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Education and the Failure of Procedural Equality

Read about education in the popular press frequently, as I do, and you’ll conclude that it’s a topic that makes people nuts. The emotional stakes are quite high. Everybody questions everybody else’s motives. People stalk around the same questions over and over. People talk about the need for radical changes and new perspectives, but there are a ton of tacit orthodoxies that nobody ever questions. Empirical research is cited when it is conducive to pre-existing beliefs but ignored when inconvenient. (Well, maybe that’s not so weird.) More than anything, the discussion seems immune to the notion of human limitation or skepticism. The whole conversation, frankly, is bizarre.

Ideas proliferate and become received wisdom seemingly without connection to reality. Consider, for example, the commonly held notion that education is the only solution for poverty or income inequality. President Obama and his educational team have asserted this many times. But as Matt Bruenig has recently pointed out, this is contradicted in both directions at once: we in fact know that government redistribution programs such as Social Security are very good at ending poverty, and we don’t in fact know that there is a straightforward relationship between education and the amelioration of poverty, certainly not with the confidence that would suggest vast changes to public policy. Yet the consensus staggers on.

Nor is there any sense of historical context or proportion when evaluating the essential goals of the educational reform movement. Think about the enormity of what No Child Left Behind specifically and reformers generally are proposing. NCLB takes as national policy a major improvement of educational metrics by a vast number of people across a broad variety of demographics and contexts. The law requires not only that these students demonstrate improvement but that they meet arbitrary, inflexible standards imposed by fiat from above. The scope of the required change is absolutely massive. It’s important to say: nothing like this has ever been accomplished in the history of education. You cannot identify a credible example, in world history, of a country achieving the kind of massive aggregate educational gains that NCLB calls for. Even if we had examples of other countries achieving gains of the size and speed mandated by NCLB, it would be hard to draw meaningful lessons from such comparisons, given the unusual size, high childhood poverty, demographic diversity, and complicated federalism of the United States. These are part of the reason why, despite the common assumption that our educational system has fallen from some great heights, the United States has never performed well in international educational comparisons.

The consequence for skeptics, meanwhile, is endless derision and the assumption of bad faith. Those who doubt that we can meet the specific standards enumerated by NCLB, or the basic premise of all students ever meeting arbitrary standards, or the power of education to overcome structural inequalities within our society, are accused of all manner of bad traits. Vocal supporters of education reform like Michelle Rhee and Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter accuse skeptics of being callous or uncaring towards poor children, of implicit racism, of defeatism. In a world of policy discussions that tend to the bloodless and the anodyne, education brings out the knives.

The question is, why? Why is our educational discourse such a stew of rhetorical and analytic pathology?

The second half of the 20th century witnessed a major ideological battle over the idea of summative equality. Communism, to get reductive, called for it, through a reorganization of the class system and a command economy. Capitalist countries resisted it, and eventually, the most prominent and powerful communist government collapsed, and everyone declared capitalism the victor. But the fundamental moral and political case for equality had taken hold, and so capitalism came to embrace the notion of procedural equality. For awhile, Americans contented themselves with the notion that the demise of the alternative meant the legitimacy of the other.

Where summative equality calls for equal outcomes, procedural equality calls for equal opportunity. Procedural equality sets out certain rules and structures that are meant to ensure that everyone gets a certain chance at prosperity. That chance may not be equal across all people, but all are meant to enjoy a decent chance at the good life, assured not through redistribution but through opportunity. Some people call for more governmental assistance and regulation in achieving the goal of procedural equality, some less. The difference is hardly a matter of irrelevant details: the social safety nets and regulatory systems defended by liberals mean, quite literally, the difference between life and death for many of the most vulnerable. But liberals and conservatives alike have tended to embrace a rhetoric of equal opportunity, one founded on the notion that long-term shared prosperity can only be safeguarded by individuals maximizing their talents through an equitable set of rules.

The big story of the 21st century, so far, is that procedural equality has utterly failed. We have not been witness to a society of ever-greater possibility and economic mobility, nor of broadly shared prosperity. On the contrary, we’ve seen declining mobility,skyrocketing inequality, stagnant wages despite high productivity, and a frankly incredible division in wealth between the rich and everyone else. Traditional inequalities in race, gender, and age have not disappeared, and in some cases have worsened. Despite the prevalence of the Horatio Alger myth in American life, the impact of parents on children remains enormous. This is all without discussing the impact of biological parentage to a child’s eventual educational and economic outcomes, a topic so fraught and controversial it is essentially undiscussed in public life.

