A Pragmatic Approach to Educational Inequality

Experiment: Writing negatively about pragmatism.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I believe that income inequality is the biggest challenge facing education today. This is a view shared by people across political lines. Milton Friedman is an education inequality warrior. He believes very passionately that unequal educational opportunities are a symptom of the way that the public school system reproduces the current inequalities (Friedman, 1997). J0el Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Public schools, agrees that “the net effect is that we’re rapidly moving toward two Americas—a wealthy elite, and an increasingly large underclass that lacks the skills to succeed.This division tears at the very fabric of our society. Nevertheless, there’s little national urgency to fix its underlying causes” (Klein, 2011). It would be easy to assume that only progressives believe that inequality is an issue in schools, but these two gentlemen clearly care very deeply about the problem as well.

Friedman’s solution is that schools need to be pushed to innovate through privatization, starting with school vouchers so that poor schools end up going out of business. Klein’s solution is that”in the 21st century, public schools need the kind of innovation that private firms like Google, Twitter, and Apple exemplify (just as there’s room for innovation from non-profits like CK12 or Khan Academy). For the sake of our children, it’s time to open our minds, move past ideology, roll up our sleeves together, and get to work” (Klein, 2012). I’m intrigued that both of these gentlemen have the insistent focus on “innovation”. Change, upheaval, and radical action are the only ways to correct the problems they see.

I’ll quote one of my current professors who was probably quoting someone else:

“In an unjust system, pragmatism is unjust action.”

It is a normal human attribute to think that, when we know that something needs to be done, any action in the right direction is fine. But with education in particular, because the results of any change take a long time to become evident,  I think this is a terrible philosophy. Throwing education into the marketplace is often the call by pragmatic voices, but we are just starting to see the first long term and large-scale studies of the effects of charter schools and for-profit schools.

A recent study analyzed inequality in the OECD countries. They broke down the types of schools into private dependent (charter and other publicly funded) and private independent  (operating with no public funds) schools. They found that school social segregation was a significant outcome of more market-based school regimes.  “In short, our analyses show no significant effects of the national/regional proportion of private dependent schools on school segregation. In contrast, the national/regional proportion of private independent schools always appears as a significant factor: as this proportion increases, so does the national/regional level of school segregation. Hence, the presence of private independent schools is a key factor when accounting for school segregation, showing a net effect that goes beyond the impacts on school segregation of both schools’ level of responsibility in student admissions and the level of stratification of the academic career” (Alegre & Ferrer, 2010, p. 455, emphasis added). They also found that publicly regulated, comprehensive schools tended to reduce the educational inequality of a country.

I think it is easy to think that any action is good, especially if the goals are noble. But in the case of privatization and market-based reforms for schools, we really need to find out more so that our action is not adding to the injustice.

Alegre, M. À., Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona, S., Ferrer, G., & Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona, S. (2015). School regimes and education equity: Some insights based on PISA 2006. British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 433-461. doi:10.1080/01411920902989193

Friedman, M. (1997). Public Schools: Make Them Private. Education Economics, 5(3), 341-344. doi:10.1080/09645299700000026

Klein, J. (2011). The Failure of American Schools. The Atlantic, June.

Klein, J. (2012). The Case for the Private Sector in School Reform. The Atlantic, August.

The picture included is a striking scene to me. The greenest grass I’ve ever seen, but all of the trees have lost their leaves. Should we fire the gardener?

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