Friday, May 11, 2018

What do we mean by Equality when we're talking about teen education?

What is equality? And when some of us get together talking about secondary education, why do I get the feeling we’re talking about different things?

Alexis De Tocqueville sees human equality as an inexorable force driving the ceaseless advance of democracy. He writes about equality in the opening of Democracy in America, “it is universal, it is lasting, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress.” Equality then, is an undeniable fact. Human exertions continually reveal it, “some unknowingly and some despite themselves,” and thus what Fukuyama calls The March of Equality toward the ultimate political model, continues unstoppable.

The view of human equality as self-evident is central to the Jeffersonian view of democracy. Neither he nor Locke believed in an equality of physical endowments or intellectual capability (Jefferson was an aristocrat and slave-owner), but it was the idea of equality in the eyes of God, the equality of claims on life, liberty and happiness, the equality of a right to dignity, that formed the cornerstone of Western liberal democracy. The kind of equality Jefferson was talking about might not be visually evident, but it is morally self-evident that, under the eyes of our Creator, every human equally deserves opportunity and the tools for self-realization.

Education as a vertical
It should be no surprise, then, that underlying our day-to-day interaction with schools, curricula, education policies, and standardized testing, the desire to assert and protect equality motivates us. The No Child Left Behind Act drew on a vision of education as a vertical along which deviation should be minimized; the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 took this construct further--the vertical itself should be revisioned as a model in which everyone is on top.

Everyone is a winner
If education were an Olympic sport, while some teams are doping their athletes, ours would be preparing a hundred gold medals and a podium wide enough to hold all the contestants.

Of course these visual metaphors reflect an ideal behind legislation; in practice, the tools to effect greater equality involve reshuffling students and teachers, focusing time and resources on a few core competencies, standardized testing, and the re-allocation of (mostly state) funds. The focus is not on
When minimizing deviation
means minimizing choice
equal opportunity through individual choices, but toward equal learning outcomes through greater standardization. A key to social fairness, equality in education, according to this OECD policy brief, is enhanced when states minimize the sorting of students by aptitude and “manage school choice to contain the risks to equity”. (italics added)

Equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes can be consistent goals when they relate to essential life skills, particularly literacy and numeracy. These are baseline needs for functioning within an economy, for accessing new knowledge, managing one’s finances and communicating effectively. Governments should place high priority on young people mastering these skills and mastering them consistently.

However, secondary education should be something different. Teens’ strengths and emerging interests become much more diverse than can be well served by a system focused on delivering equal outcomes.

We see, then, a contradiction within the Western ideal of equality as it relates to education. Jefferson described humans that are inevitably equal, against all visible odds, equal in their claim to liberty and their right to their own pursuits. An aristocrat and founder of libraries, he emphasized the importance of cultivating literacy and virtuous citizens, but he also advocated for a very limited government, trusting the “moral sense and sympathetic instinct” of humans to guide their own development. On the other hand, the march toward universal success as a recasting of equality takes as its given that humans are born (or come to kindergarten) distinctly unequal, and that it is the role of an active state, through the narrowing of choices, the selection of a core of knowledge, and testing, to cast a K-12 corridor that reduces variation in outcomes.

The narrowing of choice and emphasis on equal outcomes seems even more inappropriate as the range of freely accessible online learning content has grown exponentially. As Clay Christensen pointed out in his 2010 book, Disrupting Class, the potential for completely individualized, personally-motivated learning has been around for years, but the design of school buildings and classrooms, allocation of teachers and supplies, still tends toward a monolithic, homogeneous process into which the child is inserted. Christensen optimistically predicted a sea-change within a year or two. But students are still covering books in September that reflect a state-endorsed curriculum and multi-year textbook procurement cycles; classes are still geared toward standardized tests.

Many families accept the inevitability of an equal-outcomes, managed-choice approach to secondary education, because it has been seen as inextricably connected to America’s other obsession: college admissions. I wrote about this mythical corridor earlier. Once admitted to college, these teens have grown into a passive, tell-me-what-to-think generation hardly equipped to grab life by the horns.

Plato and Nietzsche shared the view that humans deeply desire the dialectic, the ability to reason, judge, assign value, and have value assigned to ourselves. Hegel called it thymos, a demand for dignity that is an intrinsic part of the human soul. The ability to take up (or put down) a book, to become impassioned about a particular issue and follow it closely, to listen and respond to intrinsic interests within ourselves, to articulate opinions at odds with authority, is essential to our human dignity. But these are nearly impossible to replicate in an environment of homogeneous and predetermined content, and where achievement is measured as content mastery.

Dialectic doesn’t yield results we can benchmark, and so the teen’s desire for dignity and dialectic runs head to head with our social demand for equality of outcomes. And when any learning innovation is ultimately judged by the same measures of standard aptitude, then we are not only suppressing that dignity, we are telling ourselves it doesn’t exist. Even in praising the march toward equality, Fukuyama warned that “we risk becoming secure and self-absorbed last men, devoid of thymotic striving for higher goals in our pursuit of private comforts.”

How to restore the balance of thymos in the teen soul? Families with adult children may have a clue. When the years of tests, grades and admissions have passed, individuals go back to being individuals. Will they visit a library? Read the news? Express concern for others? To start seeing your teen as a human, imagine ahead a few years. When all of the contents of required curricula are forgotten, will the roots of dignity and intellectual curiosity remain? If you’re not sure, it’s time to start planting the seeds.

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