American public education policy has long been a hot topic of conversation. Many of the debates often reflect the need to first answer broader, philosophical questions about the role of public education in the United States and how exactly it serves, or should serve, to promote economic justice within society. This text will begin by discussing the history and current status of American public education policy. It will then turn to present two arguments for why the modern day emphasis on equality of opportunity and/or equality of opportunity via equality of outcome can be seen as malicious. Later, it will address what a just public education system could look like according to one of the opposing arguments (made by Marx) as well as my views. After suggesting what a just public education system could look like, the focus will turn to how our current system and policies are unjust. This analysis will occur via different lenses of biology, psychology, sociology, and economics.
Later, it will address what a just public education system could look like according to one of the opposing arguments (made by Marx) as well as my views. After suggesting what a just public education system could look like, the focus will turn to how our current system and policies are unjust. This analysis will occur via different lenses of biology, psychology, sociology, and economics.
History and the current state of public education
“Every country on Earth is currently working to reform public education for two main reasons.” The first is the need to figure out how to teach “children to take their place in the economies of the 21st century”. The second, the need to figure out how to educate children on the cultures of others as well as their own, in order to ensure that certain cultural customs continue to get passed down through the process of globalization. One could see the reasoning behind such need for change after examining this history of public education during the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution (18th – 19th century). As Ken Robinson points out, the mindset regarding
As Ken Robinson points out, the mindset regarding class structure and hierarchy during this time was based on certain assumptions that the lower class could never be properly educated as they were either too stupid or too poor. Robinson holds that this “economic imperative” was supported by how the Enlightenment period viewed intelligence/academic ability, which was defined as “a certain type of deductive reasoning and knowledge of the classics.”
During this period, the notion that academic ability was linked to intelligence became significantly reinforced. Our current education system was sculpted on the “interests” of industrialization as well as in a near-spitting image of it. Robinson says that schools can be seen as similar to the structure of factories. They still maintain separate facilities for males and females, separate parts of the school for “separate” subjects, have ringing bells, and move children along in batches where they are then divided by numbers (age – which is equated to being the child’s date of manufacture). Everything has become centered on standardization of curricula and testing.
The idea of establishing an American public education system did not come about until nearly the middle of the nineteenth century. At this time, the United States began immigrating groups of German and Irish Catholics and formulated the belief that educating the public masses would be the best way to protect American democratic ideals. After roughly seventy years, every existing state within “[…] the Union had adopted compulsory education laws.”
The ideology behind public education can be seen as one that has transgressed over time. According to the Center on Education Policy, “there are four major reasons why the federal government became involved in education: to promote democracy, ensure equality of education opportunity, enhance national productivity, and strengthen national defense”.
Although the initial primary focus was on protecting the hallmarks of American democracy, it appears that present day society has now become most concerned with equality opportunity. This can be seen beginning in the 1950s just before the Civil Rights Movement. Equality of race and, shortly after that in the 70s, equality of gender were two sub-movements of the macro-movement of equality. I coin this term “macro-movement” as it seems as though there has been a general theme of moving towards equality in various ways throughout the last one hundred years. White women officially received the right to vote in 1920. With the repassing of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, racial discrimination in public schools was made illegal. Nearly ten years later, so was gender discrimination. One could suggest that for everyone to fully obtain equality of educational opportunity in public schools, equality of class, race, and gender must first be achieved.
However, given our current standing as a nation, while we have come a long way with equality, we are still very far from an equal society. It was not necessary for us to achieve complete equality in race, class, and gender, to achieve the level of equality of opportunity that we have today. This is because the level of equality of opportunity that we have is not truly equal, or just. I believe this is largely due to a loophole that is created by attempting to ensure equality of opportunity through equality of outcome. An example of recent American legislation that directly promotes equality of outcome is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This act was passed under George W. Bush in 2001 as a revision of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that was passed under Lyndon B. Johnson.
Allen West from the Nation Center for Policy Analysis illustrates the current state of American public education policy when he says, “It appears to me that the federal government still has not learned, especially in the area of education, their role is to ensure equality of opportunity… not equality of outcomes.”
