sorting out human welfare, equity and mobility

Here are three distinct goals that you might pursue if you see education as a means to improve a society. All three are plausible, but they can conflict, and I think we should sort out where we stand on them.

  1. Improving lives. What constitutes a better life is contested, as is the question of how a population’s welfare should be aggregated to produce a score for a whole society. The Human Development Index includes such components as mean life expectancy at birth and “mean of years of schooling for adults.” You might think that what counts is not these averages but the minima: how much life, education, safety, health (etc.) does the worst-off stratum get? Their circumstances can improve with balanced and humane economic development. Arguably, the worst-off 20 percent of Americans are better off than Queen Elizabeth I was in 1600, because you’d rather have clean running water in your house than any number of smelly and disease-carrying servants. But our minimum is still not very good, since some Americans sleep on grates or are warehoused in pretrial detention facilities because they can’t afford bail.
  2. Equity. By this I just mean the difference between the top and the bottom, e.g., the GINI coefficient, although one might consider more factors besides income. Algeria and Sweden have almost identical levels of equity (GINI coefficients of 27.2 and 27.6, respectively), but Sweden is much wealthier, with 3.3 times as much GNP per capita as Algeria has.
  3. Mobility. This means the chance that someone born at a relatively low level in the socioeconomic distribution will rise to a relatively high level. By definition, that means that someone else must fall. (Or one person could fall halfway as far, and a second person could fall the other half way, to make room for the person who rises all the way up.) By definition, mobility is zero-sum, being measured as the odds of moving up or down percentile ranks. If everyone moves up, that’s #1 (an increase in aggregate welfare), not a sign of mobility.

These three goals can come apart. For example, equity coincides with very poor human development when everyone is starving together. Sweden has high human development and high equity but not much mobility: Swedish families who had noble surnames in the 17th century still predominate among the top income percentiles. It’s just that it doesn’t matter as much that you’re at the bottom in Sweden, because the least off do OK there.

To be sure, the best-off countries in the world tend to be more equitable and prosperous, and there’s a long list of very poor countries that are also highly unequal and (I guess) have little mobility. That pattern could suggest that the path to higher development requires equity. But that’s a contingent, empirical hypothesis, unlikely to be true across the board, and the goals are not the same.

For proponents and analysts of education, the difference matters. Presume that you are concerned with improving human lives. One way to do that is to expand the availability of education. More people reach higher levels of education today than did in 1930–and more people lead safer, longer, lives. This strategy won’t produce equity, however. As educational attainment has risen in the United States, the most educated people have increased the wage gap.

Another way to enhance human welfare is to yield outputs that benefit everyone: skillful doctors and engineers who have great new technologies, medicines, training, etc. To get the best results, it might be smart to concentrate resources at very high-status institutions. The universities that produce the most scientific advances tend to be highly competitive institutions in inequitable systems like the US.

Presume that you want to promote mobility. Then you must reduce the correlation between parents’ and children’s educational attainment. That means admitting and advancing more students whose parents were disadvantaged. It also means, by definition, admitting fewer students from advantaged homes. Increasing the number of total slots is an inefficient way to enhance mobility. Mobility requires competitiveness: when people can compete better, newcomers can more easily knock off incumbents. When individuals are protected against failure, mobility is hampered.

Mobility also operates at the level of communities. In a system of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” Detroit can fall while Phoenix rises. European countries intervene much more effectively than we do to protect their deindustrializing cities. That is better for human flourishing, but it may also hamper mobility.

Finally, presume that you really want to improve equity. One way to do that would be to improve the education of the least advantaged while holding the top constant. Another way would be to lower the quality and value of the education received by the top tier. Very few people would support doing that, even if it improved equity. That’s because most people think that welfare and mobility are at least as important as equity. (I leave aside liberty, although that is also a valid and important principle.)

Hybrid goals are possible. Perhaps what we want is to maximize the welfare of the least advantaged while not allowing inequality to get out of hand or mobility to vanish. That’s arguably the outcome in Denmark and Sweden. The US may under-perform regardless of how you weigh the three goals. We have vast inequality, limited mobility, and not much safety or health for a large swath of our people. But even if we can make progress on all three fronts at once, they are still different directions.

See also: to what extent can colleges promote upward mobility?when social advantage persists for millennia, and the Nordic model

school choice is a question of values not data

I disagree with my friend Robert Pondiscio about many policies, but I agree with an essential aspect of his argument in a US News article entitled “Asking the Wrong Questions on School Choice.”

