John Rawls and Education Reform

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Matthew Miller’s book The 2% Solution utilizes the philosophy of John Rawls to make the case for parental choice in education. I’m more of a Nozick guy myself, but let’s follow the Rawls rabbit-hole down to the bottom.

John Rawls’ hugely influential work A Theory of Justice argued that societal ethics ought to be decided as if we were behind a theoretical “veil of ignorance.” Behind the veil, no one would be aware of what his or her position would be in a forthcoming society. You would not know whether you would grow up the child of a billionaire or poor in the inner city. The veil creates an incentive to leave a path out of the latter scenario. While many contest Rawls’ philosophy, it is hugely influential in left of center thinking. Does today’s system of public education remotely approach the Rawlsian ideal?

No, not even close. In fact, today’s public education system closely resembles the opposite. Today’s system systematically disadvantages the poor.

Consider the expanding body of research on teacher quality. Researchers have shown that the effectiveness of individual teachers plays a huge role in student learning gains. Examining test scores on a value added basis (year-to-year gains) has revealed that some teachers are hugely effective, while others are much less so.

What we have not had before is quantifiable evidence regarding just how important high quality teachers are in driving outcomes. Researchers examined the differences between teachers succeeding in adding value (the top 20% of teachers) and the least successful teachers (the bottom 20%). A student learning from a low quality teacher learns fifty percent less than a similar student learning from an effective teacher during the same period.

The question then quickly becomes: how do we get more teachers that are effective into the classroom? Only by making big systemic changes. Teaching is a profession with many rewards, but which has been tragically divorced from any recognition of merit. The teacher who works effectively and tirelessly is paid according to a salary schedule that will treat them identically to someone who does neither.

Job security and summers off are not big lures for the capable and ambitious sorts of people we need to attract into teaching in droves. To be sure, we have such people in our teaching ranks now, but the system treats them poorly. Our public schools do not pay them according to productivity- no rewards for success, no sanctions for failure. In short, we treat teachers not as professionals, but as unionized factory workers.

Most of our capable teachers will leave the profession frustrated, or go into administration. Those that we do keep in the classroom cluster in leafy suburbs far from the children who need them most.

What does the public system do for those children losing the Rawls lottery, who find themselves growing up in poor urban school districts? All too often, it assigns them to schools with decades long histories of academic failure. These children will serially suffer ineffective instructors.

Frighteningly high percentages of these students will never learn to read at a developmentally appropriate age. Many will never learn to read. Such students fall further and further behind each year. Unable to read their textbooks, never envisioning themselves advancing on to higher education, they will begin to dropout in large numbers in late middle school.

Fortunately, it is not hard to envision a better system. Public schools today are spending beyond the dreams of avarice for administrators from previous decades. We simply need to get a much better bang for our buck. A captive audience of students sponsors and promotes adult dysfunction in our schools. We should radically expand parental choice options for parents, especially for those for disadvantaged students.

More broadly, our students desperately need a complete overhaul of the entire system of human resource development and compensation for teachers. The system we have today largely reflects the preferences of the education unions. The education unions oppose parental choice, merit pay for teachers, alternative certification or differential pay based on teacher shortages. All of these positions are rational for a union boss, but detrimental to children.Progressives have traditional ties with organized labor, including the education unions. This marriage will not last.

Ask yourself if you would risk today’s education system from behind Rawls’ veil. There’s a good chance of being forced to go to school in the Dallas, DC, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark or the_________ (fill in the blank with the closest large city) inner city public schools.

That sickening feeling in your stomach is telling you that those schools would not equip you with the skills you need to succeed in life. Rawls would say if those schools are not suitable for you in theory, then they are not suitable for inner city children in practice. Liberals should work closely with the education reform community in order to secure equality of opportunity for all children. Progressives can either have progress, or they can have an alliance with educational reactionaries, but they cannot have both.

14 Responses to John Rawls and Education Reform

  1. Brian Kisida says:

    As a person who leans more Rawls than Nozick, I think your absolutely right in pointing out that the current system would not pass a Rawlsian test of justice. It is not a stretch to believe that a system with greater options could better satisfy Rawlsian concerns. I think, however, that there is a potential stumbling block we would trip over as we journey down this Rawls rabbit hole–advocating choice in terms of justice can only go so far. Expanding choice options for disadvantaged students in failing urban schools is easy to justify by Rawlsian standards. But I don’t think Rawls can be used to advocate, for example, a universal type voucher system that sets a standard minimum that can then be supplemented by parents. It seems like this gets us right back to a situation where some children will lose the Rawls lottery. Perhaps you have a different view (which I would be interested to hear), but to me the Rawls based reasoning can only take choice so far.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Rawls can be used to advocate anything. That’s why it’s so popular and at the same time so totally useless.

    But if we have to think in Rawlsian terms, then if offering school choice to all would help the least advantaged more than offering school choice only to the least advantaged, then the Rawlsian principle supports school choice for all. And that’s precisely what would happen, since the positive effects of school choice derive from the creation of an educational market, and the more people you bring into the market the better it will function – for everybody. In other words, school choice just for the poor is a charity program, but it won’t revolutionize education. School choice for everybody would revolutionize education, and everyone would benefit.

