Winners and Losers in the John Rawls Reading Challenge 2003 to 2015

January 8, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I’m just going to leave this chart here:

Feel free to blubber in the comment section about how somehow the kids with parents that did not finish high school are the hardest to educate in the planet in state X. On second thought feel free to skip it. Every state has their excuse. That sound you hear is us laughing them off here in our pleasant patch of cactus (our state’s excuse used to be kids crossing the border not being able to read English or Spanish).

Scores unavailable in Alaska, Maine, Utah and Vermont. Rawls background here.

The 2017 NAEP results will arrive in March or April. I hope your state does better next time. I’ll update this chart when the new data comes out, but in the meantime, I am reminded of the below quote:

Vouchers from the Hell Planet

February 5, 2013

Vouchers from the Hell Planet

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

If you value your productivity, do not click here.

Also, to keep this rolling, I made this:

A Theory of Justice from Space

Your move, Matt.

Starring Matt Ladner as the Difference Principle!

January 16, 2013

Hippies on stage

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Are you ready for this? A Theory of Justice: The Musical!

No, really:

In order to draw inspiration for his magnum opus, John Rawls travels back through time to converse (in song) with a selection of political philosophers, including Plato, Locke, Rousseau and Mill. But the journey is not as smooth as he hoped: for as he pursues his love interest, the beautiful student Fairness, through history, he must escape the evil designs of his libertarian arch-nemesis, Robert Nozick, and his objectivist lover, Ayn Rand. Will he achieve his goal of defining Justice as Fairness?

Wait, I thought they already made that show. It was called Hair.

Here’s a publicity photo from the production – Matt Ladner in costume for his co-starring role as “The Difference Principle”:


HT David Koyzis

Sowell Points Out What Is, in Fact, Funny about Peace, Rawls and Understanding

February 11, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over on NRO, Thomas Sowell lays out one of the many underlying problems with Rawlsianism: the information problem. The traditional rules of interpersonal justice, which Rawls called “formal fairness” – don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t defraud, fulfill contracts, etc. – are a feasible basis for policy because they only require knowledge of a limited number of discrete acts. Within reasonable limits we can usually get a pretty clear idea of who did what to whom. But Rawls’s desire for a more comprehensively “fair” society presupposes that we have information on the whole state of facts across all reality, and not just in a snapshot but dynamically over time, and not just in the actual course of events but also in all possible anticipated courses of events depending on what policies we enact. This fallacy was also identified by Hayek as “the fatal conceit.”

Required reading for those tempted by the Rawlsian fallacy.

Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You: The Lottery

January 28, 2010


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

We’ve discussed John Rawls and the veil of ignorance a few times here on JPGB. What if you lost the cosmic lottery and were born a poor inner city child? What would you want the school system to work? If you said “anything other than a zip code based system which pervasively matches the most disadvantaged students with the least effective teachers” give yourself a gold star.

In any case, the Rawls lottery is only a thought exercise, but back here in reality, there are real lotteries held every year with thousands of children attempting to escape the system described above by applying for a charter school. There are winners and losers, families who celebrate in joy and families who weep bitterly. 

Someone made a movie about it. Check out the preview– I’m looking forward to it.

Question for Leo: have you figured out why you lost Barack Obama on charter schools yet? Buy a ticket and some popcorn and you may figure it out.

What’s so funny about peace, Rawls and understanding?

December 17, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Turns out that I am not the only libertarian with an interest in John Rawls. David Gordon laid out the thinking of a small group of libertarian Rawlsians in this American Conservative article back in 2004.

Greg- talk me off the ledge before I jump!

John Rawls is Twisting in His Grave

March 31, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Philosopher John Rawls’ 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.

Rawls’ philosophy is hugely influential in left of center thinking. Too often, progressives have used Rawls as a justifying myth, while refusing to examine whether their favored programs live up to the ideals of the philosophy.  For example- Rawlsian principles could certainly be used to justify the creation of public schools to attempt to ensure the education of all children, including the disadvantaged. It could also be used to justify, Rawls himself noted, a system of vouchers. Does however today’s system of public education remotely approach the Rawlsian ideal of providing a path out for the least advantaged?

No, not even close. In fact, today’s public education system closely resembles the opposite. Let’s examine the case of special needs children, in light of the recent Arizona Supreme Court decision.

The Arizona Supreme Court struck down a voucher program for children with disabilities last week under a suit brought by the People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union and the teachers union.  They used the state’s Blaine Amendment to do so.