Some impressive-looking recent studies assert that school choice doesn’t “work” because test scores go down when families use vouchers to transfer their kids to private schools. The New York Times describes these results as “dismal” and cites “harms” to the children from voucher experiments. Pondiscio believes that the preponderance of the evidence still “tends to favor school choice.” I don’t know if that is right, but I’m with Pondiscio that “this entire debate puts the cart before the horse.”

After all, who said that test scores are the purpose of schooling? “Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values.” Some parents will prefer schools that achieve lower scores on state standardized tests because they value other ends. To measure choice in terms of test scores “says, in effect, that one’s values, aspirations and priorities for one’s child amount to nothing.” He concludes:

If we limit the frame of this debate to academic outputs alone, every new study provides ammunition, but never a conclusion. The real debate we should be having is, “What kind of system do we want?” Answer that question first, then use evidence to improve the school designs, policies and programs we have agreed deserve public support.

I’ve made similar points in debates about, for example, the economic impact of civic engagement, the educational value of service learning, and the evaluation of policy more generally. We live in an age when science has enormous prestige and values are widely viewed as merely subjective. In that context, it’s common to treat programs and policies much as scientists would view natural phenomena, as things that arise on their own and have measurable effects. To decide whether they “work” means measuring their causal impact with apparently objective measures, of which state-written tests are good examples. Negative results lead to strongly value-laden conclusions–such as the Times’ headline about “dismal failures”–that are not themselves scientific.

In fact, programs and policies arise because people have value commitments. They strive to make their ideas work, albeit for various and contested purposes. Usually nothing works at first. If its impact improves, it’s because people have made it work by refining and improving the practice. The reason that data provides “ammunition, but never a conclusion” is that any empirical result can be changed by revising and improving the program under study. Therefore, the fundamental question is not what works but what we should value and try to make work.

An everyday example is public schooling. Nineteenth century reformers like Horace Mann drew from previous thinkers—and from successful experiences in countries like Prussia—to propose a new idea: every child should be educated at the government’s expense in a state-funded common school under local political control. Since then, not only have educators and policymakers refined and revised most aspects of public schooling, but scholars have critically evaluated actual schools from a wide variety of perspectives. A few observers have concluded that Horace Mann’s core idea was misplaced, but most see their role as helping to make his vision become successful. Public schools did not arise like a new species in Darwinian evolution to survive or fail on its own. Nor did Horace Mann propose a hypothesis that could be tested with a single experiment (e.g., “Common schools will work.”). Rather, universal public schooling originated with an argument that combined values and empirical predictions, and it launched a process of improvement that has combined research with practice.

The question is whether individual family choice is a transcendent value. Robert Pondiscio argues that using test scores to assess vouchers makes family preferences “amount to nothing.” I think we all value parental choice to a degree, but everyone also weighs other concerns: children’s rights, interests, and preferences, community values, prosperity at the state and national scales, democratic ideals of collective self-governance, our responsibilities to children other than one’s own, and criteria of excellence that may be unpopular.

I agree that the American ideal of the common school has always been a bit problematic, and versions of family choice common in Western Europe may get the balance better than we do with our odd mix of local monopoly schools plus radical economic inequality. But if we seriously considered the question “What kind of system do we want?”, I’m not sure the answer would be a system driven by parental preferences.

I should add that another kind of reasoning (besides scientism) motivates experiments with school choice. Some people think that market competition always or generally increases efficiency, so that introducing choice into a former monopoly will improve outcomes, almost regardless of how they’re measured. Then the effects of vouchers on test scores becomes an experiment in the efficiency hypothesis. Even if the results are mixed, the existence of major, high-quality, and recent studies in which the effects are strongly negative sounds like counter-evidence. I think that should embarrass proponents of market efficiency, of whom one was Elizabeth Warren in The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke (2003):

However, as Pondiscio argues, you can support choice as an inherent value, not because of an empirical hypothesis about economic efficiency.

mixed feelings on the DeVos nomination battle

I opposed Betsy DeVos’s nomination, I’m grateful to the people who protested it, and I’m sorry she won confirmation. But I’m not sure it’s a good sign that she attracted more effective opposition than the other nominees have. (That is, unless the grassroots opposition to Jeff Sessions has been relatively underreported.) The purpose of this post is not to check the momentum of the anti-DeVos efforts but to ponder today’s ideological spectrum and how we should identify and counter the worst threats to democracy.

