Saturday, January 1, 2011

Invisible Radicals (cont.): Who Determines Equality?

I had originally written the majority of my previous post as a comment at the RBC.  I received two interesting responses:
“equity in achievement”? People DO differ in potential, the only way to achieve this sort of equity is to deliberately fail those who could do better than what the less gifted can achieve. Our goal, (After a learned workforce, of course.) should be to enable each individual student to achieve their own potential, even if it means they leave somebody else in the dust.

Your description of what it would take to get to [equity in achievement] paints the picture of a very intrusive set of interventions. Well-meaning and perhaps not individually burdensome, but still intrusive. I have family members who would no doubt qualify for these interventions, and have to say that some of them sound as if you want to take my relatives and turn them into your idea of acceptable parents.
By "equity in achievement" I don't mean that every single child performs exactly the same.  I mean that SES is limited in it's impact on educational outcomes, such that each individual student really does have an opportunity to achieve their own potential.  As it stands now, academic performance is strongly tied to SES.  But this has nothing to do with the individual student, and everything to do with the social capital they receive at home (educated parents, intact families, less stress, etc.).

Believe me, I would like as little government intervention as possible.  As you'll note though, a more means-tested system would allow for less government in many neighborhoods.  The ultimate goal is smarter government, so that we can get the kids the targeted services they need, when they need them, and not when they don't.

But you make an interesting point, and something I struggle with as a teacher in these populations.  It is an empirical fact that SES is tied to parenting.  This is not simply my idea of what is acceptable.  There are activities that you do with your child that produce better developmental outcomes.  Studies have been done in granular detail, looking at everything from environmental toxins to vocabulary to cognition to family structure.  Believe me, I've sat across from many parents who I knew were not providing their children the best home environment.  And as a white guy from a middle class background (both parents attended college, and statistically most teachers are from similar backgrounds), there's a definite sense of invasiveness to the class dynamic.  Who am I to be telling them how to raise their kids when I haven't had the struggles they've had?  (Short answer: I'm a teacher!)

But you know what - it all comes out in the wash.  Poor parents have every reason to parent exactly the way they do (statistically!).  They are doing the best they can - so what if it isn't the best?  This is what society is all about - helping each other out.  Every parent I've ever had cared deeply about their child.  They just may have lacked the proper skills (or circumstances) to offer them what they needed.  They didn't read to them at night, they never learned English, they never took them to the library, they scolded more than praised, they didn't engage in extended conversation - not because they didn't love their kids, but because they simply weren't aware of the effects this would have on their child's development.

But the reality is that we're just not going to be able to "retrain" parents.  And there are many areas of their lives that are beyond anyone's ability to reform.  For instance, if they are working two crappy jobs to pay the rent and are stressed because the boss is a prick, and can't spend enough time with their child as they'd like because Dad is either gone or in prison.  Or there's drugs.  Or abuse.  Etc.  But there are interventions that can help ease their burden, and in turn the burden on their child.  And there are specific interventions we can do to provide support directly to the child, whether for special field trips on weekends, after-school tutoring/camp, psychological services, radically smaller class sizes - 10:1 ratio, personal aids, etc.  Those are all things that parents don't have to worry about at all and honestly, most parents would welcome.

And at the end of the day it is all about outcomes.  An assessment regime would be tricky.  But as the child improves, the services would dial back accordingly, with the ultimate goal of removing the supports entirely.  This is generally the model for special education and english-language-learners.  The interesting thing is those "disabilities" appear values neutral, as they are not the "fault" of anyone.  But I would argue that no one's parenting style is the "fault" of anyone either.  We all have a set of skills from which we operate.  Those skills involve cognition, emotion, communication, knowledge of self, stress management, etc.

Obviously this is the black box of the mind and things get messy real quick.  But the central dogma is that we are developed creatures, and operate from learned behavior.  Depending on a mix of genes and environment, we apply what we know to the world.  This is why a poor 16 year old girl is likely to be a lousy mother.  It isn't her fault - she just doesn't have the proper skills.  I think most of us take all of this for granted and we buy into the mythology that every individual possesses the same abilities.

I think much of this comes out of a tension between those who might emphasize innate differences to explain behavioral outcomes, leaving "free will" to explain the rest (interestingly, the philosophical description of this is "metaphysical libertarianism" - the political philosophy seems largely to follow), while others emphasize the environment and learning.  The former view seems entirely commonsensical - I choose to get to work on time, I choose to take a bath.  Yet so does the latter - I've learned to manage my time, I've learned that proper hygiene is important.  The compatibilist (I believe) seeks to reconcile these two as: I've learned to do these things and so I am able to choose them.

To me, this provides for the most powerfully compassionate response to poverty.  Being neither condescending nor punitive, it simply acknowledges empirical fact, and supports our human desire to uphold our values of liberty and equality of opportunity.  How exactly we get there is certainly unclear.  But the moral directive is strong, and there are many promising avenues available.

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