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Nudging the Opportunity Structure: A Modest and Ambitious Aim for Teacher Education

by John P. Fantuzzo & Mark Dixon - 2020

Background/Context: Teacher candidates are being educated in a political and economic context that calls the value of their professional preparation into question. What is more, a rising generation of teacher candidates has only experienced education during the Era of Corporate School Reform, meaning, the political aims of public education were systematically neglected during their upbringing due to an intensive focus on high-stakes competitions, consumer preferences, and the privatization of public schools. This essay asks how teacher candidates, raised to value a narrow and reductive form of academic success, can be prepared to attend to their students’ flourishing and collectively work towards social justice.

Focus of Study: Stressing the indispensable role of teacher education, with a focus on the importance of educational foundations courses, we argue that teacher candidates should learn in such courses to nudge students towards a pluralistic opportunity structure, defined by political philosopher Joseph Fishkin, as a structure of opportunity comprised of many less harshly competitive and therefore more accessible paths to diverse forms of flourishing and economic opportunity.

Research Design: The proposed aim seeks to reconcile the social ambitions of early progressive theorists with the method of reflective equilibrium used by contemporary educational ethicists. It is developed using a case study method. Cases are drawn from the reflections of three academically successful teacher candidates. Each candidate, for distinct reasons, critiques the conception of academic success they were habituated to value during their P–12 schooling and each urges their peers to not reproduce its harms by teaching differently. The argument proceeds by exploring how their critiques are reflected in the value of equality of opportunity and how their advice for teaching differently is continuous with the work of pluralizing the opportunity structure.

Conclusion: The teacher candidates’ critiques of academic success are not simply private reflections, but nascent expressions of a principle of social justice, a new theory of equality of opportunity, that can be realized by attending to the wellbeing of all students, including advantaged students attending independent schools.

Similarly, [philosophical] criticism is not a matter of formal treatises, published articles, or taking up important matters of consideration in a serious way. It occurs whenever a moment is devoted to looking to see what sort of value is present; whenever, instead of accepting a value wholeheartedly, being rapt by it, we raise even a shadow of a doubt about its worth, or modify our sense of it even by a passing estimate of its probable future. --John Dewey, Experience and Nature


Wheres your college pennant!? The question is addressed to a new teacher and posed by an administrator at an urban public school. The school was recently taken over by a charter school corporation due to its poor academic performance, and zeal for the promised turnaround is gathering steam. The new teachers delay in hanging the pennant, in this case, was not caused by carelessness, but rather by a shadow of a doubt about the worth of hanging the pennant in an English classroom designed to serve over-aged and under-credited students. The mandate presents a nagging moral dilemma in the teachers mind. On the one hand, hanging up the pennant supports the schools turnaround effort, more specifically, the college-going culture endorsed by the school corporationa culture, in the corporations eyes, of academic success that sets high expectations for all students, whatever their racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Under the circumstances, not hanging up the college pennant quietly reinforces the low expectations that have plagued the school in years past. The administrators question, in this respect, can be heard as a just rebuke.

On the other hand, the college pennant is not simply an innocent affirmation or beacon of promise. College often entails high-stakes competition, an alien culture, and staggering debt. The message sent by the schools turnaround culture, although well-intentioned, may in fact threaten and harm these students; college may not be the best or only option for them. Moreover, to hang up a college pennant under the auspices of promoting success, quietly hints that students who do not make it to and through college are failures and thus undeserving of respect. Wheres your college pennant!?the question sounds sinister in this light, like an imperative to participate in a rigged game. Should the new teacher hang his college pennant or not?  

A Modest and Ambitious Aim for Teacher Education


The question is practical and immediate for the teacher above. However, it also bears upon the role these moral dilemmas play in teacher education:

(1) How should teacher candidates handle the moral dilemmas present in everyday school policies?

(2) How should they weigh the competing values at stake and decide to resist or comply with those policies?

(3) How should they consider the broader social consequences of their actions?

The purpose of this essay is to recall an aim for teacher education that addresses these questions and seeks to reconcile recent work in educational ethics and political philosophy with the social aspirations of 20th-century progressive theorists such as John Dewey and George Counts. The aim we propose is that teacher candidates should be taught to make judgments that will collectively nudge their future students towards a more liberal and humane opportunity structure; more specifically, an opportunity structure that realizes the principle of equality of opportunity as a variety of desirable and accessible paths to living a full life. This aim is not widely appreciated, as we see it, because educational policy makers have been focused on achieving a narrow and reductive concept of success, and the principle of equality of opportunity, as it is popularly conceived, harbors this concept. The first general step in our essay is to identify and extricate such success from the theory of equality of opportunity; the second is to advance an understanding of the aim we propose and consider how it could guide and inspire teachers collective action.


This essay will begin by introducing initial terms (Section I). We will then examine how both contemporary educational ethicists and early theorists in progressive education would address the case above. We seek to reconcile their respectively modest and ambitious perspectives through the aim we propose (Section II). We advance this aim by examining the reflections of three academically successful teacher candidates in an educational foundations course. All three candidates cast a shadow of doubt on their pursuit of academic success as K12 students and advise their peers, future educators, to attend to their students flourishing beyond the narrow and reductive form of academic success they were raised to value (Section III). Observing that their advice lacks a principle of social justice to guide collective action, we understand this limitation as a gap in contemporary educational policy. Locating the source of confusion in a reigning principle of social justice, we extend their reflections to the popular value of equality of opportunity, which harbors the form of academic success that they critique (Section IV). We present Joseph Fishkins theory of opportunity pluralism as a formal theorization of the aim we propose. (Section IV). Fishkins theory is developed by considering the role that the educators foresight and collective deliberation might play in substantiating and advancing it (Section V). We conclude by considering what the aim we propose means for teacher candidates who will work with advantaged students at independent schools.