Why did DeVos get more effective criticism than the other nominees? It can’t be because she poses a graver danger. The Every Child Succeeds Act of 2015, which had bipartisan support, determines federal k-12 education policy. Congress won’t reopen that legislative compromise. Moreover, education is predominantly a state responsibility, and the 2015 Act gave the states more discretion. The Higher Education Act is due for renewal, but I doubt Congress will muster a majority for a major change. DeVos will have to operate within the parameters of two demanding statutes. In contrast, the cabinet secretaries in charge of foreign policy, justice, financial regulation, and environmental issues have much more freedom of action.

Nor do DeVos’ radical views explain why she attracted more effective opposition than Trump’s other nominees. She is a very strong proponent of school choice, to such an extent that some mainstream proponents consider her support a liability. But the idea of introducing market mechanisms into education has been dominant for 25 years, and both the Clinton and Obama administrations endorsed versions of that theory. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker has worked with DeVos on school choice initiatives. To be sure, she acknowledges that she favors school choice so that religious schools can expand, whereas some other pro-market reformers just expect better performance to result from competition. But that difference of motivation may not make much difference for actual policy.

It’s true that DeVos performed poorly in her hearings, but was she really less qualified than Rick Perry or Ben Carson? If the Senate has been assessing competence and qualifications, then you’d have to consider sexism to explain why Senators seem to prefer those two men to DeVos. After all, DeVos has worked on education issues, albeit narrowly defined.

It’s not hard to find other explanations for DeVos’ harder path to confirmation. More people care about education than about other issues. Vouchers are unpopular or irrelevant in suburban and rural communities. Also, there is just one cabinet secretary for education, so she attracted all the attention, whereas the nominees concerned with other topics split up the opposition. Here, for example, is a rally against the environmental nominees, but it targets three of them, it’s not very big compared to the anti-DeVos events, and it’s in Democratic controlled Newark, NJ.

Above all, the teachers unions are organized nationally and still have the capacity to prompt grassroots action.

I’m all for that, since I think democracy requires organization. But is it good that mobilization has been most effective against DeVos? We’re used to a linear ideological spectrum, with pro-market/anti-state views on the right and New Deal/Great Society government activism on the left. In that framework, DeVos stands far to the right. Trump is also some kind of right-wing radical. Therefore, DeVos must be like Trump, and blocking her would mean blocking Trumpism. Unions are organized for that purpose, since they exist to counter market rule.

I think this framework is obsolete. We should array political leaders on two continua, from pro- to anti-state and from liberal to authoritarian on social issues. Donald Trump does not stand to the right on the spectrum from pro- to anti-state. He is all for using the massive power of the federal government. He just wants to use it for an ethnonationalist, reactionary program.

This is the taxonomy I have in mind for the issue of education:

I code Ted Kennedy as pro-state and socially-liberal, although he was a major architect of No Child Left Behind, which introduced market mechanisms. I still think he was more pro- than anti-state, because NCLB also dramatically increased federal spending on education and introduced some new command-and-control regulations. I code Cory Booker as socially liberal and pro-market on education, because he (and not he alone among Democrats) has strongly advocated school choice. I put DeVos just a touch to Booker’s right on the pro/anti-state axis, but also well to his south on the authoritarian scale, because she clearly wants to use education policy to change the whole culture in conservative directions. Still, she chooses to do that by reducing the power of the state, not by expanding it, which makes her not very authoritarian. Finally, Donald Trump stands down there in the bottom-left quadrant, eager to use the state to enforce reactionary norms.

I’m left-of-center on this diagram, but I’m willing to have an ongoing debate with market advocates in which the size of government rises and falls and voters make judgments based on results. It’s the bottom-left that frightens me.

If pro-state authoritarianism is the greatest threat to democracy today, then we must rally all its opponents. They will include pro-government liberals who detest the content of Trump’s policies along with anti-government libertarians who fear the expansion of the state. I would not advocate trying to enlist Betsy DeVos herself in the movement against Trump, although she did oppose him explicitly on ideological grounds in March, saying, “I don’t think Donald Trump represents the Republican Party. I continue to be very optimistic that as we get further along into the process, the more voters know about him, and the more informed they are, the more they’re going to continue to break away.” But even if you don’t want to share a movement with DeVos herself, we need people from her general camp.

