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Understanding Equal Educational Opportunity

reviewed by Nicholas C. Burbules - 1999

coverTitle: Understanding Equal Educational Opportunity
Author(s): Kenneth R. Howe
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080773599X, Pages: , Year: 1997
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One must admire the courage of a project like Kenneth Howe's in Understanding Equal Educational Opportunity. At a time when the United States has seen a series of compromises and erosions in the redistributive policies of the liberal welfare state, and a widespread abandonment of the social ideal of economic, political, and educational equality, Professor Howe has given us a well-argued reconception of the ideal of equal educational opportunity and has given this conception its strongest defense as requiring substantive equalization of certain educational outcomes. This emphasis flies in the face of a society that has become complacent about the profound inequalities of educational resources and facilities that exist between poor and wealthy, inner city and suburban, black and white, and rural and metropolitan school systems. Professor Howe's refusal to join in the chorus of "realistic" (read fatalistic) reformers, who have implicitly accepted that many school children will either drop out or leave school with barely adequate skills, must be admired. Professor Howe's book is a call to the democratic conscience, and one can only hope that it will be heard.

Professor Howe makes an important decision at the very outset of this project: to accept the principle of equal educational opportunity as the locus of argument for a "radical liberal" account of social justice and schooling. Many progressives have abandoned the principle of equal educational opportunity for this purpose, seeing in it a set of assumptions that belie an actual commitment to social equality. In fact, Professor Howe himself calls the drive to achieve equal educational opportunity in the U.S. an "abject failure" (p. 1).

Yet equal educational opportunity, the notion that everyone deserves a chance at an education and the benefits that it opens up, appeals to very American ideals of self-determination, meritocracy, and unlimited human potential. In few other nations would children be told, "If you study hard in school you can become President." Equal educational opportunity has traditionally served an important policy purpose as a point where liberal and conservative reformers can agree, at least at some level of generality, that everyone deserves an educational chance. Beyond this point, the range of meanings that have been given to the principle (from formalist to actualist interpretations) has yielded a wide spectrum of actual policies, many of which are incompatible with one another. These policies range from the mere removal of de jure discrimination (on the assumption that an open door can be entered by anyone with the talent and grit to persevere), to the provision of a variety of compensatory programs to try to insure, not only a chance, but a reasonable expectation of some success. Indeed, it is the very vagueness of the principle (beyond its broad rhetorical appeal) that has allowed it to survive as a widely shared aspiration, even as actual spending inequalities between schools, the decline of school facilities, and the inadequate training of teachers have put many schools further and further behind even the minimum level of quality that would actually constitute a "chance" for the students within them.

In the literature on equal educational opportunity, a central issue has been the extent to which fulfilling the provision of equal educational opportunity itself entails, or can be measured by, the equalization of educational results, or whether educational equality derives from a different sort of principle (a substantive egalitarianism) than equal educational opportunity. In other words, can one say that opportunities have been equalized, successfully, even if a pattern of unequal educational outcomes persists? One view says that opportunities can be missed, or squandered, that people can have a chance but fail, and that society is only obliged to provide a chance, not to guarantee success (or even that the very idea of "guaranteeing success" is absurd, and is certainly beyond any societal obligation). The other main view says that if outcomes are not equalized, real opportunities could not have obtained - that in a system of truly equal opportunities, for example, the range of outcomes would simply reflect abilities and (assuming that these are equally distributed within all groups) would result in a cross-section of all social groups within each stratum of achievement.