Our argument is meant to advance the aim of preparing teacher candidates to nudge students towards a more liberal and humane opportunity structure. Certain terms must be defined and illustrated at the outset. To start, what is meant by nudging students? Using a definition provided by economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008), the term nudge can be defined as: any aspect of the choice architecture that alters peoples behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any option or significantly changing their economic incentives (p. 6). To return to the above case, hanging up a college pennant would be an example of nudging students toward a particular path. Although the school may offer programs that prepare students for careers that do not require a college degree, the mandate to hang pennants nudges them towards adopting the college-bound path.

The aim we propose rests on the noncontroversial premise that teachers have the power to nudge students towards certain conceptions of their near and distant future. By nudging students one way or another, teachers encourage students to value one possible future over another. Pedagogies, educational environments, and curricula, in this respect, are never value-free. For instance, even an educator who says, Im not teaching you what to think but how to think is nudging students towards the value of impartiality in future inquiry, whether overtly or tacitly (Jackson, 1990). Educators conceive of the future as value-laden.

However, the concept of a nudge is defined to avoid the charge of indoctrination, i.e., compelling students (or their parents) to esteem a particular value as if it were the only option. Our argument is that an aim of teacher education should be to prepare teacher candidates to nudge students towards a more liberal and humane opportunity structure, not a particular path within it.  

To specify what is meant by liberal and humane, such an opportunity structure will be defined by what political theorist Joseph Fishkin (2014) has termed opportunity pluralism, that is, a structure of opportunity marked not by zero-sum, winner-loser competitions but by a more diverse and supportive range of forms of flourishing and economic opportunity. So, by nudging students toward opportunity pluralism, the question is whether nudging a particular student towards a given path will allow that student to flourish along with creating an opportunity structure that enables a plurality of paths to flourishing.  

Social justice will be defined in this essay as the wholescale transformation of social institutions in accordance with ideal principles of justice (Johnston, 2011, p. 167). Examples of principles of justice are liberty, equality, and standards governing the distribution of resources. Equality of opportunity is a principle of social justice. It functions to militate against social stratificationcaste and class systems that arbitrarily determine a persons life based upon the family or community they were born into. Equality of opportunity can be defined broadly as an anti-class principle; it guides the reform of social institutions to allow members of society to access avenues of social mobility so their lives are not predetermined at birth (Shelby, 2016, p. 37).

Finally, for the purposes of this essay, flourishing will be understood through the well-known and empirically grounded categories from self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2012). Both an education and an opportunity structure that enables a persons flourishing does so by facilitating their autonomy (or sense that they can affirm their lives from the inside, Brighouse, 2006 p. 16); facilitating their competence, which can mean specialized mastery, but also a capacity to handle a range of life tasks; and facilitating their social connection to others. With these terms defined, we now return to the case mentioned above and examine two approaches to guiding the teachers thinking on the moral significance of his actions.   


The teacher mentioned above is faced with a dilemma: to hang his college pennant or not. He is unsure if doing so will nudge his students towards a path that will benefit them. One recent approach to educational ethics, rightfully gaining prominence in teacher education programs, fully recognizes the importance of helping teachers see and deliberate upon the moral dilemmas they will face in schools. It suggests that teachers can be prepared for practice through an educational ethics curriculum that is grounded in and informed by the actual situations that arise in schools, much like the one above. According to the diverse projects contributing to this approach, teacher candidates can be primed to see moral dilemmas in the life of schools by deliberating on realistic, normative case studies (Levinson & Fay, 2016), and their thinking about politics in the classroom can be guided by a framework that enables them to make professional judgments in light of existing evidence, educational aims, and school and community contexts (Hess & McAvoy, 2014). This approach to educational ethics can also inform the perspective of educational decision-makers (Schouten & Brighouse, 2015). The projects mentioned above are not identical. However, their use of a philosophical method, which moral philosophers call reflective equilibrium (Rawls, 2009), is effectively used to seek coherence between our educational aims and judgements about complex educational realities; adopting the method promises a rigorous and informed contribution to teacher education programs. It encourages teacher candidates to think through verses avoid the moral tensions which swirl just under the surface of schools (Levinson & Fay, 2016, p. 3).   

Nevertheless, the philosophical method (i.e., reflective equilibrium), as it is employed by contemporary educational ethicists, tends to prioritize a certain kind of thinking. The principle mode of thought is calculative. Deliberators add or subtract the weight they ascribe, on the one hand, to their educational aims and, on the other hand, to the feasibility constraints they encounter in school and society. As given educational aims are rationally balanced with given cases, which must happen for the deliberation to commence, the kind of thinking that attends to feelings, interpretations, insights, possibilities, creative processes, and (more) fundamental questionse.g., the kind of thought often involved in anticipating a students futurebecomes secondary to the kind of thinking that would rightfully pass as a cost-benefit analysis. So, one shortcoming of recent approaches to educational ethics is that they do not prepare teacher candidates to think ambitiously about their role in shaping their students future and society at large. Their use of reflective equilibrium, as we see it, is in need of additional counterbalance.

It is striking to compare recent approaches to educational ethics with the social ambitions of progressive educators. Consider John Deweys The Need for A Philosophy of Education (originally published in 1934) and George Counts Dare the School Build a New Social Order (originally published in 1932). Dewey stresses the importance of the educators role in imagining students future growth and understands the educators foresight as his or her central concern: The great problem of the educator, says Dewey, is to see intellectually, and to feel deeply, the forces moving in the young as possibilities, as signs and promises, and to interpret them in light of what they may become (Dewey 1989, p. 199). For Dewey, the educators foresight does not fixate on individuals alone but is also a collective or social vision, which guides educators in creating a classroom environment where knowledge and skills are not pursued for the sake of private distinction, but for social well-being.