As Jon Valant writes, Donald Trump is driving Democrats away from school choice. They used to be divided on that issue, and some, like Sen. Booker, saw choice as means to improve poor systems. Now Trump has endorsed school choice on the stump and has chosen a market zealot for his education secretary, and Democrats are rightly against Trump. Therefore, Democrats are turning against school choice. Valant says, “Trump and DeVos, divisive figures enormously unpopular among Democrats, could become the public faces of charter schools and school choice.”

If you oppose market mechanisms in education (and I’m moderately skeptical of them), then this is a Good Thing. It disrupts the bipartisan support for school choice and turns it into yet another policy proposal that will require single-party control to enact. Down go the odds that we will expand school choice. But if you’re hoping for a leftist plus liberal plus libertarian coalition against Trump, then the shift against school choice could make things harder.

None of that implies that DeVos will be a good Secretary of Education or that it was a mistake to oppose her. I just think we need a coalition against authoritarianism that is equally effective against the true Trumpists and that makes common cause with libertarians until the present danger passes.

Levinson and Fay, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics

Meira Levinson’s and Jacob Fay’s edited volume Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries is enormously valuable. It not only addresses problems that confront educators every day but also suggests how moral reasoning can be revitalized in academia.

The book is organized around seven business-school-like cases. Each case poses a common dilemma. For instance, should a team of middle school teachers choose to promote a student who is far behind grade level? She will struggle and probably fail if she goes on to high school, but if they retain her, she will doubtless drop out. Each case ends at the point of decision. It is followed by half a dozen short reflective essays contributed by a mix of scholars and practitioners (although I noticed no systematic differences between the academics’ and educators’ chapters, which is interesting in itself).

Dilemmas of Educational Ethics represents a mode of thought that can fill a gap left in the tessellation of our current disciplines.

Social and behavioral sciences help to illuminate what is going on and predict what will happen as a result of various strategies. Management disciplines provide advice about how to operate as administrative leaders. And philosophy/political theory offers frameworks for asking “what is justice?” or “what should be done?”

But none of these disciplines directly addresses the question “What should we do?”–if “we” means a concrete group of responsible actors who have limited options and imperfect information. They face not only a practical question but also an intellectually challenging one. Practitioners would benefit if scholars thought from this perspective, and scholarly disciplines would be stronger if they addressed what is often a much harder question than “should should be done?” Social science misses the mark by bracketing the value aspect of the question “what should we do?”, and most philosophy/political theory loses the active agent (“we”) by focusing on justice as a virtue of social systems rather than an outcome of concrete action.

As advertised, the cases in this book are “richly described” and “realistic” (p. 3). The writing isn’t pretentious or mannered, but it is literary in the sense that various characters’ goals, emotional states, and interactions are described. The narratives build genuine suspense and force the reader to decide what she or he would do. This is a difficult form of writing that is unusual in most disciplines. In particular, it differs from the thought-experiments popular in moral philosophy: trolley problems and the like.

Philosophers prefer stylized situations that force a choice among theories that are revealed to be incompatible. For instance, whether to change the track of a runaway trolley forces a different response for a utilitarian or a Kantian. This is a dilemma in the sense of a choice between two bad options. A third choice is either defined as impossible or rejected as question-begging. You’re not allowed to ask, “Isn’t there something else the onlooker can throw in front of the trolley?” But many responses to the scenarios in this book do suggest a third or fourth option. Jeffrey Smith calls this move “breaking out of the binary” (p. 83). 

As Jal Mehta writes (p. 19), the cases in Levinson and Fay make you want to “diminish rather than ignite conflicts among first principles” and satisfy as many constituencies as you can, not necessarily for uniform reasons (p. 19). Mehta notes that that’s how skillful administrators think. It is, he adds, “diametrically opposed” to how “political philosophers” teach us to think. I’d say it is political thinking, in the best sense. Yet it is just as intellectually demanding as mainstream philosophy, if not more so.