Professor Howe has entered this debate and argued, ingeniously, for a different conception of equal outcomes. He wants to supplant the traditional formalist/actualist debate with a third position, which he calls the participatory view. This view has several theoretical components. First, it reiterates in the strongest terms that a "real" opportunity requires equal results:

The existence of a (real) opportunity, then, requires a favorable context of choice, in which the thwarting of the desired results of individuals' choices is reduced as far as possible to the kind of uncertainty that gives deliberation and choice their meanings. This in turn requires that certain results obtain. For example, "X has been provided an opportunity to attend Harvard," entails that X has sufficient income, talent, and so forth, and that X has the information and skill needed to deliberate effectively about whether to attend. If X doesn't have the income or talent, then X lacks an opportunity in a rather straightforward way; if X lacks information or skill in deliberation, then X has only a "bare" opportunity. An important corollary is that educational opportunity is treelike with respect to educational results. For example, if a given result, such as literacy, fails to obtain by a certain point in an individual's educational career, then the range of educational opportunity branches subsequently open to such an individual will be significantly pruned (pp. 19-20).

Second, Professor Howe reframes these educational outcomes in terms of a set of "threshold" aims; in other words, not all educational outcomes must be equalized, but only those that are necessary for a minimal attainment of social goods:

First, the threshold is an individual good. Because educational attainment is linked to other goods such as income, employment, and health, a certain level is required to enable individuals to lead a decent and rewarding life....Second, the threshold is a collective good. Because of both the role it plays in relation to other social goods and the role it plays (or could play) more directly, a state characterized by massive inequality in the distribution of education is also characterized by massive inequality in its citizens' political effectiveness....Third, the threshold is needs-based. Because different individuals require different amounts of educational effort and resources to achieve the threshold, effort and resources must be distributed differentially....Fourth, the threshold is results-based in the way described in the previous section. It falls toward the interventions end of the continuum of interpretations of equal educational opportunity. But, as distinct from a strict form of egalitarianism, it limits the requirement to equalize educational results....Not all educational goals and activities are associated with what the threshold requires, and, where they are not, individual and community choice should be free to operate (pp. 26-27).

Third, in order to avoid the problem of "liberal paternalism," Professor Howe wants to involve groups themselves in helping to define what these educational outcomes should be - hence the term "participatory":

The participatory interpretation seeks to...[build] into the principle of equality of educational opportunity the requirement to include the needs, interests, and perspectives of all groups - especially groups that have been historically excluded - in determining what educational opportunities are indeed worth wanting (p. 4).

Professor Howe then elaborates and refines this basic conception by showing how it relates to two broad areas of contemporary debate around social equality: gender issues (Chapter 3) and multiculturalism (Chapter 4). In these chapters he fleshes out what the participatory ideal requires, concluding that "Schooling has a responsibility to help eliminate each of these forms of oppression" (p. 70) - hence what he calls a radical liberal view. Now, I suspect that many defenders of equal educational opportunity, even if they are prepared to accept an equalization of outcomes in terms of a set of minimal threshold conditions (such as basic literacy skills), will be surprised to hear that this also commits them to a set of broader, transformative aims as well, including "eliminating oppression." I want to stress here that the issue is not whether such broader aims are valid, but whether they can be packed into the portmanteau of "equal educational opportunity," and whether the attempt to do so has much chance of gaining either philosophical or wider public support. Professor Howe's purpose, it seems, is to show that this widely shared principle commands a far greater commitment, beyond mere nondiscrimination, or compensatory intervention, to actual anti-oppression, than most of its supporters imagine (pp. 67-70).

The final chapters of Professor Howe's book deal with the major contemporary educational policy debates in which issues of equal educational opportunity are being framed: segregation, tracking, testing, and school choice. It is a major strength of this book that he brings the principled arguments of the first few chapters down to earth by showing how they engage and illuminate difficult issues of the day, and his analyses of these issues are clear and extremely helpful.

But is the overall project of reformulating the principle of equal educational opportunity successful? I have stated some of my concerns about these arguments elsewhere, and Professor Howe was kind enough to acknowledge that these challenges helped him to strengthen and elaborate his arguments in this book (p. xi). It is not my purpose to re-engage these differences at length, but I do think that in addressing some problems Professor Howe may have opened up some new ones.