Emphasizing the social and political aims of education in Dare the School Build a New Social Order, Counts argues that teachers should instill future aspirations in childrena vision of possibilities which lie ahead and endeavor to enlist their loyalties in the realization of the vision (Counts, 1978, p. 37). Rather than inviting educators to participate in a cost-benefit analysis, Counts affirms the power of educators collective action and urges teachers to participate in the creation of a noble vision. As Counts enjoins: To refuse to face the task of creating a vision of a future America immeasurably more just and noble and beautiful than the America of today is to evade the most crucial, difficult, and important educational task (Counts, 1978, p. 55). The creation of this vision, like the educators foresight mentioned by Dewey above, is a work of inspired conviction, social critique, artistic imagination, and political action. Dewey and Counts would advise the teacher in the case above to see his dilemma more expansively: in terms of his students signs and promises and in terms of how his decisions move towards the creation of a more just, noble, and beautiful social order.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to read ambitious prescriptions as too idealistic. On the one hand, some might read Deweys and Counts proposal as not practical enough, as precisely the sort of half-baked theories that critics allege are unnecessary and perhaps even an impediment to the practical requirements of teaching (Darling-Hammond, 2012, p. x). On the other hand, some might note Deweys and Counts comparative disregard for pressing social problems like racial and class inequities and deem that a more radical theoretical approach is in order, such as those provided by post-Marxist, critical theorists. Acknowledging the value of these objections, which amount to an admission of the complexity of teacher education and educational theory, the aim of preparing teacher candidates to nudge students towards opportunity pluralism, we suggest, is best explained as an attempt to include Deweys and Counts social ambitions in the method of reflective equilibrium as it is employed by contemporary educational ethicists. These resources best capture the shadow of a doubt experienced by the teacher above and best anticipate his next steps. Taking our cues from two bodies of literature which take the teachers experience seriously, we now turn to the experience of teacher candidates. We examine how the value of academic success, as it appears in the case above, is disrupted and critiqued by academically successful teacher candidates as they prepare for their future in the classroom.


The reflections we will examine were shared in a 400-level course called Diversity and Equity in Education. This is an educational foundations course, which students typically take the semester before their student teaching. The remarks shared by these three candidates were offered in an assignment asking them to prepare their peers for teaching using a three-minute account of their upbringing. The only requirement of the assignment was that they begin with the line, If you didnt know about my upbringing you wouldnt know . . . (to stress that they will be sharing knowledge with their peers from a first-person perspective) and to end with What future teachers can learn from my testimony is . . . (to underscore how the knowledge they share can be applied in the future). These particular candidates chose to reflect on the harms of their own academic success.

Notably, all of these candidates were academically successful, with a college GPA of 3.7 or higher. This far exceeds the benchmark of 3.0 set by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. It is also significant that these candidates received their primary and secondary education during the era of corporate school reform, which has gone to great lengths to reduce the meaning of education to profitability, further neglect the democratic aims of education, and promote forms of academic achievement that undermine student wellbeing (Labaree, 2012, Pope, 2008; Ravitch, 2013). When these reflections were shared, these candidates had all nearly finished the education departments comprehensive educational foundations sequencemeaning their reflections were partially shaped and inspired by opportunities to reflect at length on the purpose of schooling, conceptions of flourishing, and social inequities. So, the candidates below do not only possess high college GPAs, but also exhibit a developed understanding of their own identities in relation to the forces and values that shaped them (Rodgers & Scott, 2008). Thus, while we agree with Frank and McDonoughs article, in this special issue, that attention to core practices in teacher education can be reconciled with the aims of social justice, a secondary purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the value of educational foundations courses in teacher preparation and offer a distinct aim for their future organization (Butin, 2005). All of the testimonies have been edited for length and names converted to pseudonyms.


Lee is a secondary education major and student in the Universitys honors college. She is a quiet student whose presence gained authority throughout the semester as her critical prowess and self-expression found outlets. Lee began her testimony as follows:  

If you didnt know about my upbringing, you wouldnt know why I am such a good student. . . In all of my years in K12 education, I never received anything less than an A. Most people assumed that I was just naturally smart, my teachers included.

Lee goes on to explain that the meaning of being a good student sprang from a more complex motivation.

My teachers believed that calling me a good student was a compliment, but in my mind being a good student was necessary to survival. I thought that by keeping my grades up I could avoid the things that had caused my family members so much struggling. . . . My teachers never asked about my well-being because I never let on that there was anything wrong. There were other students . . . who were getting bad grades, and someone who almost always got perfect scores in every subject was the least of their concerns.

Lee recounts that she pursued academic success primarily for psychological security, fearing any academic failure would result in her experiencing the same struggles as her family. Yet her achievement did not address, and so did not assuage, the underlying worry that motivated her success. She thus does not identify with her academic success because it (and the educators sustaining it) were insensitive to her well-being. Lee advises her peers to see and disrupt success as follows:  

My advice for future teachers is that you give your time to all of your students.

Lees testimony suggests there is something irresponsible about the meaning of academic success if the achievement is unresponsive to students well-being. Cognizant of the objection that secondary educators will be too busy to know their many students beyond common performance measures, Lee bids future teachers to push past this objection and reflect on the very purposes of their work, lest they use success as a pretext for ignoring their students actual motivations and needs.   