Philosophers’ principles sometimes enter the discussion usefully. Christopher Winship addresses a case about school assignment rules by invoking John Rawls’ “Difference Principle” (any differences are legitimate only to the extent they are necessary to improve the situation of the least advantaged.) In turn, the Difference Principle emerged from Rawls’ highly abstract thought experiment of an Original Position, in which we shed knowledge of our own circumstances. But Winship doubts that “specific policy directives follow” from the Difference Principle for this case (p. 175). The best choice depends on predictions of the effects of various policies. Like other contributors, Winship thinks the best approach is to consider a “broad set of policy options” in case there’s a way to avoid the dilemma (p. 178).

Some of the authors balk at the focus on individual or small-group choices. Melissa Aguire, for instance, notes that the teachers in the first case study face a tragic choice that would be avoided entirely if the system were just. Her point is true and relevant; it should be made. At the same time, describing how things should be instead of what we must do can evade responsibility. Yes, systems should be just, but they aren’t, and what are we going to do about that? Many authors explore the constraints that teachers and others face in an unjust larger context, but they repeatedly insist that the specific actor is not powerless (e.g., 127). In the classic debate about structure and agency, they emphasize agency–not because it solves everything, but because it is the main concern of an actual agent.

Responding to a case about a teacher in a zero-tolerance school who thinks a vulnerable teenager has committed theft (which will result in a prison sentence), Tommie Shelby objects to the narrow focus on her “professional responsibilities.” “What matters first of all are the injustices that pervade society.” Still, Shelby doesn’t resort to calling for those injustices to be solved by someone else. Rather, he would “focus on her more general duties as a relatively privileged member of a profoundly unjust society.” That is to treat the teacher as an individual citizen, not just an individual professional. Shelby adds, “she can’t reform society on her own. She needs allies, and perhaps even a social movement, to be able to fundamentally change things.” (79, 81).

Needing a social movement is a problems of collective action. Jennifer Hochschild makes explicit references to the literature on collective action problems as she responds to a case about pervasive grade inflation in a private school. When everyone inflates grades, each teacher and school is forced to as well. But Hochschild’s brief review of the tragedy of the commons neglects more recent work by Elinor Ostrom and many others about how people actually solve collective action problems. They are not inexorable tragedies but suspenseful drams. Many of the suggestions in this volume are plausible solutions.

The scale gradually grows as the volume progresses–from choices made by one or a few teachers up to policies considered by school districts and states. As the scale grows, the active agent becomes more obscure. After presenting a case about comparing charter schools to other schools, Levinson asks, “would you support legislation that restricts charter school expansion?” (p. 185). Here the actor (“you”) is a voter, one of more than a million. The impact of each vote is infinitesimal, and the ballot question will be already framed by others. But Andres A. Alonso objects to a narrative that treats the Boston Public Schools (BPS) as the agent that chooses a school assignment plan. “Districts are hotbeds of internal and external politics. Virtually every decision is fought over by multiple stakeholders” (p. 165). His political analysis puts people’s agency back into the picture. 

Some of the authors suggest strategies at an important midsize scale that is usually overlooked in philosophy. Ethics focuses on individual choices, whereas the most influential political theories consider the ideal structure of a whole society; but here the focus is on purposeful groups. For instance, Toby N. Romer notes (p. 37) that as long as each teacher decides whether to send each student to a violence-prone “alternative” school, the right answer may be not to. But if all the teachers in the same middle school send all the relevant kids to that school, it will immediately improve, thanks to the broader range of enrollees. This is an example of collective action by a group, a “we,” that is small enough to make decisions and act together.

Authors cite Aristotelian phronesis (practical wisdom), Bent Flyvbjerg’s revival of phronesis, and pragmatism as methodological precedents. I share those enthusiasms, but I’m not sure that we yet have a satisfactory philosophical apparatus to clarify how people should think about what they should do. We must go beyond vague references to judgment or practical wisdom. We must face questions of agency and structure, relations between individual and group intentions and responsibilities, and challenges of collective action at various scales. I think this is an important frontier for philosophy and social theory.