This is in reference to President Barack Obama’s replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act with his Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While Obama’s recent act (passed in 2015) has many beneficial features, its overall aim is to ultimately ensure the Unites States’ “longstanding commitment to equal opportunity for all students” by taking the route “to expand educational opportunity and improve student outcomes.”
For the scope of this text, I will only analyze the portions of the ESSA regarding student assessment and school funding. However, for organizational purposes, I will discuss the generalities of these portions in this section and reserve the details for Section IV.
To begin, the ESSA reflects a more prominent federal presence in the funding of education, while leaving more decisions up to the states than ever before. While the government still requires schools to report on their progress and testing standards, scores, methods, etc., the states are no longer required to achieve 100% proficiency in reading and math.
Additionally, the ESSA eliminated the “highly qualified teacher requirements” that the NCLB had in place at the federal level. These requirements solely stated that, “Existing teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, demonstrate subject-matter knowledge in the areas they teach, and hold a certification or license in the subject they teach.” Additionally, “New teachers must have a bachelor’s degree and pass subject-matter tests.”
With the No Child Left Behind Act, schools were pressured to maintain a certain level of proficiency to receive more funding. If the schools failed to produce an adequate amount of proficient students, they would lose funding. As one could imagine, the vast majority of lower-performing schools consist of lower-income student populations. Taking away funding from a school with students that are already struggling seems countercyclical to the general aim of public education – to provide equality of opportunity. The ESSA allows the states to have more control over their curricula while the federal government is more financially supportive (although, for the schools, the states are still even more so) and reserves the right to conduct a quality review of the states though they now no longer “require teacher evaluation systems.” The ESSA no longer penalizes schools that fail to meet their “maintenance of effort” requirements so long as they have been met for the five previous years.
Arguments against equality of opportunity
One argument against equality of opportunity can be seen in the case of John Schaar in his article, “Equality of Opportunity and Beyond.” John Stanley reviews Schaar’s article in his piece entitled “Equality of Opportunity as Philosophy and Ideology” and critiques his views when he says, “[…] Schaar has wrongly attributed to it an inevitably oligarchic character which obscures differences among the various regimes which utilize it.”[xiii] In his article, Schaar makes assumptions about equality of opportunity based on the competitive nature that is fueled under such a doctrine. While Schaar may indeed be making assumptions about equality of opportunity, one could see how he could be right if the ideology were to be mismanaged.
Earlier I pointed out that the United States has attempted to move towards equality of opportunity in and with public education, regardless of the fact that we have yet to achieve equality of race, class, and gender fully. One can see how this might have caused accounts of chaos and led to the point that Schaar makes about oligarchic character obscuring differences among the various regimes that utilize equality of opportunity.
However, it is imperative to draw a distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. The whole focus when creating the public education system had everything to do with output, including national defense, productivity (labor), etc. I argue that many law and policy makers have made a tragic mistake in confusing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. Regarding competition created by equality of opportunity, I reason that competition is natural and there is nothing wrong with it until democracy is touched by the hands of capitalism. Perhaps then I could concede to Shaar’s concern with competitive nature.
Before studying an argument against equality of opportunity, it is important to first examine one basic concept that underlies the ideology as it accompanies democracy. Democracy rests on the belief that individuals should have the ability (or opportunity) to work hard and make their own lives. In other words, people should be responsible for their own actions. In a democratic society where equality of opportunity exists, it is assumed that it is up to each individual to take the opportunity(-ies) necessary to build their “American dream” life (presumably any life, so long as it is not a life which infringes on the freedoms of others).
Marxist philosophy and socialist ideals do not recognize each individual within society. Rather, there is an emphasis on the community as a whole. In this kind of society, everyone is responsible for one another. A homeless man in a democratic society is often looked at as though he has done something to put himself in his specific situation. One could see how this might aid in our frequent justifications to not help others in a position similar to this homeless man. In a socialist society, particularly through the lens of Marx, it is interesting to see the potential distinction in attitude towards the homeless man. In this case, people are less inclined to think that the homeless man did something to deserve his position in society. The type of equality promoted in a Marxist society would be one that does not promote equality of opportunity via equality of outcome, but rather equality of opportunity via equal access to goods and services.