Jena, an insightful and expressive secondary English candidate, chose to share another aspect of the pursuit of success. She remarked:   

If you didnt know about my upbringing, you wouldnt know why I dont think Im doing enough. By this, I mean that I dont believe that Im doing the best work I can do, even if I really am.  

Jenas testimony captures a familiar harm of achieving academic success today. Students are constantly being ranked and sorted through comparative evaluations. How does this affect a developing person? Although we can easily imagine the harm done to a student directly being called a failure, Jenas testimony suggests that those who succeed in comparative evaluations (e.g., Jena was 37 in a class of 500) are haunted by the possibility of failure. Jena learned through her success that anothers gain would be her loss; she learned to be vigilant and ever-mindful of her rank, for, in a series of zero-sum competitions, ones standing is never secure. The pursuit of success in schools often habituates students to become insecure as they learn to cultivate their position, down to the last point. Not only does this focus on rank promote poor pedagogy and interfere with student engagement in learning (Demerath, 2009, p. 126), it produces students who come to understand their self-worth only in comparative terms. Echoing arguments that can be found in Jean-Jacques Rousseaus Emile and more recently by Alfie Kohn (1992), Jena advises her peers against valuing their future students according to schemes of relative comparison.

As teachers, we may not always know what is going on in the mind of the student, but if there are some things we can control, we should do what we can to make sure students are proud of their work individually, not in comparison to others.

She urges future teachers to avoid relying on competitions in schools that stir antisocial sentiments and produce restlessly successful persons like herself.


Bills testimony casts doubt on the assumed correlation between academic success and high expectations. Bill recently won a prestigious scholarship to study abroad for a year. He is regarded by his professors as the top student in his content area. Yet Bills testimony suggests that his academic success did not spur him towards excellence but rather promoted mediocrity by encouraging him to put forth minimal effort. Bill reflects:

If you didnt know about my upbringing, you wouldnt know . . . why I struggle to push myself to do my best. The reason is: I can get by and succeed on less than my best. Things have always come fairly easy to me academically, athletically, and musically, and over the course of my life, I have gotten into the habit of only applying myself up to the point where I have achieved just enough for what I consider success. . . . I can get good grades and achieve success without giving it my all, but I do this at the cost of not being the best that I can be.

Bill relates that academic success is not challenging for a student who can meet its common threshold of excellence without putting forth full effort. When thresholds of success are insensitive to effort, they dispose students like Bill to become complacent with mediocrity. Bill is not bragging in this testimony; like the students above, he is processing his own miseducation. Moreover, it is conceivable that his testimony applies to nearly every student on at least one assignment or course grade. After the A or success has been achieved, it is irrational, according to the logic of success, to put forth more effort. Bill explains how mediocrity can be systematically promoted by fixating a students attention on academic success. He thus advises his peers as follows: If you have students like me, do your best to challenge them.  

These reflections cast a shadow of a doubt on this academic success because it inhibited flourishing. For different reasons, they all feel alienated by their success; they cannot autonomously endorse it or identify with it from the inside (Brighouse, 2006, p. 16). It impaired their connection to others (teachers, in the case of Lee, and fellow students, in the case of Jena). Finally, it diminished their competence (most clearly in Bills case, where his success in academic endeavors instilled a habit of mediocrity).

The purpose of turning to the reasons shared by these candidates is to show, on the one hand, the process and value of questioning academic success in teacher education. Along with being afforded time to internalize the basic point that good grades and high test scores are not necessarily equivalent to a good education, educational foundations courses, in particular, gave these candidates an opportunity to reflect on the persons they have become, and aspire to be, in relation to those they will be educating.  

Yet these testimonies are also shared to highlight a limitation of their advice. All of the candidates quoted could spot issues with the reductive conception of success they were disposed to value, but none of them considered the broader social ramifications of their advice. How would society change if all educators gave their time to all of their students or stopped assessing students comparatively, or challenged them beyond common standards of success? Their general advice to attend to their students flourishing, in short, lacks a positive social vision to guide and organize it. This observation is not intended to highlight a shortcoming in their powers of reflection, especially in the context of this assignment, but rather to suggest a gap in contemporary educational policy. It could be clearer how attending to all students flourishing beyond narrow metrics of success accomplishes social justice.

That their advice lacks a connection to social justice and, moreover, can be so readily interpreted as a means of depreciating the social injustices facing disadvantaged students (e.g., by delegitimizing versus teaching the culture of power, Delpit 2006), ought to raise questions about the theory of social justice governing educational policy. On the one hand, it is unclear why attention to the flourishing of disadvantaged students, beyond a reductive conception of academic success, is so readily associated with the sort of injustices that are perpetuated by educators with low expectations or misguided motives. On the other hand, it is unclear why attending to the flourishing of academically successful middle- and upper-middle-class students is related to social justice at all.

The source of confusion, as we will now suggest, resides in the popular value of equality of opportunity, which has played a powerful role in shaping U.S. educational policy since the mid 20th Century. To determine a principle of social justice that could guide the teacher candidates mentioned above, our present task is to examine the popular value of equality of opportunity, the vision of success it harbors, and the opportunity structure it legitimates.


Popular Equality of Opportunity  

The value of equality of opportunity, once again, can be broadly understood as an anti-class principle concerned with providing all members of society with a fair start in life. Popularly conceived, the value of equality of opportunity is premised upon merit, i.e., an individuals natural talent + effort (Rawls, 2009). It is best portrayed as the American Dream, the possibility of prosperity, rags-to-riches narratives, and the values of individual talent, hard work, and fair competition undergirding these stories. We call this the popular value of equality of opportunity, because it has become almost indistinguishable from the distinctly American belief in fair starts. According to a Pew Economic Mobility Poll, 90 percent of Americans of all political persuasions say they support more public spending to ensure that everyone gets a fair start in life (emphasis added; quoted in Putnam, 2016, p. 32). The question is: a fair start towards what?