See also Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesiscommunity organizing, community-engaged research, and the problem of scalea different approach to human problems

new book on communities using Positive Youth Development

Jonathan F. Zaff, Elizabeth Pufall Jones, Alice E. Donlan, and Sara Anderson have published their edited volume entitled Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Positive Youth Development (New York: Routledge, 2016). “Positive Youth Development” is a whole stance toward adolescents that involves supporting them to do positive things rather than preventing them from doing bad things. The preventative approach can be done in a caring and sympathetic way; it still tends to fail. Teenagers get too few opportunities to contribute, and they flourish much better when they have such opportunities. Many Positive Youth Development initiatives are programs: organized, named, defined activities that enlist certain kids for certain purposes, such as service, arts, or sports. But we can also intervene at the level of communities to increase the opportunities for all resident kids and to involve them in designing and allocating programs. Not much has been known empirically about “comprehensive community initiatives” for Positive Youth Development, but this book assembles the best available evidence and has roots in the practical work of the Center for Promise. One chapter is by Jodi Benenson, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, yours truly, and Felicia M. Sullivan: “Youth as Part of the Solution: Youth Engagement as a Core Strategy of Comprehensive Community Initiatives.”

thinking like a citizen–about schools

In Education, Justice & Democracy, edited by Danielle S. Allen and Rob Reich, all the chapters address the topic of educational equality in the US. The section headings are “ideals,” “constraints,” and “strategies.” In a longish review essay for Theory & Research in Education, I argue that good citizens explore just these three issues whenever they consider any important topic. In fact, you might define good citizens as people who take  ideals, constraints (or, I would say, “facts”), and strategies seriously and act accordingly. However, the three issues are badly segregated in modern intellectual life, with whole disciplines given over to the assumption that one should seek value-free facts, other disciplines happy to explore values without thinking about strategies, and some professional programs focused on strategies with a narrow conception of ideals. What we call “Civic Studies” is a deliberate effort to reintegrate thinking about social concerns from a citizen’s perspective, which inevitably combines ideals, constrains, and strategies. I chose to review this volume because it exemplifies Civic Studies, although I offer some critical thoughts about parts of the book.

My review is in Theory and Research in Education, July 2015, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 235-238, or on

from soft skills to agency

I’m very pleased to see a blog post by Andy Calkins, Deputy Director of the Next Generation Learning Challenge, entitled “It’s Time to Trash the Terms ‘Non-Cogs’ and ‘Soft Skills.'”

Partly in response to the hegemony of standardized testing, some organizations and individuals have been pushing for “non-cognitive” or “soft” skills (e.g., collaboration, grit, participation) as important measures and goals of education. Theirs is a valid goal, but I agree with Calkins’ critique of the terminology. The kinds of skills that have been named “non-cognitive” actually require advanced cognition; the skills that have been labeled “soft” are, in every sense, quite hard.

But it’s not his critique of terminology that makes me recommend Calkins’ post. Rather, it’s the alternative master term that he recommends to replace “non-cog” and “soft.” Calkins chooses “agency,” which is indeed an apt word for the individual student outcomes that have been overlooked in the era of narrow assessments. Agency comprises an individual’s ability and motivation to interpret and change the world. But it is not an only individual matter. Agency has to be political (in the broadest sense), because individuals are truly effective as agents when they work together.

Thus we can say that citizens have agency; and people who exhibit agency in public contexts are citizens. Doris Sommers, who visited Tisch College earlier this week, would argue that citizenship is “cultural agency”: intentionally shaping the common world together. And Harry Boyte and Blase Scarnati write, “Agency can be understood as a form of empowerment that has conscious political dimensions, or as effective and intentional action that is conducted in diverse and open settings in order to shape the world around us.”

In We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (pp. 27-8), I write:

A master question for social theory during the twentieth century was structure versus agency: whether people’s voluntary choices made any difference in politics, or whether underlying “structures” determined everything. This question divided, for example, French existentialists (who preached the value of intentional political acts) from French structuralists (who thought that political events, including major elections and revolutions, were superficial perturbations on the permanent structures below). But the question for the twenty-first century should be different: not how much impact agency has, but how that impact can be expanded. The reason to expand it is not that agency is intrinsically good. Hitler was an effective political agent. Rather, deliberate and effective human action is one necessary condition of a worthwhile human life. If there is no agency, life can have no point.

In the context of education, “agency” moves us from a purely individualistic framework to a recognition of collaboration, social capital, networks, public discourse, and other outcomes for groups and communities.

This argument is important coming from the Next Generation Learning Challenge, which is influential, hard-nosed about measures and methods, and involved with enhancing students’ success as currently measured. (For full disclosure, the NGLC funded us for a randomized experimental test of iCivics’ Drafting Board module, which we found to be effective.) It would be easy and unremarkable for me–a civics and democracy guy–to endorse agency. For the NGLC to choose it as a master term is much more valuable.

