Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Playing Fields, Level and Otherwise

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So it’s the end of the term, and I’ve been sitting around trying to get my correcting down and my grades done.  Contrary to any impression I may have given, I am not more cultured than Judy.  It’s just that I think of alcohol as something you do after you’ve corrected the papers.  I think of music as what you do before you correct them, as a kind of innoculation against despair.

In the middle of all this, I have been reading things, and one of the things I’ve been reading is The Nation. 

I don’t know if I was reading the print or the online version when I came across the article on equality of opportunity, but I doubt it matters.  And this is The Nation, which devoted an entire issue, a couple of months ago, to why the Soviet Union was really a good thing and we should honor it.

Thirty million dead, repression of speech and press and even homosexuality–what the hell.

The article was pretty much the same old same old–the Republicans say they want equality of opportunity, but they refuse to put their money where their mouths are.  We can’t say we have equality of opportunity if some people go to schools that are better than others and some people have parents who can pay for SAT test prep.

My usual response to articles like this is to roll my eyes and go looking for something more sensible, but for some reason this one really got me exercised, and so here we are.

Let’s exclude the fact that the SAT test prep courses, which can cost thousands of dollars, actually raise scores very little–too  little for most people to manage a leap from, say, a tier 2 school to a tier 1.

Let me just point out here that what the Nation article was talking about was not equality of opportunity, but equality of initial condition.

And that equality of initial condition is not possible to us, ever, unless genetic engineering gets to the point where we can simply make human beings to order.

Equality of opportunity is this:  the requirement for getting something (into a college, hired for a job at NASA) is that you must take test A, and the best scorers on that test will get the prize.  Everybody can compete.  Nobody will get special favors from the examiners.  Individual attributes that have nothing to do with the test will be rigorously excluded.

That’s it.  That’s equality of opportunity.

And it is never offered to people who are on a level playing field, because people are never on a level playing field.

There are, in the first place, genetic differences between human beings.  Some of us are born smarter, or prettier, or more atheletically talented, or more musically talented. 

Some of these differences are can be compensated for by environment or education, but not all of them can, and NONE of them can be so compensated to a degree significant enough to change the odds in the genetic lottery.

What’s more, the genetic lottery may account for other things, most importantly temperament, which makes a lot of difference in life outcomes.

My mother was a coloratura soprano was a four octave range.  She sang for a year in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

And then she stopped. 

She went back home, took the kind of job women of that generation usually got while waiting to get married, and eventually did get married and had…me.

An argument can be made–and has been made, to me–that what happened to my mother was the result of the gender oppression of the time.  Women of that era were expected to get married and have children.  They were heartily disapproved of by family and friends if they did something else. Possibly, if my mother had been born in 1960 instead of 1918, she would have been a great opera diva after all.

And I suppose it’s possible.  But I don’t think so.

It’s true enough that, in order to become an opera diva in the 1930s, a woman had to be an extraordinary person, with not only extraordinary talent but with extraordinary drive.

But that’s true now, too.  Genius is 90% perspiration, the old cliche goes.  I don’t know if that’s true, but success is 90% drive.  It’s the Sonny Bono principle.  An awful lot of people were trying to get into show business at the same time Sonny Bono was, and many of them were brighter and more talented.  He just had more drive.

It is, of course, true that personality is affected by environment–but I don’t think basic temperament is.  I think the public expression of basic temperament is wildly affected by environment, but that’s not the same thing, and it won’t get you where The Nation wants you to go. 

People are not all the same.  They are not all born with the same talents and capabilities.  Some of us get luckier than others.

Of course, some of us get luckier than others in ways that can be changed, or that we can at least attempt to affect.

Sometime last year there were stories all over the Net about a high school principle who sent messages  home to the families of students in AP classes–no discussing AP work at home, because some students might have families that knew more about the material and that would give those kids an “unfair” advantage.

If that had happened to one of mine, I’d probably have threatened to sue the man–but in a way, he’s got a point.

If youwant to do well in school, it would really help to have me as a mother.  Forget the finances, although finances always help if they’re good.  If you had me as a mother, I would not only have been able to help you with your homework, but I’d have provided a home life that was full of Plato and Aristotle as well as comic books and video games, intense interest in politics and lots of lectures on how the political process works, and on and on and on–so that you’d find yourself sitting in classrooms already knowing material most of your classmates would have to learn.

And the obvious is, of course, obvious.  If your mother is crackhead who’s willing to sell you to her boyfriends for dope, or even just a well-meaning but not very bright woman who thinks the television is a wonderful babysitter and doesn’t own a book–well, there’s that.

This is the kind of thing we often think we can fix, but can’t–at least not without turning the country into an actual police state.   Nor can we change families that fear and despise intellectual work into families that value it.