What could a just public education system look like?
Based upon Marxist philosophy, a just education system is one which provides equal access goods and services entirely through the people themselves, not the state/government, and nor the church. This can be seen in Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” when he says, “Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfillment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school. Particularly, […] the state has need […] of a very stern education by the people.”
Marxist thought focuses more on inadequate education in capitalism (especially in the United States), as opposed to focusing on the details of what an adequate education system might look like in a socialist society. The school of Marx also embraces the concept of alienation, which is a process through which one becomes separated from the other. Marx believes that alienation exists everywhere within a capitalist society, including public schools, and one is only truly free when they have overcome alienation by realizing their own true capacities as well as the actual capacities of the “other.”
In one of his videos on education, Ken Robinson discusses how alienation currently occurs in schools because students feel as if there is no purpose to what they are doing. Unlike the recent generations that have come before them, they are no longer being guaranteed a job with a high school degree, nor with a college degree for that matter. The one alienating question that arises for the student might be, “is this [education] worth it [the hassle of conformity or marginalization of my original thoughts/views/etc.]?”
It is safe to assume that most, if not all, of the years a child spends in the public education system are years in which a child is developing cognitively, socially, creatively, sexually, and so on. In her article, “Alienation in the Life of Students”, Shaun Kerry M.D. says, “The alienation often associated with the adolescent’s quest for identity commonly involves a distrust of adults, a rejection of adult values, and a pessimistic worldview. Estranged adolescents feel that they have little control over the events that shape their seemingly meaningless lives. They tend to feel isolated from adults, their peer group, and even themselves.”
Based on this evidence, perhaps Marx was right about alienation in capitalism. One can see that alienation can also be caused when a student feels their ideas or views are rejected by a teacher or peers. If Tommy finds a new way to create a paper puppet and is penalized, Marx would say that Tommy is being alienated from himself by the system that is penalizing him and would likely look down upon this situation. Marx might argue that, in a just education system, Tommy should be encouraged to find new ways to do things so as to be in charge of his own education and creative fruition.
In lieu of Karl Marx, I now to turn to present a tangential argument for what kind of student assessments would exist within a just society. Up to this point, I have already briefly mentioned Ken Robinson who is a British expert on education and creativity and has given numerous presentations on the detriment that standardized testing has on children in the public school system. If Robinson were to design a just public education system, it would be one that closely aligns with that of Marx as it would likely be one which is also determined by the people regarding the material learned and how it is assessed.
To my knowledge, Ken Robinson, like Marx, never explicitly lays out how students might be assessed in such a way that it does not hinder creative capacity and ultimately critical thinking skills. However, it is my opinion that exploring the answer to this question is not a task that I find to be a major priority at this point. Rather, the priority I choose to focus on is how standardized testing is unjust. Perhaps one could argue that standardized testing can be seen as something that has benefits if it were managed the right way, so as not to be the ultimate determining factor of one’s “intelligence.”
Modern American public education requires that its students pass state tests that measure various minimal skills (determined by the state). These tests are multiple-choice, with one “right” answer. By teaching students specific test-taking skills and strategies, the students are equipped to pass these tests and move on to the next grade level. To look at this through the lens of equality, students are given equality of opportunity by also being given the assurance of equality of outcome – to continuously move on to the next grade until they graduate high school. Ken Robinson would likely say this is unjust because we are cheating children out of their capacities, just as Tommy was being cheated out of his in the previous discussion on Marx. With standardized testing, America is ensuring a false equality of opportunity.
Regarding my own opinion on what a just education system could ideally look like, I hold a stance that is a mixture of both Marx and Robinson’s views. Standardized tests are not improving our nation’s education system, and they only capture a small fraction of what is really crucial in education. Equality of opportunity is not the issue, as I see this philosophy as one that is very similar to equality of access to goods and services (that one could presumably use to live just as they would if they had equal opportunity to obtain goods and services).