See also: “from the achievement gap to empowerment

The post from soft skills to agency appeared first on Peter Levine.

why we miseducate children to think of values as opinions

In “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts,” Justin P. McBrayer observes that his second-grade son has been taught to distinguish between facts (which can be “tested or proven”) and opinions (which are just what “someone thinks, feels, or believes”).

In the category of “opinions” are placed all moral claims, including “Copying homework assignments is wrong,” and “All men are created equal.” Presumably, if a child says it is wrong to kill someone for the fun of it, that is labeled an opinion.

McBrayer notes that the same school that teaches his son to view moral claims as opinions also insists that it is really is wrong to cheat and really important to protect other students’ rights. I assume that the school not only proclaims these ideas explicitly but also builds them into its “hidden curriculum” of norms, expectations, punishments, and rewards. By teaching moral values while defining them as opinions, the school contradicts itself.

McBrayer has not just discovered an educational fad or a politically controversial agenda being pushed lately by a small group of adults under our noses. The fact/opinion distinction, as it is taught to his son, is a troubling hallmark of our age.

For instance, education is deeply influenced by standardized testing. What is tested will determine what McBrayer’s son learns in school for the next decade. I have been involved in writing exams, such as the federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Civics. This is an excellent instrument, supported by impressive science. Much skillful effort is devoted to identifying questions that yield good statistical results. Proposed questions that produce anomalous scores get cut. Based on their scores, the higher-performing students are labeled as “proficient” or “advanced.”

But each item on the NAEP is fundamentally a value-judgment. Should a citizen know the text of the Second Amendment, how many votes it takes to pass a law, or the history of racist violence in the US? Is a young person who understands half of these topics a “proficient” citizen, or “below basic”?

There are no scientific answers to those questions. They are matters of value, on which the entire edifice of testing rests. Yet all the official discourse about standardized tests skirts value questions and dwells on the statistics.

A Nazi civics test could be scientifically valid and reliable. It could work beautifully to identify young Nazis. It would be evil, whereas our standardized tests are at least reasonably decent—but the difference is not scientific. It is a moral matter.

Going beyond tests, the whole educational system that serves Prof. McBrayer’s son is built on techniques and practices scrutinized by science. The No Child Left Behind Act (still the governing federal law on k-12 education), favors forms of instruction supported by “scientifically-based research.” Randomized experiments count as the most scientific.

Thus, for example, experiments endorsed by the federal government show that paying teenagers to stay in school can cut their dropout rates. Another approach that also seems to lower dropout consists of “weekly after-school discussion groups … on personal, family, and social issues,” such as those arranged by a program called Twelve Together.

These very different programs are both presented as proven by science. But it is not self-evident that completing high school is a valid target, especially given the kinds of schools we actually provide. To identify graduation as the goal is a judgment. If such judgments are mere opinions, then there is nothing more to be said about them. But surely we can reason about the ends of education.

We should also reason about means. Could paying teenagers to stay in school “work” (boosting their graduation rates) yet still be wrong? Could it be an example of treating human beings as objects rather than autonomous subjects?

Finally, nothing just “works.” Ideas that are ready to be scientifically evaluated have always been designed, advocated, funded, implemented, tweaked, and refined. That implies effort by teachers or other front-line practitioners, administrators, and social scientists. A wide range of ideas can be made to work if the investment is sufficient and skillful.

But what we should invest in is a value question. We could start by paying teenagers to stay in school and work to make that a highly effective program. Or we could start by teaching them philosophy and refine our methods until that keeps them in school. Which approach we should try to make work is again not a scientific question but a moral one. All the scientific data on “effective practices” follow from our fundamental moral choices.

I have used educational examples here to connect to McBrayer’s article, but the same modes of thinking will be found in health, environmental protection, labor—indeed, all domains of policy and practice. A simplistic fact/opinion distinction influences sophisticated scholars and policymakers as much as 2nd graders and their teachers.

To be sure, budding social scientists are taught that values matter; they influence people’s behaviors and actions, and they influence social science itself. But this influence is treated as a problem. In the “limitations” section at the end of a scholarly article, the authors may confess that they have a “bias” in favor of certain values.

But moral commitments are not limitations; they are preconditions of decent scholarship. The difference between valuable and harmful social science is that the former manifests good values.

