why can't we sacrifice a bit of educational excellence to achieve broader educational proficiency?

As Paul Glastris says, with fewer excellent students, we'd probably end up with fewer scientists, intellectuals, engineers, etc - the people who create innovation and thereby prosperity and better standards of living. But this is equally true of progressive taxation and national health care: high marginal tax rates discourage work and investment among high earners who tend to be the most productive; and national health care reduces the incentive for drug companies to develop new drugs, because they're no longer guaranteed the ability to charge outrageous prices. Equality and excellence are values in tension, and while it's not exactly either/or (clearly you can put more effort into educating both the most and least proficient), you do have to make your trade-offs at some point.

Maybe that's so much the worse for equality. But it seems to me that if you're in favor of progressive taxation and national health care, consistency requires you to favor an emphasis on educating the least-gifted. The NCLB Act has a lot of problems, but from a progressive point of view, shortchanging gifted students while focusing on the least proficient students isn't really one of them (at least in principle - obviously it's bad if it fails at this goal in practice).

9 Comments:

Anonymous Biopolitical said...

"You do have to make your trade-offs at some point." The problem in this case is that it is the government who makes the trade-off. Once it makes the decision it is fixed for all students. The government doesn't care for the individual circumstances of students except for sorting them into the crude categories of "least-gifted" and "most-gifted." It is sad that politicians or bureaucrats sitting in their far-away offices make decisions that so profoundly affect the education - the lives - of individual people. I wish each student or his parents could make the decision, allocate their resources accordingly, and take responsibility for their choices. There would be no trade-off, no rationing of a fixed amount of educational services, and no Salomonic allocation to politically defined sets of students.

A private system of education would have its own problems. Perhaps it would be less equitable. But the public system, with its quotas and inattention to individual circumstances, strikes me as cold and inhumane.

12/28/2005 12:57:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

It is sad that politicians or bureaucrats sitting in their far-away offices make decisions that so profoundly affect the education - the lives - of individual people.

Well, come on, politicians do that all the time, with lots of things, not just education. If anything, education is more locally regulated than most other government functions. In the end, it's still your local school board making most of the decisions about how schools will run in the district. I can see where you're coming from if you're taking a generally libertarian line. I think I could go either way on school vouchers though (or perhaps because) I don't know that much about the economics of education.

12/29/2005 12:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Biopolitical said...

We are talking here about the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal program. Anyway, I apply the same logic to politicians, bureaucrats or committee members sitting in nearby offices. School boards can decide that it is ok to teach stupid things (Intelligent Design, or other subtler stuff that you can't fight on constitutional grounds) to your child, or to use your money to teach stupid things to your neighbors' children. And, yes, politicians decide for us about lots of things. So sad.

12/29/2005 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

"I wish each student or his parents could make the decision, allocate their resources accordingly, and take responsibility for their choices."

You mean home schooling? That could never be done in an institution with lots of students. Besides, how many parents really have a clear idea of what their kids should be learning and the best age at which to learn it?

But there is a problem that there is too much of a "one size fits all" approach, particularly in poorer schools. If the students are self-motovated, you can have special projects for the brighter kids that don't take that much of the teacher's time or school resources. But in poor schools, the brightest kids might be more likely to be bored and indifferent to school work.

One down side to local control of schools is that the funding is largely local too--via property taxes. So we have rather rich schools and very poor schools. The very poor schools have the hardest to teach kids as well. It certainly is not progressive education.

12/29/2005 11:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Biopolitical said...

"You mean home schooling?" No, I mean schools choosing teaching methods and contents, and parents choosing school (or home schooling, for that matter).

12/30/2005 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

re property taxes - this could of course be remedied by switching to a school voucher system... the question is whether the cure would be worse than the disease, a question on which I remain as yet agnostic.

12/30/2005 06:59:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

Or it could be fixed with a more central and progressive system of taxing.

Actually vouchers are on the spending side not the collecting side. You could have a voucher system based on local funding from property taxes.

I'm agnostic too--but mostly because it seems like one of those promising ideas that is likely to fail in the political give-and-take.

12/31/2005 04:29:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Hm, yes, that is what I meant - a school voucher system where everyone in the state/country gets the same amount of money to spend on education, from the general tax pool. (thus a fix in both spending and collecting)

12/31/2005 05:15:00 PM  
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