Sociologist James Colemans influential definition of inequality of opportunity provides what has become the assumed response. Inequality of opportunity means barriers to competition for those positions which give high income and social reward (Coleman, 1973, p. 130). The popular value of equality of opportunity means a fair start in a race to the top in which the best people supposedly win bigachieving a kind of success that, by definition, everyone cannot achieve: privileged positions, elevated social status, and higher income. The popular value of equality of opportunity, in short, promises all children a fair start in high-stakes competitions.

This value has a paradoxical legacy. Policymakers have used it to advance civil rights (most notably in the Brown v. Board of Education decision), yet it has also been used to legitimate the view that education is only a commodity, and therefore only instrumental to private advantage (Labaree, 2010). The path to a desired fairness is also to path to undermining such fairness. As political scientists Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick (2003) observe,

schools are supposed to equalize opportunities across generations and create democratic citizens out of each generation, but people naturally wish to give their own children an advantage in attaining wealth or power, and some can do it. When they do, everyone does not start equally, politically or economically. This circle cannot be

squared. (p. 2)   

The popular value of equality of opportunity appears to have an unavoidable glitch. And yet, an immense amount of scholarship has been dedicated to the popular value of equality of opportunity. First, there is empirical literature, which diagnoses the present state of inequality of opportunity. Despite its broad appeal, the value of educational opportunity is not being realized in the United States. The playing field is not level; the start is not fair; public education does not presently combat economic inequality (Duncan & Murnane, 2011; Putnam, 2016; Reeves, 2017). Second, there is an abundance of scholarship proposing solutions to restoring the popular value of equality of educational opportunity, such as adopting Common Core State Standards, financially supporting low-income families with programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the advancement of educational innovation for disadvantaged students (Duncan & Murnane, 2014; Winthrop, 2018). Finally, there is complementary work in sociology and political philosophy dedicated to understanding how middle- and upper middle-class-parents and schools perpetuate inequality (Lareau, 2011; Rahman Khan, 2010) and questioning the moral legitimacy of parents efforts to provide advantages to their own children that low-income students cannot access (Brighouse & Swift, 2014; Swift, 2003).

Literature like the above suggests to teacher candidates that realizing social justice in the classroom means providing equitable opportunities for disadvantaged students so that they can fairly compete in educational competitions against more advantaged students. It means that teachers can help disadvantaged students overcome great odds and climb the mountain to college (Tough, 2012). When presented with the inspiring stories of schools that help disadvantaged students beat the odds, it can seem pessimistic to propose that a shadow of a doubt be cast on the popular value of equality of opportunity. Yet, it is only by doing so that we will appreciate the need for a principle of social justice that aligns with the teacher candidates critiques of academic success (above).  

Bottlenecks, Exploitation, and Unsustainability

The first step in questioning the popular value of equality of opportunity is to attend to the opportunity structure that it legitimates. The nature of this opportunity structure is hinted at in Colemans definition of inequality of opportunity: barriers to competition for those positions which give high income and social reward (Coleman, 1973, p. 130). Equality of opportunity, on this definition, can be understood as the removal of barriers to labor-market competition for scarce positions. The primary role of the schools according to this conception is to fairly prepare and sort eligible students through high-stakes competitions (Jacobs, 2016). Note that the popular value of equality of educational opportunity does nothing to protect children from the pressure of simulated labor market competitions in schools and the artificial threat of scarcity they entrench. The almost thoughtless notion is that relentlessly preparing children for high-stakes competitions helps them to be successful, and, when they are disadvantaged, helps us to realize social justice. The seemingly necessary role of competition endorsed by the popular value of equality of opportunity allows us to see the shape of the opportunity structure it legitimates.

Less romantically than an inspiring mountain, we can understand the structure produced by high-stakes educational competitions as a series of bottlenecks, defined by political philosopher Joseph Fishkin as narrow places through which people must pass if they hope to reach a wide range of opportunities that fan out on the other side (Fishkin, 2014, p. 15). Fishkin distinguishes between three different kinds of bottlenecks in the opportunity structure: (a) instrumental-good bottlenecks (e.g., money), (b) developmental bottlenecks (e.g., literacy), and credential bottlenecks (e.g., a college degree) (p. 14). The popular value of equality of opportunity assumes a structure of opportunity in which all three of these bottlenecks are present, hence the sense that high-pressure competitions are a permanent feature of educational opportunity.  

Bearing the opportunity structure in mind, innovative programs designed to advance the achievement of low-income youth of color, can be understood as attempts to squeeze these students through bottlenecks. Given the present order of things, this work is and remains noble. Yet, the success of these initiatives directs attention away from questions that should be raised about the opportunity structure as a whole. To portray the achievement of social justice through exceptional individuals who have beat the odds obscures our attention from the opportunity structure that creates those odds, along with the effects of high-pressure competitions on all children. The work of social justice in education, as we see it, ought to focus on dissolving the bottlenecks produced by singular paths to success and thus rendering high-stake competitions less necessary.  