The only difference between the two equalities is that one accounts for the individual and one accounts for society as a collective. What is the issue is equality of opportunity via equality of outcome, which is ultimately done through the public (federal/state/district) funding infrastructure and standardized testing in public education. I intend to support the view on standardized testing in Section V where I will discuss its malicious biological/neurological effects on children. For now, I turn to explore how a just public education system might be structured financially by juxtaposing Finnish and American public education.
As mentioned earlier, it is unclear how exactly Marx would have structured a just funding scheme in socialist public education. What I know for certain that Marx and I have in common is our views of education being controlled by the people – the more local, the better. I mean this in so far as selection of curricula and classroom materials/supplies. However, where I believe Marx and I differ, based on the section of the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” quoted earlier, is the question of whether or not the federal government should fund the public education system at all. My stance on pro-government funding is one that I have decided to take after reviewing what the leading developed nations of the world have done with their national school systems.
Finland is currently ranked as one of the best countries in the world for public education. According to the Finnish National Education Support Fund, “Forty years ago, Finland made a commitment to providing a good education to all its citizens. They abolished private schools, established a national curriculum to codify a nationally-set standard of education, and committed a large portion of tax dollars to ensure access to free, high-quality education from early childhood daycare all the way through to post-secondary.”
In other words, every school in the country of Finland is publically funded by the government. Furthermore, because of the immense amount of training Finnish educators are required to go through, the government has little need to provide strict standards for what gets taught in the classroom. The educators are never assessed based on their students’ test results. The lack of strict curricula standards/criteria is also fueled by the fact that Finnish children do not take standardized tests, as we know them. Due to this, the government has managed to cut back on expenditure. Unlike the U.S., who has focused on increasing standardized testing, Finland has continuously grown to rely “on sample-based testing and school principals to identify potential problems.”
With sample-based testing “the education providers receive their own results to be used for development purposes.” To establish a just public education system that truly allows for equality of opportunity/equality of access, we must move to a nationally funded scheme that allows for autonomous, classroom-selected curricula and assessments. However, without first altering how we educate our educators, one would be right in considering the political feasibility of this change to be low. For if the situation occurred where teacher education was not properly reformed prior to establishing a national public education system, the outcomes could be disastrous for the future of the entire nation.
The Every Child Succeeds Act increases federal financial involvement in public education, while leaving more of the curricula up to the states (although still maintaining some federal standards for criteria/assessment). As opposed to mentioning more of the current financial scheme of public education in Section II, I have intentionally reserved the discussion for this section. In this way, I hope to allow the reader(s) to be able to translucently see a juxtaposition of the funding of a socialist education system such as Finland, with a capitalist-influenced education system such as the United States, and ultimately understand why I support a system similar to that of Finland’s.
Atlas News discusses how states currently receive federal funding, in addition to providing an idea of approximately how much funding of the public education system comes from the federal government. This is exemplified when they state, “Federal education funding is distributed to states and school districts through a variety of formula and competitive grant programs. While the federal government contributes about 12 percent of direct funding for elementary and secondary schools nationally, the amount varies considerably from state to state. In some states, the federal share of total elementary and secondary education spending is less than 5 percent of the total, while in other states it is higher than 16 percent.”
While U.S. public schools receive their second largest amounts of funding from the government, the rest of their funding usually comes from (firstly) their states and (thirdly) their districts. The exact amounts from each level of governing bodies varies among schools for reasons that include the size of the school population, the parent/guardian income level of the vast majority of the student population, the mandatory attendance of students (various requirements in different states), and the success rate of state assessments from each school.
In the following paragraphs, I will consider the ramifications of the last two reasons. Meanwhile, one could concede that the Every Student Succeeds Act was a step towards a more just public education system. However, it still presents an incentive for states and schools to set standardized curricula, require their students to take standardized tests and have a high pass rate in order to be recognized, receive state funding, and/or not be penalized at the federal level depending on whether they have met their maintenance requirements for more than five years.
I would like to take a moment to examine the schools that have not met the maintenance requirements for more than five years, as I believe they are dealt the most unjust circumstances regarding public education financing, as well as public education in general. Without knowing any statistics, it is likely safe to assume that a school that is unable to improve their standards, as well as their output, might be a school that has a low-income student population. There is therefore little money coming from the parents for the children who, at the same time, might be sending their children to school without supplies that the school (often the teachers) are then forced to supply. If a school of this nature struggles to provide financially for an abnormal population of students with disabilities, the payment of a federal penalty, and perhaps any state penalty, could be a burden.