    But let’s suppose you don’t believe that. Even so, school choice for all is still supported by the Rawlsian principle if it helps anyone and does no harm to the least advantaged person. If the least advantaged person is unharmed by offering school choice to more advantaged people, and the more advantaged people benefit, then Rawls’s principle supports it.

  3. Abundant statistical, empirical evidence supports the following generalizations:
    1) As institutions take from individual parents the power to determine for their own children the curriculum and the pace and method of instruction, overall system performance falls, and
    2) Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically adept parents (“Well, duh!”. as my students would say).

    Those who concede the benefits which parent control confers on children of well-informed and concerned parents but who use that supposition and an “equality” argument to oppose universal choice should consider: children of deficient (materially, intellectually, or emotionally) parents have the most to gain from inprovements in education services. Children who experience an abusive home life and an abusive school experience get nothing from either. They gain from a market driven by informed consumers, just as mechanical illiterates gain from improvements in automotive technology driven by informed car buyers.

  4. MatthewLadner says:

    I agree with Greg that Rawls could be used to justify a lot of things, but I don’t agree that it could be used to justify anything. For example, one would be hard pressed to use Rawls to justify something like the status-quo for inner city public schooling…

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Oh, really? You haven’t read much of the Rawlsian literature lately. Of course, your statement would be true if you began from the assumption that political theorists are not so totally enslaved to a quasi-socialist ideology that they are capable of ignoring all the patently obvious facts that disprove it; but that would clearly be what they call a “heroic assumption.”

  6. Brian Kisida says:

    I think that the standard that Greg applies to argue the uselessness of Rawls is insufficient. He says that Rawls can be used to advocate anything, and that is why it is a) popular, and b) useless. I agree there is a relationship between the broad scope (malleablity maybe?) of a philosophy and its popularity, I just don’t think that is what would qualify as making a philosophy useless. If we applied the same criteria to religious philosophy, the first two criteria would almost always apply (malleability, popularity). In fact, religious philososphies would undoubtedly hold the top spot on this “uselessness” index.

    I think the ‘veil of ignorance’ concept is a very useful concept, perhaps because of the same reasons Greg dislikes it.

    Greg’s post didn’t touch much on the veil though, he relied more on Rawls’ justification for inequality. In doing so, I think he came pretty close to advocating universal choice from a Rawlsian perspective.

  7. matthewladner says:


    Perhaps I should say “cannot credibly” use Rawls to justify anything. You can of course twist anything to support anything. A Rawlsian could try, for example, to say that the putrid condition of schools in DCPS at $20,000 per kid justify moving to $40,000 per kid.

    The problem is, there’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that such a move would actually benefit the kids in DCPS.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    That’s exactly the kind of thinking that most Rawlsians really do advocate! Of course you’re right that there’s no evidence for it, but evidence generally plays no role in Rawlsian thinking.

  9. matthewladner says:


    Check out Matthew Miller’s treatment of Rawls in the 2% Solution. Now, Miller comes up with a number of policy recommendations that I don’t support, and one can’t help but wonder if the things he advocates are so great, why don’t divert resources within the existing structure out of unproductive sectors into these new fabulous ones.

    Miller’s treatment of Rawls, however, is extremely interesting, and seems quite at odds with the way he is actually used in practice, which seems all too often to be as a justifying myth for the status quo of whatever the government happens to be doing now.

  10. Greg Forster says:

    That’s close, but not quite right. When the government is behaving conservatively, Rawlsian discourse opposes it. The real purpose of Rawlsian discourse is to justify whatever the government of Sweden was doing in the 1960s. The joke is, even the Swedes got over their worship of socialism eventually – they even have universal vouchers! What they wouldn’t learn the easy way (from reason) they learned the hard way (from experience). But Rawlsian discourse is never corrected by feedback from practical application.

  11. Brian Kisida says:

    Now Greg’s attacks on Rawlsian discourse sound like Eduwonkette’s attacks on Greene and Winters. You are essentially saying the Rawlsian perspective is only a front to justify socialism and should therefore be dismissed. This is the eleventh post in this thread, yet very little progress has been made regarding anything Matt originally wrote. None of your criticisms so far have anything to do with Rawls’ ideas. You have attacked it on the grounds that it is malleable, popular, and now said it has questionable motives. This just makes me tired.

  12. matthewladner says:

    Some blame Star Wars for the creation of crappy CGI dominated summer blockbusters like, oh, Twister. I would have loved to have been in the pitch meeting for Twister btw:

    “Our cgi guys can make some really realistic looking tornadoes tearing stuff up. We threw together a plot where some people chase tornadoes around Oklahoma- flying cows, Jack Nicholson’s head shredded on a drive in movie screen, songs from Van Halen. We’re going to be soooooo rich!”

    I personally don’t hold Lucas responsible for Twister. I do hold him partially responsible for the latest crappy Indiana Jones flick, and for Jar Jar Binks.

    Likewise, there is only so much you can hold Rawls responsible for the way people have used his work. In Miller’s version of Rawls, Rawls in the end was not a socialist at all.

    Matthew Miller’s discussion of Rawls contains a very interesting interview with Milton Friedman. I highly recommend it.

  13. […] Matthew Ladner is wondering how to get more effective teachers into our classrooms. […]

  14. […] from the 1990s, the diverse moral narratives that animate education reformers are older. Some have roots in the Civil Rights movement, turning to school reform as a way of repairing the damage done by centuries of wicked racial and […]

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