Families that do value intellectual work and education often get their kids where they want them to go in spite of wretched schools, bad neighborhoods and abject poverty.  That’s why, when you kill affirmative action, the percentage of white students tends to stay the same, but the percentage of Asian students tends to skyrocket–and a fair chunk of those Asian students are the children of immigrants from language groups that don’t get accommodations for the fact that they don’t speak English.  There just aren’t enough Vietnamese in Connecticut to get ballots printed in that language.

None of this is to say, of course, that we shouldn’t do anything about bad schools or disintegrating neighborhoods or any of the hundreds of other things that make life for so many children so very difficult.

I’m on record as favoring a vastly expanded EITC to offset the money problems.  And I’d be all for the school reforms that might actually have a chance in hell of making some kind of difference.

The problem is, no one is going to install those reforms, and not because the wicked teacher’s unions are blocking them.

Resetting the standard of graduation from elementary school and high school back to where it was in 1950, failing or holding back the students who do not legitimately pass, insisting on standard English (no slang, no foreign languages) at all times in school and on schoolwork–we’d have a “high school graduation” rate in the toilet in no time at all, and the disparate impact would be enormous.

What’s more, it would probably take two to three generations before the reforms would result in higher rates of graduation for some minority groups. 

On the other hand, they’d be real high school graduation rates, and not bits of paper that indicated nothing but that the student in front of you sat still, behaved himself, and achieved a sixth grade skill level.

On the other hand, it would save everybody a lot of money.  It would completely collapse the educational arms race that requires everybody to “go to college” and rack up six figure debt to do it. 

A lot of those kids are not “going to college.”  They’re acquiring high school level skills that employers can no longer trust high schools to provide.

We won’t do any of that, though, because embedded deep within the system is this–the fact that most teachers and other educational professionals, along with a big hunk of politicians and government bureaucrats, that black and Latino students are INCAPABLE of meeting the same standards as whites and Asians.


Nobody will admit to this, because thinking such things actually is racism, and the worst kind of racism.

But because nobody will admit to it, nobody will talk about it–and since nobody will talk about it, nothing can change. 

What happens instead is what we have now, which IS a society in which equality of opportunity does not exist, first because we deliberately dumb down the curriculum for students we think of as just not capable, and then because we try to compensate for that by imposing various preferential systems for the people we think of as poor, oppressed incompetents.

I’ve been teaching students from these environments for over ten years.  Most of the ones I get are bright enough.  Some of them are very bright indeed.  There was never any need for any of them to waste four years in a “high school” that was for the purposes of academic work a middle school.

I don’t know if living with reality would give us a picture perfect proportional representation of all ethnic and racial groups.  I don’t think it matters.

The people who are being killed here are not some faceless proportion, but the honestly bright kids who don’t get a middle school education until they get to high school or a high school education until they get to college. 

And it isn’t helping anybody.

I say restore equality of opportunity by getting rid of the preferences for race and gender (and getting rid of “diversity” as the primary goal of admissions and hiring policy–it’s code for “we’re going to judge you by your race and gender, that matters more than anything else you do.”)

And let’s restore the integrity of our educational system by resetting the standards for elementary school, high school and college graduation so that they have some connection with the real world.

That won’t settle everything–I won’t go into the enormous difference in outcomes between children whose parents were married at the time of their birth and still married when they got to school–but it will at least be a start.

Written by janeh

May 6th, 2012 at 8:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Playing Fields, Level and Otherwise'

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  1. About that police state: it doesn’t work. I don’t mean it’s too high a price to pay for eliminating family influence–though that’s true too–I mean it won’t eliminate family influence. It’s not as though it hasn’t been tried. Right along with informants censors and gulags, one of the constant features of EVERY police state from the French Revolution to present-day China and North Korea has been that it’s been a pretty good deal to be born into the families of the ruling elite. So we can’t get there from here. Period. This being so, one does have to wonder about the motivation of those continually pushing us closer to a police state ostensibly in order to achieve that goal.

    As for the two or three generation lag, impose standards at every grade level now, and you’ll see some improvement in black and hispanic SAT scores relative to white and asian in 10 years–time enough for the test-takers all to have been taught to read and write. You might see continued improvement for two or three generations, but you’d see improvement much sooner.

    But while the wicked teachers’ unions aren’t to blame for standards, I don’t think they should be let off the hook for methods, and educational methods may be more of our problem than standards. You can get away with all kinds of trendy educational nonsense with parents backing you up at home. When that home support is lacking is precisely when the school has to emphasize educational basics–reading starting with phonics, and rote memory in early mathematics. For that matter, they need enough date and detail in history to start placing events in sequence and to understand that the conditions of the students’ lives are not the conditions of times past. Even a remedial college class should not have to be explaining that there was a world prior to the welfare state.

    I think if we fixed educational methods, a surprising amount of our problem with educational standards would go away. I want the standards fixed, too, you understand–but primarily because it would drive a fix of the methods.


    6 May 12 at 12:49 pm

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