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.