Equality and Education
Nov 12, 2011

Equality and Education

We live in a society that now ostensibly accepts equality and egalitarianism as a normative moral basis for our society. Not just the founding principles of classical liberalism with equal rights to speech, association, religion, and the like, but also in our social programs with equality in provision of education or healthcare. There is a tendency, well meant but detrimental nonetheless, to treat people as equal themselves. The normative equality of our morality - which broadly suggests we should equally care about people regardless of their differences -  transitions into a worldview that sees people as being themselves equal and is blind to sometimes startling differences between groups of people.

Africentric School in Toronto
Perhaps in no other place is this more apparent than in the education of children. There is tendency to view children as tabula raza - blank slates - to which one can apply similar educational techniques to result in similar effects. The reality, of course, is that the effects of nurture that come before a child enters schools makes an enormous difference and presents a population of children who are not equal and as such we should not expect equal treatment to result in equal results.

Take, for instance, the black/white achievement gap. It turns out that this is eliminated in grade one by adjusting for income level of the parents and age of mother at first birth and so we can conclude it is overwhelmingly an early childhood nurture effect due to things like socioeconomic statuses. Nevertheless, because there are such socioeconomic differences between different aggregate groups in the general population, these performance gaps do exist and this provides motivation to try and reduce it. It may be that a specific policy which is asymmetric its treatment to different groups is actually the most effective. Unfortunately, anything to do with things like racial performance differences is often a political non starter issue.

Specific policies ought not to be considered in a vacuum but instead in the appropriate context of the times. Policies which were once simply unacceptable because of a differing historical context may well be effective today. Consider the highly contentious issue of the Africentric school in Toronto (as in an all black school with an education tailored to its student body). Our first reaction might well be a visceral rejection given how it smacks of the kinds of racist segregation that tarnished so much of North American history.

It is my belief that as a society we have progressed to the point that we can put in place policies like this within an egalitarian context where all but the fringes are working for the benefit of these children - quite the opposite of historic segregation. This doesn't mean racism has been vanquished - it clearly hasn't been - but it does mean the kinds of slippery slopes one might fear where this policy ends up being a step towards mass segregation and things of this nature has very little likelihood of materializing.

This also doesn't meant we should necessarily support this specific policy. That decision depends on a utilitarian calculus. There are going to be positive and negative outcomes to the policy. For instance, it may be that it does legitimately increase the currently too low graduation rates among black youth in some regions of Toronto but increases social segregation post graduation. If that was the case then we ought to try and learn as much as we can about the consequences of such schooling and then judge whether it is a net benefit or not. Currently it is very hard to do this simply because we don't have much of a body of data to analyze. My impression is that there is enough reason to suspect considerable positive outcomes that it is at least worth a trial period to acquire data.

That the body of black students simply measures differently than the body of white students in a wide host of metrics - and many other similar divisions between different groups of people - is not a judgement but simply a fact worth internalizing if we are going to advocate for what is best for all people. It may be that the same policies optimize outcomes for all people and it may be that in certain situations choosing different policies (such as Africentric schools) for different groups of people optimizes outcomes. If that is the case we must not let our egalitarian morality impede our ability to recognize unequal - but beneficial - policies as imperatives. This analysis can be done in such a way that not only doesn't sacrifice our egalitarian morality but most effectively achieves it. 

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