Given the fact that more than half of public schools in the United States have a student population where the vast majority of students live in poverty, it is likely that the schools who are unable to meet their maintenance requirements for more than five years have these types of student populations. Equality of opportunity/access is unable to be achieved if the lower-income schools are unable to catch up, much less stay on track. The students of these schools suffer a particular injustice, as their educators are put under an even more immense amount of pressure (compared to teachers at schools without majority low-income populations) to get their students to meet set standards that will ultimately enable them to move on to the next grade.
This is a continuous pressure until the students graduate and are themselves given “equality of opportunity” as a result of their equal outcome to have studied the same things, learned the same ways of thinking, and completed a standardized system in concurrence with hundreds, if not thousands, of other young adults. The injustice that these students suffer is that they are not given equal opportunity to explore what interests them. They are not encouraged to think divergently (to see more than one right answer). According to Ken Robinson, divergent thinking is necessary for creativity. Thus, by encouraging a linear style of thinking to promote student “success” rates (equal opportunity via equal outcome), we encourage the self-destruction of creativity. That is to say that students in the American public education system are cheated out of creativity in general. However, it can be concluded that the students of the lower-income schools are deprived of their creativity even more. Due to this, I believe all students are not truly being allotted a just and equal opportunity.
In regard to students’ mandatory attendance, while the ESSA does not set any specific attendance requirements for students, the ESSA is an act in which “the provisions on attendance highlight the increasing awareness in Washington and across the country that chronic absence is a key indicator for assessing school and student success.” Due to this, permission is given to school districts to spend federal funds on reducing “absenteeism.”
While there are no national attendance requirements, the ESSA does allow for states to establish their own attendance requirements. Cinque Henderson from the Washington Post writes, “Traditionally, public schools are funded based on their total student enrollment. But California, Texas, and some other states tie dollars to attendance instead, incentivizing schools to get as many students in their classrooms as possible. […] Moreover, attendance-based funding formulas are most harmful to schools that serve high-poverty areas, those teaching students who often need expensive extra supports and resources to learn. Inner-city schools with larger numbers of single-parent households and higher crime rates suffer from higher rates of truancy, dropouts and suspensions than those in wealthier suburban neighborhoods.”
Concerning Henderson’s article leading to the conclusion that attendance policies keep bad kids in school, I pose the question: although it is certainly necessary for children to go to school, is it right for them to go five days per week for eight hours per day (like the typical American work schedule), on the days and at times determined by the school districts and states? Children learn in a variety of ways, and many learn better at different times of the day than others. Some children learn better in larger groups, some in small groups, and some independently. Some children need to be able to do more of their schoolwork at home, because their socio-economic status might lead them to need to take on a job while still in school. Some children may have a parent or guardian who is ill and needs serious at-home care. U.S. public schools do not cater to the different lifestyles, styles of learning, or the creative desires of students because of their, unfortunately, necessary concerns for school funding, as schools have to have a certain amount of student pass rates and even required attendance.
Contrary to the structure of public education funding in the United States, where public education is partially funded by the federal government, in Finland “responsibility for educational funding is divided between the State and the local authorities”, while the local and/or municipal authorities maintain the public schools. The supervision by local and/or municipal authorities is done with sample-based testing. However, what Finnish schools fund differently are the types of subjects they choose to test. According to the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, “Not only academic subjects are evaluated, but also subjects such as arts and crafts and cross-curricular themes.” Standardized tests in the United States do not test students on the arts, nor do schools emphasize education of the arts very much in contrast with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) based subjects.
Upon returning to the philosophy of Karl Marx, it can be noted that Marx believed capitalism would destroy the creativity of those who engaged in it via alienation and exploitation. In Chapter Two of the Communist Manifesto Marx says, “The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.”