To fully explain the true horror of this, alleged progressives using KKK-era language to kill a program to help the least advantaged students in the system, will require three steps. Step one, some background on special education. Step two, some background on the Blaine, and step three, some background on the case.

Special Education as a Rawlsian Half-Measure

Until the early 1970s, public schools simply excluded children with disabilities from attending public schools. When the federal government put an end to this practice, as many as a million students were excluded from public schools.

The federal requirement that public schools accept children with disabilities stands to this day as a landmark piece of civil rights legislation. All however is not well. Parents register enormous dissatisfaction with the lack of services provided to their children; researchers point to the over-identification of minority students and out-of-control costs; and teachers vent their frustration with the amount of red tape and paperwork involved.

The conservative Fordham Foundation and the liberal Progressive Policy Institute teamed up to summarize this situation as follows: “For this program that has done so much is also sorely troubled. America’s program for youngsters with disabilities has itself developed infirmities, handicaps and special needs of its own…we are not educating many disabled children to a satisfactory level of skills and knowledge. Too often we are frustrating their parents, distracting their teachers, hobbling their schools, and making it harder to keep order in their classrooms, all this despite the best of intentions and the most earnest of efforts by families, educators, and policymakers.”

Growth in special education has made IDEA simultaneously costly and ineffective. By some estimates, 40 percent of the increase in K-12 spending has gone into special education. Special education, in short, does too little to help children with disabilities and too much to harm children without disabilities. Jay Mathews of the Washington Post noted that the available research “suggests that the special education system has led to widespread, if well-intentioned, misuse of tax dollars and has failed to help kids.”

The Arizona Blaine Amendment

The amendment which brought down the Arizona program has a very ugly history.

After the failure of the federal Blaine Amendment, anti-Catholic forces began requiring Blaine language in state constitutions in return for their support for admission. Arizona, which joined the union in 1912, included Blaine language in their constitution. Last week at an event at the Goldwater Institute, Arizona State University Paul Bender tried to argue that the framers of the Arizona Constitution went out of their way to include greater liberties than those included in the U.S. Constitution. This is clearly the case. Professor Bender then argued that the Blaine amendment was a part of this yearning for liberty, which was clearly not the case.

Arizona included this language to ease admission, and the origins of the language lie in bigotry, not in a desire for liberty.

Sol Stern wrote on the amendments:

During the mid-nineteenth century, Protestant ministers, regarding Catholic schooling as an abomination, launched a powerful social movement to create exclusive, government-run public schools—controlled by Protestants—that the Catholic kids would be herded into, and where they would be cleaned up and Americanized. The movement succeeded in defunding Catholic schools in New York City, even though the popular, progressive governor, William Seward, stood with the Catholics in demanding equal treatment for religious schools.

The new public school establishment recognized that the first amendment did not rule out government aid for religious schools. That’s why the movement worked for the passage of a separate constitutional amendment prohibiting public funds going to such independent schools. In 1875 the Blaine Amendment fell short by four votes of the necessary two-thirds margin needed for passage in the U.S. Senate. The movement, joined by the nativist Know Nothing Party and the Ku Klux Klan—their anti-Catholicism the only thing uniting them—took the campaign to the states. Eventually, 29 state legislatures, including New York’s, added Blaine Amendments to their state constitutions.

The U.S. Supreme Court has noted the “shameful pedigree,” of Blaine Amendments. Florida adopted their version of Blaine in an 1885 constitutional convention that also banned interracial marriage and required segregated schools.

A previous Arizona Supreme Court decision, establishing the constitutionality of education tax credits in Arizona, discussed the bigoted origins of the Arizona amendment the better than I can, starting on page 35

“In any event, we would be hard pressed to divorce the amendment’s language from the insidious discriminatory intent that prompted it,” the court ruled. Sadly the current court did not feel the same.

The Case before the Arizona Supreme Court

Andrea Weck, a plaintiff in this case, is a single mother of a daughter, Lexie Weck with multiple disabilities. The East Valley Tribune profiled Lexie and Andrea. The disability scholarship program gave Lexie’s mother the opportunity to choose a specialty private school for her, and she has thrived in it.

Lexie’s mother Andrea Weck said “something clicked” for Lexie in her new school:  “She’s signing; she’ll make eye contact now. She’s feeding herself. She’s verbalizing sounds . . . She still isn’t speaking, but I know it’s in there. And they’ll find a way to get it out.”