Attending to the opportunity structure not only changes our perception of programs designed to help disadvantaged students succeed, it also changes our view of upper- and middle-class parents. These parents are often cast as the agents of inequality, unfairly and hypocritically purchasing advantages which allow their own children to jump the queue despite their lack of supposedly natural talents (Swift, 2003, p. 23). However, when the harm of bottlenecks in the opportunity structure is acknowledged, it becomes clear that educational competition may not simply be exploited by upper-middle-class parents, but may in turn exploit them, particularly when a failure to fully invest in their children can result in being perceived as an accomplice in their childs lack of success. This is not a trivial fear. There are only a small number of positions that give high income and social reward (Coleman, 1973, p. 130), and a winner-takes-all economy is, increasingly, our reality (Frank, 2016). The educational market has converted the parental fear of being complicit in their childs failure into a source of profit (Halliday, 2016). Stoked by the educational market, and the many advantages it sells, the situation of middle- and upper-middle-class parents has come to resemble an arms race, where it becomes rational for parents, individually, to maximize their childs educational potential and irrational for them to divest from harmful and self-defeating educational competitions (Halliday, 2016). The point being, bottlenecks in the opportunity structure also harm middle-and upper-middle-class parents enabling their exploitation by the educational market and fueling educational arms races.

It would be a gross overstatement to say that these parents are as equally harmed as disadvantaged students. Yet acknowledging their harm in the present opportunity structure and the graver harms done to disadvantaged students allows us to appreciate a simple premise that is impossible to accept according to the conception of success tightly woven into the popular value of equality of opportunity. The premise is: nobody in society is well off if someone is badly off (Bilgrami, 2014, p. 165). The popular value of equality of opportunity obscures this simple premise and how society (writ large) is harmed by bottlenecks in the opportunity structure.

Drawing a connection between the popular value of equality of opportunity and environmental justice, Randell Curren and Ellen Metzger (2017) have recently contended that this value produces an opportunity structure that is socially unsustainable. They observe that the current structure of educational opportunity demands an increasing number of post-secondary credentials, which leads to an increased need for specialized and stratified occupations. Within this opportunity structure, realizing equality of opportunity becomes increasingly costlier and more time-consuming. Credentials lose value and the demand for specialization increases. Thus, primary and secondary education no longer becomes the great equalizer but rather, as the authors vividly describe it:   

the vast receiving end of a funnel through which all must pass to succeed. Those who begin ahead will by and large remain ahead, and like the molecules of a fluid moving through a constricted space, they will be prodded along at ever-greater speed by those pressing in behind them, until they exit the funnels far, narrow end. (p. 111).

Academic achievement within such an opportunity structure not only harms the students who begin behind, and the successful students who find themselves pushed along a narrow course they may not understand, but also society as a whole as specialization and social complexity are advanced beyond the bounds of sustainability.      

Curren and Metzgers critique of the present opportunity structure allows us to see what the popular value of equality of opportunity conceals. The teacher candidates critiques of academic success were not merely private reflections but nascent expressions of a principle of social justice that disadvantaged students, middle- and upper-class parents, and society as a whole desperately need, namely, a principle of social justice that does not legitimate bottlenecks and high-pressure competitions, but is premised on the promotion of flourishing for all members of society.


We find such a principle articulated in Joseph Fishkins theory of equality of opportunity, called opportunity pluralism. The key difference between opportunity pluralism and the popular value of equality of opportunity is that Fishkins theory is not focused on questions of merit within competitions, for example, whether more members of x group deserve to be admitted to a most selective university. Instead, Fishkins theory is focused on loosening constraints in the opportunity structure in order to achieve a richer, more complex, more pluralistic society (Fishkin, 2014, p. 257). The opposite of opportunity pluralism would be a monolithic and constraining opportunity structure where, for instance, there is (or appears to be) only one dominant and competitive path to goods like safe neighborhoods, quality schools, and well-paid and stimulating work. Fishkin endeavors to philosophically define and justify an opportunity structure where there are many paths to diverse forms of flourishing.

The conceptual basis of opportunity pluralism is not equality but positive libertyi.e., liberty as it bears upon our self-determination and formation as persons. If we lack opportunities to make choices about our lives, or are put into forced-choice scenarios (e.g., academic success or failure, high school graduation or prison), we do not principally lack equality, but the freedom to choose and revise our life paths. Fishkins theory is sensitive to the fact that opportunities also shape us as persons, co-constituting the supposedly natural capacities and talents we possess. As we both choose and are determined by our opportunities, the presence or absence of various opportunities in life matter because they enable a person to formulate and revise his answer to the question of which paths and pursuits matter to him (Fishkin, 2014, p. 10). Accordingly, the appropriate question as to whether equal opportunity is present in a society is in effect not to reduce the question to one of equality of access, or input or output in one domain of activity (e.g., test scores or admission to elite universities), but to ask whether a societys opportunity structure affords all persons with chances to choose and revise their lifes path.

Fishkins theory of opportunity pluralism shifts the vision of social reform. It bids us to anticipate an opportunity structure where there are many desirable and privileged ways to the good life. Formally, it is an opportunity structure that realizes these four principles:  

(1) Pluralism: There ought to be a variety of values and goals in a society.   

(2) Non-positional: Valued goods should be less positional, i.e., valued roles should be less competitive and zero-sum.

(3) Anti-bottleneck: Bottlenecks, when possible, should not constrain peoples choices.

(4) Plurality of sources of authority: Goods, roles, and paths should not be determined by a small group of gatekeepers and decision-makers (Fishkin, 2014, pp. 130155).

In an educational opportunity structure that realizes these principles, students would be introduced to a plurality of values, goals, and forms of success; because there would be more options, they would be subject to fewer high-pressure/high-stakes competitions in schools; they would receive adequate and expansive educational opportunities and be less unfairly disadvantaged based on their family income; and they would be less beholden to the preferences and forms of life of a small and inward-looking elite, and thus more receptive to democratic norms. To say that teacher candidates should learn to nudge their students towards a more liberal and humane opportunity structure is to say they should aim towards opportunity pluralism, i.e., a structure of opportunity realizing these four principles.

