Friday, December 30, 2005

More on educational equity

Richard Chappell takes issue with my suggestion that people who favor progressive taxation and national health care should also put a premium on helping the least proficient students rather than gifted students. His main point is that there are other reasons besides egalitarianism or Rawlsian social justice to favor progressive taxation and national health care, and these reasons (e.g., utilitarianism) don't necessarily favor focusing on the least proficient students. So basically believing in the former needn't require believing in the latter. That's fair enough.

But I do want to clarify what I meant in the previous post. I was working off Rawls's Difference Principle, that inequality is justified only insofar as it benefits the least well-off. This leaves room for all sorts of qualifications on the claim that we should focus our effort on the least proficient students. For example, gifted students are likely to become scientists, engineers, intellectuals, or entrepeneurs who create innovation and therefore benefit everyone, even the least well-off. (This being analogous to a Rawlsian argument why capitalism is better than socialism, even for the poor.) Or, a focus on mediocrity rather than excellence is a kind of "soft bigotry of kind-of-low expectations" that leads to a general devaluing of education.

Richard also mentions a couple issues I should discuss. Richard brings up the idea of cost-efficiency - that it's less cost-effective to educate less-able students (ie less able students require more effort to get X improvement in education than gifted students), or that you might get more utility out of education the more educated you are (ie gifted students get more enjoyment out of X improvement in education than mediocre students). Aside from questioning the latter suggestion (it's quite plausible that increased intelligence actually makes you less happy), I must disagree even on principle - I think a decent society must, to some extent, give priority to the least well-off [with the Rawlsian qualification that inequality can also help the least well-off], even if this is cost-inefficient. Just think how much extra money we spend on special education - I'd have a hard time arguing that giving disabled students extra attention is wasted money.

I'm sympathetic to Richard's view that intellectual excellence is "an intrinsically valuable mode of human flourishing" (as opposed to material or medical "excellence"). However, I have trouble justifying it and suspect that intellectual excellence is actually instrumentally valuable, in that geniuses discover new scientific theories, create great works of art, and so on. Certainly, it is in some sense better to have a hermit genius who doesn't try to discover new things than a hermit of mediocre intelligence who also doesn't try to discover new things, but it's not clear to me that the former is so much better than the latter that we should spend any money on it.

Anyway, with all these qualifications, it might even be that the current system doesn't give enough attention to gifted students. Given how hard it is to disentangle the facts of the matter (how much do you weigh this gifted student's future discovery of cold fusion against this less-able student's inability to get a decent job?), it's not clear that this discussion has any actual policy implications. But I suppose it's worth discussion anyway, if only to sharpen the tensions between equity and excellence.

6 Comments:

Blogger driftwood said...

Since income (and the resulting security it provides in the US), is so closely linked to education, there is a direct effect on the resulting inequality. Helping the weakest students should be a greater priority in the US than it need be in a country less dependent on inividual income.

For an argument like this, it might also be important to seperate the very brightest (of whom there are few) from the above average (of whom there are many). The above average student might be on track to land a comfy job with a good income, but she won't be one of the Nobel Prize winners or the like.

12/31/2005 04:46:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

For an argument like this, it might also be important to seperate the very brightest (of whom there are few) from the above average (of whom there are many).

Yea, as I understand it, that's the point of "gifted" programs - to find, and bring out the potential of, the geniuses among us - they're not for the merely above average (though parents of above average kids might try to make them so).

12/31/2005 05:29:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

I have not read any research that quantifies it, but from parents I've talked to, it sounds like a lot of "gifted" programs get expanded into large, broad, programs for the generally college-directed. You can see why this happens since so many parents are desperate to get their kids into the best school they can.

Whatever merits that might have, it certainly costs more money to do than to just focus on developing the best out of the one or two truly exceptional kids that are the one-in-a-thousand (or even more rare) talents.

12/31/2005 07:48:00 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

"I must disagree even on principle - I think a decent society must, to some extent, give priority to the least well-off"

Even if they don't benefit from it as much as others would? I don't see how that's equitable. (See the post on 'equal concern' linked in my original post.) Note also that I have a new post up arguing against the priority view (purely as a matter of principle).

"Just think how much extra money we spend on special education - I'd have a hard time arguing that giving disabled students extra attention is wasted money."

I think it's an open question. It depends how much they benefit from it (perhaps it makes a huge difference to their lives?), and what the opportunity costs are (could we be helping others even more?). There may also be broader effects, i.e. to cultural attitudes, creating a more caring and generous society, etc.

Not the sort of thing that's open to direct utilitarian calculation in practice, of course. But interesting to wonder about nonetheless, I think.

1/07/2006 11:54:00 AM  
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