The specialized school Lexie attended cost in the same neighborhood as Andrea’s annual income. With the vouchers and additional assistance, she was able to get her what she regarded as much higher quality care.

In short, Lexie Weck is precisely the sort of person that John Rawls is concerned with. In the lottery of life behind a veil of ignorance, Lexie drew the straw that you do not want. Arizona’s voucher for special needs program helped her, and in a way that didn’t hurt anyone else. Public schools have been complaining for years that they don’t get enough money for special needs children. They howl that they have to shift money out of general education into special education.

In Arizona 85% percent of children who qualify for a free or reduced lunch and have a disability fail to score at the basic or better level on 4th grade reading.

Eighty five percent.

Evidently, the success rate is not so great in Arizona public schools for children in Lexie’s situation. Obviously some children will never learn to read at a 4th grade level, but that is no excuse not to let the people who care most about them choose the program that gives them the best shot at reaching their potential.

The state of Arizona then let children like Lexie Weck walk away with their supposedly inadequate funding-creating a Rawlsian path out for the least advantaged. That is, until the poorly named People for the American Way and American Civil Liberties Unions came and took it away from her using weapons forged by bigots of a bygone age.

Wealthy kids with access to specialized attorneys, of course, will continue to access private schools making full use of their IDEA rights. School choice only for rich kids looks to be the “progressive” way.

The Rawlsian Path Out

October 15, 2008

Perhaps children will read better by the light of my Broader/Bolder money bonfire…

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

John Rawls’ 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.

Matthew Miller’s reading of Rawls calls for the aim of public policy to be the creation equality of opportunity, rather than equality of condition. But how much of a path do public schools actually represent for disadvantaged children?

Gauging opportunity is tricky, given that we really only have information on the equality of condition. Let’s be brave and speculate. The percentage of free or reduced price lunch students scoring “Advanced” on the 4th grade NAEP reading test in 2007 was — drumroll – two.

That’s right. Two percent- two point zero. While this was double the one point zero from 1998, it is hardly satisfying.

Mind you, total per pupil spending as of 2004-5 was $10,725. So, a child that has been in the average public school in this country since kindergarten will have had somewhere in the neighborhood of $55,000 spent on their education by the time they reach 4th grade.

Might we not get two percent scoring advanced in the complete absence of a public school system? If we spend $55K per kid to improve their opportunities, shouldn’t we be doing a lot better than 2%?

Some of course will grumble that the Advanced level on NAEP is simply too high a bar to expect an economically disadvantaged child to clear. So, let’s go down a level- 15% of free and reduced lunch kids score “Proficient” on 4th grade reading. Add in your two scoring Advanced, and you have 17% of low-income children reading at a high level.

In return for the taxpayer’s $55,000, we get 83% of our low-income children reading at less than a high level. Half of these children score “Below Basic.” Here is NAEP’s definition of Basic in 4th Grade Reading:

Fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should demonstrate an understanding of the overall meaning of what they read. When reading text appropriate for fourth-graders, they should be able to make relatively obvious connections between the text and their own experiences and extend the ideas in the text by making simple inferences.

That doesn’t sound like a great deal to ask for $55,000 and five years of schooling- but half of the nation’s low-income children didn’t get there in 2007.

Now, we actually have NAEP data for one urban school district- Washington DC. DCPS shells out over $20,000 per year per student. So, a 4th grader has “benefited from” more than $100,000 of funding. Or, at least someone has benefited. DCPS had exactly zero point zero low-income students scoring at the advanced level in 2007. Well, not precisely zero- the NAEP footnotes note that the number “rounds down to zero.”

Six percent of DCPS low-income 4th graders scored Proficient or better, 29% at Basic or better, and 71% at Below Basic.

Regardless of your philosophical viewpoint, these results simply cannot be credibly defended. When the Texas Rangers overpaid for Alex Rodriquez and found themselves in last place, the General Manager noted that he could be in last place with the lowest rather than a sky-high payroll. DCPS is in the same boat. Give me half of the DCPS budget as an incentive program for kids to read books at the library, and I’ll get you more than zero kids scoring as advanced readers.

Education is the key to social mobility. Those who believe in Rawlsian ideals will be facing the reality that they can either have an alliance with the defenders of the status-quo, or they can have an effective K-12 path out of poverty, but they cannot have both.

John Rawls and Education Reform

July 9, 2008

(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.

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