Fishkin indirectly acknowledges the role teachers might play in realizing opportunity pluralism, proposing that schools ought to develop methods of teaching explicitly how one goes about pursuing different career paths, and specifically, how a person from this school might pursue them. (Fishkin, 2014, p. 218). For the remainder of this essay we will explore Fishkins suggestion in the domain of teacher education, focusing on the aim of collectively nudging students towards opportunity pluralism.


Working to achieve the aim of opportunity pluralism assumes that teachers will understand its value. How should teachers be prepared understand and aspire towards opportunity pluralism? Unfortunately, Fishkin does not offer much by way of substantial motivation. In an opportunity structure marked by opportunity pluralism, as he wistfully describes, No one path leads to everything of value, and so we have the burden, and the chance, to think for ourselves about what kind of life to live (Fishkin, 2014, p. 196). Assuming the appeal of such an existential burden risks presuming more economic stability and security than most people have; being encouraged to embrace a state of indeterminacy, in the present opportunity structure, can feel like being encouraged to embrace a risk. This applies to teacher candidates too, and not simply for economic reasons. They will be entering a profession where, in some cases, their professional judgment has been eliminated by a script. Deviating from the script can be perceived as noncompliance and grounds for punishment. This is troubling because the teachers professional autonomy does not only pertain to their life choices but is enmeshed in the lives and futures of their students. If opportunity pluralism is to be introduced to teacher candidates, their role within the proposed opportunity structure must be understood beyond a moment of heroic self-determination in a formal opportunity structure.      

A simple edit to Fishkins statement clarifies the relationship between the teachers daily work and opportunity pluralism: No one path leads to everything of value for all students, and so we [as educators] have the burden, and the chance, to help students think for themselves about the kind of life to live. This small edit shows that educators play a necessary role in forming students who would desire and aspire towards a more pluralistic opportunity structure. Understanding the role that educators play in realizing opportunity pluralismthat is, how their daily decisions afford a burden and chance to shape their students futurescan be used to show teacher candidates that attending to all of their students flourishing is continuous with a principle of social justice. The thinking at play here can be refined by recalling the importance Dewey ascribed to the educators foresight and Counts extension of it into the political domain.  

The Educators Foresight

Returning to Deweys line above: The great problem of the educator is to see intellectually, and to feel deeply, the forces moving in the young as possibilities, as signs and promises, and to interpret them in light of what they may become. (Dewey, 1989, p. 199).  This line eloquently captures how educators foresee their students development: both in bustling interactions and in quiet moments of reflection, they think of them as bearing signs and promises. This vision is not imaginary; it is grounded in the reality of the educators frequent interactions with students in a complex social environment. The educators foresight brings us closer to the mind of the educator at work than the crafting of educational policies or the rolling out of administrative mandates.

An important question for teacher education is: From whence does this foresight arise? A tentative answer to this question can be offered by comparing Deweys lines to the teacher candidates reflections above. What they were essentially doing, through their autobiographical reflections, was transforming their own miseducationthe neglect or misreading of their own signs and promisesinto a resource, a kind of optic, to better foresee their future students. The development of their foresight seems to arise from a deep concern with reforming educational practice, specifically, not reproducing the blind spots that harmed them as students. Such concern begets a desire to improve and seek additional areas of improvement. Yet, as the educators success is necessarily related to the students (Cohen, 2011), the educators foresight does not focus on self-improvement but grows in precision and maturity as it focuses on the forces present in the students before them: absorbed in the task of anticipating and facilitating what they may become in the near and distant future. Imagining the variety and complexity of this vision, even for one educator, is difficult. Like a mosaic comprised of mosaics, like the rich memories of an educator who has spent her career in the classroom, there is almost too much content. The point here is that understanding opportunity pluralism through the reality and development of the educators foresights converts a formal system of many paths into a human reality that is experienced and affected by decent educators on a daily basis.

Educators do not simply inspire and substantiate opportunity pluralism; they can also advance it. The challenge, which George Counts claimed to be the most crucial, difficult, and important educational task (Counts, 1978, p. 55), is to prepare teacher candidates to understand that the educators foresight as a resource for collective action. Contra Counts, this need not be a uniform vision of national greatness; the diversity of a flourishing classroom anticipates a society where there is a plurality of paths and diverse forms of flourishing. Counts work, for our purposes, shows that the educators foresight can be extended beyond singular classrooms. Encouraging candidates to understand the social and political dimensions of the educators foresight provides a resource for their collective action. In the context of this essay, the target of their political action is the alienating game of success which they are being mandated to reproduce, essentially as sorting mechanisms for the present opportunity structure. They need not play this game. Through their attention to students, they can be inspired to harbor greater ambitions of social change and be ready to heed a version of Counts question as they enter the profession: Dare teachers build a new opportunity structure?

Collective Deliberation

Bold questions and substantial motivation for the aim we propose are based on understanding the continuity between opportunity pluralism (essentially a new principle of social justice) and the educators foresight. However, to prepare teacher candidates to nudge students towards the aim of opportunity pluralism also demands that they be prepared to take concrete steps towards its advancement. One concrete step that can be taken is to prepare candidates to engage in collective deliberation with a variety of stakeholders.

To see this, recall that the teacher in the opening case was not being asked to represent different career paths on his wall, but rather was being asked to hang a pennant which would nudge his students towards a dominant path of academic success. If he understood the aim of opportunity pluralism, a simple step that this teacher could take would be to hang many signs on his wall and thus create a choice architecture (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008, p. 6) that nudges students to a diverse array of future possibilities. His wall would thus indicate that his students are not left with a forced choice between the schools high expectations and abysmal failure. This step, though seemingly straightforward, would require the teacher to know his students capacities and interests and engage in deliberation with them. The deliberation would be motivated by their interests along with viable prospects for their flourishing (i.e., autonomy, connection, and competence).   