Science has achieved prodigious successes in understanding and controlling nature. It can also debunk certain assertions that are morally problematic, for example, that white people are biologically superior. But science cannot demonstrate most moral claims.

For instance: every child in second grade has the same moral value and importance. Looked at from a scientific perspective, that statement makes no sense because value is not a scientific idea. Or perhaps the statement is scientifically false, because science translates “value” into something like capacity or functioning, and not every second-grader does function at an equivalent level. We can try to equalize their capacity by devoting care and resources to the children who need it most—but science provides no reason to do that.

The influence of a simplistic fact/opinion distinction is not the fault of philosophers, who have always viewed the topic as complex. But it is philosophy’s responsibility to challenge the distinction that is so prevalent today. Otherwise, not only will we teach second-graders to view morality as mere opinion, but we will build massive social institutions on the same untenable premise.

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civic education and deeper learning

Today, Jobs for the Future (JFF) a national nonprofit that advocates for all youth to gain the skills they need to succeed in the economy, releases a paper entitled “Civic Education and Deeper Learning” by me and CIRCLE Deputy Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg. This paper was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as part of its Deeper Learning Initiative. It was discussed at a Harvard Graduate School of Education event: “More than College Readiness: Engaging Students in Work and Civic Life.”

The Hewlett Deeper Learning initiative envisions k-12 students “using their knowledge and skills in a way that prepares them for real life.” When deeper lear`ning occurs, students “are mastering core academic content, like reading, writing, math, and science, while learning how to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, direct their own learning, and believe in themselves (known as an ‘academic mindset’).” Deeper Learning should occur in all disciplines and should encourage interdisciplinary learning.

In “Civic Education and Deeper Learning,” we argue that k-12 civic education must be strengthened to meet these goals. The best civic education exemplifies deeper learning, but many students receive more superficial and less interactive forms of civics. For its part, the deeper learning agenda must encompass civic education, because among the topics that students must learn to think critically about, discuss, and collaborate on are social and political issues.

We argue that aligning civic education with deeper learning points the way to pedagogical, curricular, and policy innovations that will be overlooked if we think of civic education as merely the acquisition of basic facts about the political system—the view that seems to drive such policies as requiring students to pass multiple-choice civics tests.

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the monumental task that confronts a high-stakes testing state

Let’s say you don’t especially trust teachers to assess their own students, because their ratings can be inconsistent and biased. So you want to use validated and standardized assessments to evaluate students, schools, and teachers. Let’s say, furthermore, that your state authorizes about 4,000 different courses, from kindergarten through 12th grade. (A subject like science in 3rd grade counts as a “course,” by the way.) Each course encompasses many different content areas; for instance, an American history course covers the Revolution, the Civil War, civil rights, and so on. For each topic in each course, you need assessment “items” (questions or prompts of various kinds). You need more than a few items for each topic; one question does not yield a valid score. You can’t repeat items without allowing kids to cheat by looking at old tests. And you will be testing frequently–more than once per year in each course if you consider the need for make-up tests and practice tests.

The upshot is that you will need at least several hundred thousand assessment items to make the whole system work. See Florida’s Race to the Top Assessments page for some of the documents on which my estimate is based. Thus …

  1. You face an expensive undertaking, and if you skimp, you will get poor items, written by people who are not sophisticated about the content or well trained in writing assessments. Pilot-testing items costs even more money.
  2. Even if you spend enough money, writing several hundred thousand items is a human enterprise. Error is inevitable. Some proportion of your items will be flatly incorrect or invalid in other ways. Many will be too easy or too hard, or inadequate to assess the desired skills and knowledge.

On its own, this is not an argument against high-stakes testing. The best argument in favor is that measuring pretty well is better than not measuring at all. But the cost and frailty of the whole system must certainly be taken into consideration. After all, the power of the state stands behind these assessments. If a kid cannot move on to 8th grade, or if a teacher loses his job because of test scores, that is a state decision. I think people may reasonably view it as almost a juridical process.

In the corporate context, employers are always assessing employees, and vice-versa. It is not OK if an employer’s assessments are biased or arbitrary, but using standardized measures may at least reduce inevitable bias, and the market does offer a theoretical solution to injustice (the employee finds a different job). In contrast, if a state moves from not making high-stakes assessments at all to doing so badly, it’s like imposing a new juridical regime that makes arbitrary decisions. I see a serious threat to justice.

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