Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Education and the Propagation of Inequality

The United States has experienced an extended period over which income inequality has grown to dangerous levels. There are undoubtedly multiple factors at play in causing this trend, but when it comes to arresting and countering this development, all eyes seem to turn to our education system. If everyone receives a quality education, then the most competent will be rewarded with the best careers and greatest financial compensation—and that’s the way it should be. This belief places our education system in the rather uncomfortable position of being the place where the playing field is supposed to be leveled so that our "meritocracy" can run its course. Because there are also multiple factors at play in determining ultimate success—be it before schooling begins, during education, or after graduation—this is not an easy task. Here we will discuss our education system and how it affects inequality of outcomes.

It is efficacious to view our system within the context of how other wealthy countries provide education for their children. The OECD has provided a report that attempts to provide that comparison. Much of the data gathered is summarized in this table:

Since education actually begins at birth, the manner in which we approach preschool education is important. In terms of ensuring that three- and four-year-olds receive some form of preschool attention, the US is ranked well below the median. Only 69% of four-year-olds are in a formal program. The study provides us with an interesting comparison with our presumed less-developed neighbor to the south: Mexico provides early education for essentially all of its four-year-olds.

There is another significant difference between the US and other countries:

"On average across OECD countries, 84% of pupils in early childhood education attend programmes in public schools or government-dependent private institutions, while in the U.S., 55% of early childhood pupils attend programmes in public schools, and 45% attend independent private programmes. In the U.S. the typical starting age for early childhood education is 4 years old, while in 21 other OECD countries, it is 3 years old or younger....In addition, education-only early childhood programmes in other countries are usually delivered by a qualified teacher and have a formal curriculum, while in the U.S., the situation can vary."

While other countries attempt to level the playing field by providing a consistent environment for their children, ours is much less coherent. In fact, an observer might conclude that our preschool approach was constructed in such a way as to tilt the playing field as much as possible. The fact that about half the children who are in any program at all are in "independent private institutions" implies what is typical of private education: the wealthy will purchase for themselves the best product they can. One should not forget the 31% of our children who receive no formal preschool attention at all.

The net result is that children enter their first year of formal education with a wide variety of preschool experiences. Some will have learned to be curious about their environment and ask questions about it. Some will have become adept at socializing within a large group of children. Some will have been told that they are special and are entitled to be inquisitive and to have their needs met. Others will enter and be utterly frightened by a totally new experience.

By the time our children enter school, the idea of equality of opportunity has already been compromised, and it may not be possible to correct that situation.

One of the hallmarks of a "meritocratic" system is that it is believed that students should be allowed to learn as fast as they are capable of learning. This can be a dangerous concept when applied to young children. A class of nominal five-year-olds will have students varying in age by as much as a full year. The difference in maturity between five years and six years can be quite large. Also, children do not all mature at the same rate. The young slow learner might just be the young immature learner. Categorizing young children as either "bright" or "not bright" creates variations in how they are taught. Those deemed faster learners are provided different materials, experiences, and teachers. If this sorting is applied at an early age, one runs the risk of inserting an artificial bias in favor of those who are naturally more mature or who have had better preschool preparation.

Some countries forbid dividing students into different learning groups until they have reached a certain age. Finland forbids it entirely in K-8. In fact, Finland views their education system as the means of attaining equality of opportunity. They wish to hold back the fast learners so they can help the slow learners in trying to move everyone along at the same rate—a rather interesting concept that seems to work quite well for them.

In our meritocratic education system, any notion of equality of opportunity is lost as soon as students are binned into groups based on learning proficiency. The system makes it exceedingly hard for a slow starter or the wrongly evaluated to ever catch up.

There are other sources of inequality in our system. Our long summer vacations penalize the poorer students who tend not to receive the same enriching experiences that wealthier parents can provide their children: music, sports, travel, and tutoring or other enrichment programs. Students who are equally proficient at the end of one academic year are not necessarily equal at the beginning of the next.

The wealthier children might also be enrolled in a private school where a quite different environment is available to them. The availability of elite private schools guarantees inequality.

One often turns to scores on standardized tests as a means of assessing inequalities in academic outcomes. Thomas B. Edsall provided a more direct means of assessing the bias that wealth might inject into our education system in a New York Times article titled The Reproduction of Privilege. A college education is the gateway to success in our society. Therefore, the most relevant assessment of academic accomplishment is the ability to score high on the SAT tests used for college admission. Edsall provides this chart:

The difference in test scores between the wealthy and the not wealthy is stunning. Can one still conceive of there ever having been a level playing field?

Edsall provides us with one more illuminating chart:

The top quartile income group has seen its probability of gaining a college degree increase significantly over the years while the other groups have barely changed at all. That seems to imply that there is a growing bias in our higher education system that makes it more difficult for students from lower income families to succeed in college.

Consider the above table again. Note that the term "upper secondary education" is equivalent to high school graduation. We are one of the top countries in the survey when it comes to financially rewarding those with a college degree. Unfortunately, when it comes to punishing financially those who did not graduate from high school we are even more efficient. Low incomes are not likely to be helpful in improving college graduation rates.

The OECD report also tallies the amount of money spent on higher education by each country. The US is tied with South Korea for spending the most money on higher education as a fraction of GDP. However, Korea graduates about a 50% higher fraction of its population from college than the US. That means college education in the US is the most expensive in the world.

"On a per-student basis, annual spending by higher education institutions in the U.S. amounts to USD 29 201. Only in Canada (USD 20 932) and Switzerland (USD 21 577) does spending exceed USD 20 000 on this measure."

Not only are we expensive, but we place a tremendous financial burden on the student and his/her family.

"In the U.S., 38% of higher education expenditures come from public sources, and 62% are from private sources. Across all OECD countries, 70% of expenditures on higher education come from public sources, and 30% are from private sources. What is more, 45% of expenditures on higher education in the U.S. come from households."

By decreasing incomes in the lower quartiles and making college education ever more expensive, is it any wonder that graduation rates have not been increasing?

By biasing academic success towards the wealthy, our education system is complicit in propagating the inequality that is such a concern to us. Fixing this is going to require a lot more than the firing of a few incompetent teachers. Providing universal preschool education would be a good start. It would at least ensure that our children are properly nourished. It might have beneficial economic returns in terms of providing working parents with reliable child care and making them more efficient workers.

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