However, to know and present these prospects, the teacher would be well advised to enlist the support of others at the school. Extending beyond the teachers deliberation with his students, and recognizing the importance of staff-wide deliberation, we can envision the whole staff understanding the aim of opportunity pluralism and proactively discussing how to create a culture of high expectations and success based on the plurality of opportunities for flourishing available to the students in that school. Here, the staff would be utilizing the method of reflective equilibrium to guide their collective deliberation, working to reconcile the aim of opportunity pluralism with existing evidence and knowledge of their schools context (Hess & McAvoy, 2014). Such deliberation would have to move beyond the confines of the school, as both of the previous steps presuppose that a reliable source of information on existing opportunities is available.

To create such a database would require a broad form of collective deliberation that spans institutional boundaries. We can envision such deliberation commencing through sustained conversations between social scientists, teacher educators, teacher candidates, and teachers across the nation. Understanding the aim of opportunity pluralism, we can imagine this group undertaking a collective project to map the various opportunities available to K12 students across the country, and incorporate these opportunities into lessons or unit plans in a variety of content areas. 1 The result would be a regionally differentiated, developmental, and explicit, approach as to how one goes about pursuing different career paths (Fishkin, 2014, p. 218). Rather than being merely (yet another) social scientific exposé on the state of inequality, the purpose of such a project would be to accurately represent students future economic opportunities, which, even today, involve a greater plurality than most schools care to acknowledge. A welcome outcome of this project is that it would lend itself to communicating a variety of reasons for excelling in different content areas. The rationale: This will help you get into college [and be successful], would become clearly narrow and reductive as a plurality of available paths became more articulate, esteemed, and linked to students future social and economic prospects.

Each of these steps revolve around collective deliberation, which is rigorously defined and modeled in the recent approaches to educational ethics mentioned at the outset of this essay. Along with learning from this growing body of literature, teacher candidates can be prepared for collective deliberation by conversing with a variety of stakeholders (students, colleagues, administrators, parents, social services, employers, and nonprofit organizations) to better judge the barriers to and possibilities for students opportunities in a given district or region.     


The purpose of this essay has been to propose an aim for teacher education, namely, that teacher candidates should be taught to make judgments that will nudge their students towards opportunity pluralism. Our understanding of this aim sprung from examining teacher candidates critiques of the academic success and the further effort to determine how their critiques pertain to social justice. We argued that the popular value of equality of opportunity, which has played a dominant role in shaping educational policy, harbors a harmful conception of success and distracts our attention from problems in the opportunity structure as a whole. The harms we noted were bottlenecks that disadvantaged students must squeeze through, the market forces that fuel arms races by exploiting the fears of upper-middle-class parents, and the production of unsustainable complexity in the opportunity structure. Finding in principles for reforming the opportunity structure in Joseph Fishkins theory of opportunity pluralism, the final steps of our argument were to show how opportunity pluralism could be developed by locating substantial motivation for it in the educators foresight and advanced through collective deliberation with a variety of stakeholders. Preparing teacher candidates to collectively nudge students towards opportunity pluralism need is not a novel method, but rather a modest appeal to the concrete moral deliberations educators make every day and an acknowledgment of the grand social and political aspirations inherent in these deliberations.

This essay began with a case involving a teacher casting a shadow of a doubt on the conception of success he was mandated to present to his (comparatively) disadvantaged students. We conclude by considering how the same case might play out with advantaged students at an independent school. The school context is different. Teachers and administrators fully understand that parents are paying for an education that will ensure their childrens success, tangibly defined as, admittance into more selective colleges. The dominant path of success is abundantly clear at these schools; college pennants do not need to be hung on the wall. Yet the same shadow of a doubt may arise in teachers and administrators minds. Is this fixity on college worthwhile? Does it perpetuate a race to nowhere? Do parents care more about their childrens wellbeing than their rank and positional standing? Can the education provided at an independent school be motivated in alternative ways or will they all close if they do not offer a competitive edge? Rather than being idle questions, superfluous to the true concerns of social justice, it is worth noting that our argument has especial value for children who would be classed as the most advantaged. Teachers who nudge advantaged students towards opportunity pluralism also achieve social justice. Moreover, they may be the most impactful way of nudging the opportunity structure as a whole towards the aim we propose. Elites are the engines of inequality (Rahman Khan, 2012, p. 373) and play a powerful role in shaping the meaning of an excellent education (Lareau, 2011); if their children were nudged towards a more pluralistic and less zero-sum conception of success, there would be, by implication, more opportunities and less pressure for everyone else. This statement is not without complications, but it is mentioned in conclusion to underscore a point. All teacher candidates, whether they are preparing to work at a failing public school or nearly unaffordable independent school, can be prepared to advance social justice through the aim we propose.  



Such a map could perhaps be developed using an existing map, for instance, the Opportunity Atlas developed by Raj Chetty (et. al.).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 4, 2020, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23078, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:45:37 PM

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  • John Fantuzzo
    Valparaiso University
    E-mail Author
    JOHN P. FANTUZZO is an assistant professor of education at Valparaiso University. His research interests lie at the intersection of educational theory, social theory, and political philosophy. He has published articles in Studies in Philosophy of Education, Educational Theory, and the Journal of Philosophy of Education.
  • Mark Dixon
    Delaware County Christian School
    E-mail Author
    MARK DIXON is presently the Head of the Upper School at Delaware County Christian School (PA). Prior to this, he has served as the Head of the Middle School at Montgomery School and the Dean of Students at Stoney Brook School (NY).
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