(1) Professor Howe says that the reason equal educational opportunity is worth arguing about is that it remains a widely shared (if poorly understood) ideal in this society (pp. 33, 132-133). As I have noted, his strategy is to take that commitment at face value, and to try to persuade educators that it requires far greater efforts toward equality and the redistribution of educational resources than policy makers, practitioners, and the public have imagined. Will this strategy succeed? Sadly, I don't see how it can. Given the reasons why equal educational opportunity has held the appeal it has (its implicit meritocratic emphasis, its "make your own way" spirit, and its ambiguity as to outcomes, which has allowed a range of political ideologies to subscribe to it), specifying a set of sweeping transformative aims, including the elimination of oppression, as the necessary conditions of providing equal educational opportunities is unlikely to inspire widespread re-evaluation of society's educational priorities. I would even suggest that the idea of "equal educational opportunity" has served a predominant purpose of rationalizing a certain level of educational inequality, among both conservative and many liberal audiences, by assuring society that once educational opportunities have been provided, any unequal outcomes - unfortunate as they might be - are largely the result of missed or wasted opportunities, and so no longer a pressing cause for broader societal guilt or preoccupation. I admire Professor Howe for wanting to shake up that complacency, but it may simply be that his argument engages these attitudes at precisely the point where they are least susceptible to revision.

Now, it is not in itself a criticism of Professor Howe's book that it is unlikely to unsettle the comfort level of a public that seems to have written off broad-scale redistributive social policies. But if his reason for engaging "equal educational opportunity" is that it represents a potential fulcrum of reform, then I think he needs to give greater credence to the ways in which this principle has become part of the very problem he means to overturn. The fact is that contemporary American society seems more given over to a "sink or swim" mentality, and equal educational opportunity, in most people's minds, seems perfectly compatible with a "sink or swim" outlook. I believe that a commitment to substantive egalitarianism, such as Professor Howe's, needs a more direct articulation and justification.

(2) More technically, the philosophical question of whether any opportunity-based view can be transposed into a results-oriented view remains a problem for Professor Howe's account. There seems to be a way in which it makes sense to ask, How can we say that opportunities were equalized if results remain so widely disparate (especially when aggregate patterns persist between groups)? Nor can something be called a real opportunity if it entails unusual or onerous efforts and sacrifices on the part of the supposed beneficiaries of that opportunity. At some point, changing patterns of outcomes clearly constitutes at least an indirect indicator of whether opportunities have been equalized. Nevertheless, the problem with making results the condition of whether opportunities obtained falls on both the conceptual point that opportunities - by definition - can be missed, failed, or passed up, and on the political point that widespread support for the principle of equal educational opportunity depends on the ethos of "giving people a chance" (a chance that they might, unfortunately, waste or squander).

There is one sense, however, in which the current version of Professor Howe's results-oriented view is an improvement over the previous version. Previously, he had argued for a notion of "mandatory opportunities," and that term, I believe, is one we are better off without. In his current model, Professor Howe argues instead for the way in which educational opportunities are intimately linked: to have an opportunity to learn X, one must have learned Y. Therefore, succeeding at learning Y is a condition of having the opportunity to learn X. Indeed, the phrase "opportunity to learn" has gained a wide currency today as a unit of analysis and evaluation for instructional practices. In this context, Professor Howe's "threshold" argument makes good sense: there are certain opportunities without which other opportunities are empty. But this argument does not establish a results-oriented view of equal educational opportunity; it simply shows how the results of one sort of opportunity can be a condition for another opportunity. That is an important observation, but a different one.

If Professor Howe wishes to argue for a results-oriented, threshold-referenced policy of promoting educational outcomes, he might gain wide support, even among advocates of equal educational opportunity. But it is not itself a view of equal opportunity; moreover, where Professor Howe seems to want to pack into this threshold criterion a set of extremely ambitious social aims, it withdraws even further from an opportunity-driven principle (and, not incidentally, becomes less likely to earn widespread support). Again, I do not criticize these aims (far from it). I only believe that they need a different sort of justification.