Maybe there’s just too much resistance to achieving it, maybe it’s built on a flawed premise, maybe it doesn’t work to achieve the outcomes we want. But one way or another, procedural equality has failed, spectacularly, and we live in a world of massive inequality, in terms of money and power and happiness, where people from different social strata face vastly different degrees of difficulty in achieving prosperity, or even minimal material security. The essential trends have been building for decades, but only with the collapse of a enormous housing bubble and the credit-based consumer economy it permitted has the full failure of our system become clear to most Americans. Since then, metrics for consumer confidence, worker satisfaction, and general belief in American progress have delivered a clear message: Americans are angry and scared.

Karl Marx wrote that mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve. I would argue that mankind discusses problems it believes it can solve when faced with problems it knows it can’t. Contemporary Americans, speaking broadly, cannot imagine a future that is not founded on a liberal capitalist order that justifies itself through the rhetoric of procedural equality. Blame must be assigned elsewhere than a system that has been relentlessly and ruthlessly advanced as conducive to human or divine nature. Education is an appealing target. It allows those invoking it to present themselves as warriors for innocent children. It has always been discussed in soaring, vague terms of self-improvement and social betterment. Our public education system, one of the greatest vehicles for social justice in the history of the world, presents an appealing target to opponents of public expenditure, to profiteers looking to wring revenues from public goods, and to those who think vague concepts like “competition” and “innovation” can somehow counter the decidedly material realities of class and parentage. Best of all (by which I mean worst), teachers and their unions represent perfect scapegoats in a neoliberal age where distaste for labor and public employees arerampant. Besides: reformers have always had a knack for spinning pleasant narratives about how to fix things. We just have to want it enough.

During the Bush presidency, Matt Yglesias,now of Slate, invented the notion of the “The Green Lantern Theory of Foreign Policy.” Yglesias critiqued the opinion, popular at the time, that America’s foreign policy was constrained only by its popular will, much as the Green Lantern’s powers are limited only by his own self-belief. In a period when too many American pundits had forgotten that “should” implies “can,” Yglesias’s piece was a sober reminder that we are always constrained by context, that our needs are irrelevant to our abilities, and that failure is always an option. Such sobriety is badly needed now.

None of which is to say that education is useless or that “some kids can’t learn.” As someone who’s worked as an educator for his entire adult life, and as someone who performs research devoted to improving writing pedagogy and literacy education, this would be an odd stance for me to take. All students can learn. But the education reform movement and NCLB have made improvement insufficient. Instead, they have insisted on arbitrary standards that ignore the vast differences in every individual child’s potential— whether that potential is constrained by “natural talent” or by demographic factors or by parentage or by circumstance. This is an enormous mistake. All students can learn. All students cannot be made to meet universal standards. 100% compliance, or anything close to it, is a fantasy. Educators who are compelled to achieve arbitrary testing goals, when their control over the outcomes of the children in their care is so deeply constrained by conditions they don’t control, face an impossible choice between professional failure and committing fraud. The destructive potential of universal standards like those represented in NCLB can hardly be overstated.

I have argued about the essential limitations of education with people ranging from radical to reactionary. From all across the ideological spectrum, some have resisted my pessimism with varying degrees of shock and anger. Those on the right are deeply invested in the notion of the self-same man; those on the left, in the notion of the equal abilities of all people. Conservatives argue that those who suffer in our system do so because they are untalented or unwilling to work hard. Liberals argue that they suffer because of systematic inequality, that a lack of received privilege makes success impossible.

I always reply: the reasons for educational failure and attendant economic suffering are immaterial to me. I find the notion that we can separate the factors that are “deserved” from those that are not to be incredibly naive. These influences are so vastly multivariate, so endlessly confounded, that I don’t believe we will ever separate them. Even if we could, so what? If it could be proven that those who fail do so as a result of their lack of “natural talent,” whatever that means, it would in no way imply that they should suffer. In a country which still enjoys incredible affluence and prosperity for those on top, basic material comfort is not something that anyone should have to deserve. The endless arguments about why people end up unequal in educational metrics are misguided. They do, and they always will, no matter how often we stamp our feet and say “No excuses!,” and we as a society must decide whether this should curse them to poverty, joblessness, and despair.

Yglesias wrote of the Green Lantern Theory that “like all the really bad theories, it’s never refuted by events.” Such is the condition of the education reform movement. After so much talk of “no excuses,” married to such consistent and profound empirical failure, it’s time to ask what possible outcomes could be considered a refutation of the reform movement. This, essentially, has been the assumed position of our educational debate for decades: we can improve our educational metrics because we must. Research and reality have replied, again and again: no, we can’t. The question is whether we will pay attention and ask ourselves hard questions about the basic structure of our society, or if we will continue to tell ourselves lies that permit us to perpetuate the same broken system. If you asked me to put money down, I’d bet that enough elites agree on a minimally convincing way to juke the stats, that we hand the profiteers their public funds, destroy public education and teacher quality of life, and then pretend we have fixed things for the sake of our national myth.

But perhaps there is another way.

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