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Why Education Can’t Solve Inequality August 17, 2009

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Political Philosophy.
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It is common knowledge that economic inequality is increasing in the United States, and that means we don’t quite deserve our reputation as the land of opportunity. Most discussions of equality assume  we should be aiming for equality of opportunity (rather than equality of outcome), and most people think the only solution to inequality is to  improve education for disadvantaged kids, thereby leveling the playing field.

But recent discoveries in cognitive science suggest that improving education for the disadvantaged, although a good thing to do, will not provide them with equal opportunity.

Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, in his book Why Don’t Students Like School?” writes that:

When it comes to knowledge, those who have more gain more. […] The researchers had people learn either a lot or just a little about subjects that were new to them (for example Broadway musicals). Then they had them read other, new facts about the subject, and they found that the “experts” (those who had earlier learned a lot of facts about the subject) learned new facts more quickly and easily than the “novices” (who had earlier learned just a few facts about the subject).

So how well and how quickly you learn depends on how much you know already.

The implications of this are profound.

Consider two kids, Jake and Amy, the same age, and with equal raw brain power. Suppose Amy has 10,000 facts in her memory and Jake has only 9000. And suppose the percentage of new facts both retain is based on what they already know. Amy remembers 10% of the new facts she encounters, and Jake remembers only 9% because of his lack of background knowledge. And suppose both are exposed to 500 new facts per month.

By the end of 10 months the gap between them has widened from 1,000 to 1043 facts. And of course the gap is only going to get worse over time. The velocity of increase between Amy and Jake is going to continually increase as well. (This example is adapted from Willingham’s example in his book)

We know that children who are economically disadvantaged tend to suffer other disadvantages as well—fewer books to read, less dialogue with parents, less exposure to vocabulary and ideas, in short, less background knowledge at least with regard to knowledge that is important to their formal education.

How is Jake going to catch up to Amy so that when he graduates from high school his opportunities will equal those of Amy? The disadvantages suffered early in life look intransigent.

We could make sure Amy was exposed to fewer facts by giving her an inferior education until Jake catches up, but that would be unfair to Amy. If it is wrong for Jake to be disadvantaged because of an accident of birth (the family into which he was born), it is wrong for Amy to be disadvantaged because of an accident of birth as well.

So I don’t see a solution to this. (At least none that is morally palatable. We could give qualifying exams for parenthood I suppose)

Of course, we can and should improve Jake’s life chances by improving his education. And we are under no obligation to maximize Amy’s opportunities. We can divert some resources to Jake that Amy might have enjoyed.

But what we won’t get is equality of opportunity.

If education is the key to equality of opportunity—and the more technologically sophisticated we become, the more important education will be—equality of opportunity seems an unrealizable ideal.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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