(3) The threshold criterion, however, faces a deeper problem, which is the tension between this element of Professor Howe's conception and his emphasis on a participatory determination of educational ends. He touches upon this problem, but does not address the deeper conflict it raises. What I think Professor Howe is trying to do is to avoid the problem of what was earlier termed "liberal paternalism," deciding for culturally diverse groups and individuals what is in their educational best interests. In different terms, this might be called a problem of "normalization" or imposing a "metanarrative" on others. Instead, the participatory view aspires to "[build] into the principle of equality of educational opportunity the requirement to include the needs, interests, and perspectives of all groups...in determining what educational opportunities are indeed worth wanting" (p. 4).

The problem here is that the threshold view is relatively objective. What educational attainments are necessary for other opportunities to be attainable is a generally empirical matter, determined more by the effects of skills, dispositions, and institutional requirements, and less by public deliberation. There may be cases where the meaning and value of such threshold aims may need to be rethought in the context of different cultural groups, but this in itself has nothing to do with whether they are threshold aims or not. What happens if certain groups reject these threshold aims, or redefine them in ways that render them less effective in promoting the further educational opportunities sought? In other words, what happens when the threshold aims and the participatory aims conflict (as I think they will, quite frequently)?

This is what Professor Howe says about this issue:

Any group differences in educational attainment that are systematically linked to goods such as employment, income, and health are prima facie unjust. Unless such inequalities are the result of morally relevant differences (religious beliefs, special talents, and conscious choice are examples), it is education's responsibility - as a public institution that importantly affects the lives of citizens - to intervene and level them (pp. 66-67).

I think you see the problem here. Either a results-oriented view is serious about equalizing results, because without them "educational opportunities" are meaningless, or it is willing to accept unequal results when they are the result of "morally relevant differences." But when these morally relevant differences (if I understand the argument here) can include the choices that a participatory process yields, then the pattern of results will surely reflect the diversity of cultural preferences that groups articulate. Some may have little faith in modern science, others may despise math, others may believe that sports training is a better avenue of opportunity for their youth than computer training, or others may reject standardized testing of any sort. How far does the participatory model go in accommodating such deeply held values, and accepting the educational inequalities that will result? Conversely, at what point do threshold aims become so important that they override cultural preferences, however deeply held (for example, in requiring all students to master English at an early age)? The horns of this dilemma are sharpened by Professor Howe's own analysis of "opportunity," since it appears that in the name of choice, about some things there can be no choice.

Other views of opportunity do not face this dilemma, because they unapologetically emphasize either (1) the lack of any social obligation to intervene into the actual choices and preferences groups or individuals may bring to the exercise of their opportunities (formalism), or (2) the right of society to require compensatory interventions as a means of making up social differences in the name of promoting fair competition in a common contest (actualism). By avoiding these options, Professor Howe has created a new problem for his account, I believe: asserting simultaneously the need for promoting real opportunities, as he terms them, while also trying to accommodate cultural diversity about what is or is not worth pursuing educationally. While in particular instances such frictions may be worked out through a dialogue between these sets of aims (they need not be entirely either/or in many cases - especially where a common concern with the child's best interests encourages all parties to seek accommodation), it is not at all hypothetical to note instances in which such dialogue fails, resulting in educational outcomes that cannot be equalized. I do not know how Professor Howe would adjudicate such instances, given his commitments, although it appears that he believes threshold aims trump participatory aims: "Not all educational goals and activities are associated with what the threshold requires, and, where they are not, individual and community choice should be free to operate" (p. 27, italics added). Here again, it seems that he is more concerned with results than with opportunities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 4, 1999, p. 882-889
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10346, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 2:58:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Nicholas Burbules
    University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign
    E-mail Author
    NICHOLAS C. BURBULES is Professor of Educational Policy Studies in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. He is the editor of Educational Theory. His recent articles have appeared in Access, Philosophy of Education, and the Electronic Journal of Sociology.
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