It is safe to say that many students in the public education system see no point in going to school. They do not have a choice in what they learn, how they learn it, when they learn, or how they are tested. Nor do they understand the purpose of public education, as what they are told about equality of opportunity does not seem to match up with their feelings of alienation and shame for original ideas, not picking the one right answer, the desire to learn something unordinary, etc. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the historical transgression of profound technological and social advancements, and “modern” public education, we have managed to overcome many obstacles as a nation and learn a great deal.
However, I believe that there is something that has been lost along the way. Capitalism has managed to belittle the arts in public education (as well as society in general, but that is not the point here). Students are not tested (in a standardized manner) on dance, theater, music, crafts, drawing, etc. Statistics are not needed to back up the assertion that students long for these types of activities. I can say that from my own personal experiences in American public education (2000–2012) that there was never a day that went by where I did not see some students out dancing or rapping at recess, coloring/drawing on their binders, desks, and even on their own bodies. There is a creative urge that many students have, that I believe we educate them out of by the time they graduate. Pablo Picasso said, “All children are born artists, the problem is to remain artists as we grow up.”
While there are some students who can see this issue rather objectively, many students never realize why exactly they do not like school, or why they never pay attention. In the following section, I will argue that the cognitive and creative capacities of students are reinforced on a biological level because of social circumstances. When this happens, a loop comes into fruition that is nearly impossible for anyone to escape. The loop makes students, who will later turn into adult members of society, incapable of certain levels of cognition and critical thinking that permit them never to question the system in which they were produced.
The neurological ramifications
In recent years there has been a copious amount of research conducted on the biological, psychological, and neurological effects on various cognitive processes as a result of socio-economic status, stress, creative stimulation, and so on. One of the areas of the kind of research includes that of the cortisol cycle and its effects on the brain correlated with high-stress situations that are often associated with social and economic status. Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal and pituitary glands.
As stress is induced, the glands secrete increased amounts of the hormone that destroys neurons within the hippocampus. When these neurons are destroyed, the result is one in which the subject now has a slight decrease in cognitive rationalization. In other words, the cortisol release actually slows one down to the point of having a decreased ability to consciously rationalize and maintain low-stress levels. When this happens, one is likely to be subject to more stress than they previously were and hence it allows for another round of cortisol release.
Many students who deal with high-stress situations at home have increased cortisol levels within their bodies. While it is not my intent to suggest that upper- or middle-class students do not experience stress, I would like to point out once again that over half of the American student population lives in poverty, and therefore I believe we should be shifting our focus to the injustices these students receive. Lower socio-economic classes are associated with higher norepinephrine levels as well. Norepinephrine is a monoamine which is a group of hormones including dopamine and serotonin that act to influence mood, energy levels, anxiety levels, reward signals, etc. Norepinephrine is specifically responsible for alertness, concentration, anxiety, energy, impulse irritability, and overall mood. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health in 2006, stress hormones, cortisol, and norepinephrine are officially linked with economic status.
One could see how stress from failing in school, missing too many days, or being rejected by peers could also lead to higher stress. If these students are already suffering malicious effects of cortisol and norepinephrine because of what is happening in their home environment, the double whammy that they get by going to school can only make things worse for their cognitive capacities. To consider the students who do not come from a stressful home life, they are likely still under stress to pass the standardized tests that their futures inherently ride on, while by making their natural creative desires a second priority.
For this to happen to a child at any age within the public school system, but especially a younger child, creates lifelong effects and patterns of thinking that are reinforced at a chemical and neurological level. These effects can be undone to some extent with rigorous training, but the level of recovery is different for each individual depending on their neuroplasticity. Students are graduating now without the ability to think divergently because of the way their neural networks have been trained. As a consequence, their critical thinking skills suffer to the point that they cannot even identify the source of their problem – public education.
Capitalism in education has allowed for the confusion of equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, as its economic motives are primarily concerned with output. A just education system is one in which attendance and student performance are not tied to funding. Furthermore, a just public education system is one run by people on a local scale – this includes teachers, school administrators, and students. The overall argument here is that equality of opportunity is not necessarily bad. What is bad is the attempt to obtain equality of opportunity through achieving equality of outcome in a capitalist society where money becomes the driving force.