Examinations and the fiction of Equal Opportunity
Examinations provide a level playing field. That is why they exist. But if the game is flawed and the dice is biased, what good is the gradient of the table?
In the 7th century, the Sui dynasty realised that it was better to select officials on the basis of merit rather than on the basis of who your daddy was. Since then, more and more societies around the world have put a universal examination at the centre of their social order. At the core of this idea is a progressive promise: by offering a level playing field to all who are willing, we can find the best people to do the job regardless of where they come from. You may know this idea as meritocracy. It is a compelling promise. However, it has not always borne fruit and can all too easily become toxic, the all encompassing tyranny of a narrow notion of success.
Generally, daddy will train his sons to get into the Imperial Bureaucracy whatever, even if the occasional pig farmer might rise to become emperor.
A list of the most popular college majors for African Americans shows that law and public policy is the subect area with the highest concentration of black degree holders at 15% of all such graduates. Law has been popular with black students since the dawn of the civil rights era in the 1950s where black people working in law and public policy have helped to push the great seismic shift in America’s attitude toward race. However, if you look at the data more closely, that black 15% of law and public policy graduates skews heavily toward the (less powerful and much lower paid) public policy side of that grouping and away from the (much more powerful and well paid) law side. Black lawyers are still massively under-represented in the American legal system, with some regions that have a large black population, like Ferguson, Mo, recently lacking a single black attorney.
The playing field is technically level, but for some reason, not enough black people are becoming lawyers. This is despite the fact that when Black people go to university they have a strong desire to go into law or law-adjacent disciplines. The problem is not anymore that black people aren’t going to university, enrolment rates for black 18–24 year olds are only about 5 percentage points lower than their white peers and this has been the case since at least the year 2000. Rather, the problem is that they tend to go into less prestigious majors with lower earning potential. Public policy and Sociology are perfectly valid areas of study, but they are fundamentally less powerful than a law degree, if we are looking to fulfil that meritocratic promise of getting talented people from a disadvantaged position into high positions of power.
It could be perhaps that black high school graduates are more interested in studying public policy and getting jobs in low level bureaucracy than becoming lawyers, but if that is the case, what does the supposed equality of the test imply? That black people are content with an inferior lot?! This is a deeply troubling implication, and one which is founded on an equally troubling assumption: That an education system designed around standardised testing leads to an adequate assignment of educational capital. By exposing the fraud of that assumption, we can suggest alleviations to the problems of social inequality caused by such a system and disabuse those who take a smug and elitist view of education of their high horse.
A School is a model of society as those in charge of it see fit that it ought to be. A school is a place where the rules of a society are inculcated such that those who have been through the experience understand and live according to those rules. As we go through higher levels of education, the communities that those schools prepare us for become more and more specific and exclusive. From the basic standards of the law-abiding citizenry, to a community of workers and the optional step of gaining entry to a community of professionals, education is the model by which we define the morals of the coming age.
If the school is a model with which we train the social compact of some time, ten or twenty years in the future, then the way that we assess the absorption of that compact into the target population is through some evaluation metric by which we can affirm that the system works and such that we can specialise the pupils into various social roles. If the schooling method is comprehensive and fair, then each person should be able to access a role suitable to their needs upon completing the programme of their studies. This would, in the liberal idiom constitute Justice as Fairness, a system where everyone has fair equal opportunity and where even the most suboptimal outcome results in a situation that is still adequate for the dignity of the person who receives it.
To create a theoretically Just education system, would then require that for each law-abiding role in society, there should be some way that talent for that role could be expressed by a person, such that they could prove to the gatekeepers of that role-community that they are adequate to the requirements of that role. This expression should preferably have some proper avenue of cultivation and should be accurate to the employment needs of that role-community.
The problem with the examination as the central expression of talent in our education system is that it assumes that a narrow notion of professional achievement is the universal rubric for success.
Indeed, there are certain primary educational needs for which a level of proficiency is expected by the modern world; reading, writing, arithmetic and so on. Anything beyond this however needs to justify itself in terms of its need to be taught.
Currently, to become a Software developer out of school, you will typically have to have a degree in computer science. In that degree, a large part of that grade will come from having passed some exams in which you were tested on your ability to code various different things in theory. Prior to that, you will have had to have passed some qualifications; usually one in Computing, one in Maths and some others in something else. All of these qualifications will be attained through successfully completing obtuse exams, tangentially relevant to your career path. Before that you will have done many other tests on many other subjects. The actual amount of programming you need to do to become a programmer straight out of school is not that much compared to the amount of school you typically have to do to become a programmer straight out of school! You can teach yourself how to program, it is something that you get good at by practicing, not by theorising about. It is a practical discipline. Some people who join the software industry later in life teach themselves with online courses, contribute to a project or two to show that they are competant and then get a job. Some kids who drop out of school to become programmers do this too. Dropping out of school can be bad, it can lead to social problems later in life, but these kids have realised that the most efficient pathway to get to what they want is not through the official channels. Given the objective to get a job as a software developer, the straightest path would be to drop out of school and practice software development full time. All of those exams would be a costly and time consuming inefficiency to that end.
Most people don’t do this, I didn’t do this. The reason why is that most people don’t know what they want when they are 18 years old. Most of them pass high school to get a job, never exploring whatever potential they had, school is just an obstacle to get over, a certificate that says ‘hey, I’m a functioning member of society, Hire me.’ The rest pick a few test subjects that they did alright in earlier on and sit some exams in them, from that they select a college where they can do something that vaguely suites them. Many of them become Alcoholics for the next 3–4 years, moreso than the ones that stay at home to work the boring jobs. Its only a few people who go through this process with any sense of purpose, the lawyers, doctors, a few scientists here and there. For most, its a passionless punt, a series of middle class rites of passage that reproduce themselves without ever asking why.
Unless you want to be a lawyer or a doctor or some other traditional vocation, the whole process is either a sleepwalk through the increasingly astronomically expensive higher education system or a deliberate cutting off from the socially rich experience that the former provides. The tradeoff is immense: buy your way into the right professional community with a mountain of debt or try to prove yourself as an outsider.
The present schooling system is fair for those who have the intent to succeed within its narrowly defined version of success. If you want to become a lawyer, then there should be no social impediment which makes it impossible to become a lawyer on the basis of things beyond your control. The issue is that you are unlikely to make that decision to become a lawyer unless that was presented to you as a viable option from the get go. Unless someone pushed you early on, you wouldn’t go for it, it is very competitive and stressful. Some people get this push from their parents or from exceptional teachers, these people will always succeed and they are very lucky. The rest of us however have to make do with our wider environment. If the environment encourages the aspiration then the aspiration feels feasible. If lots of people have become lawyers from your school before, then even if no-one is explicitly pushing you in that direction, an innate desire to that effect will push you into the arms of that future.
This is one of the reasons why parents invest so much money into private schools. At the end of the day, the kids will sit the same exams, it is the environment that is different. The privately educated child will have had closer tuition in smaller classrooms, in a community of peers with a higher sense of intellectual esteem. They will have travelled more, done more sport and been encouraged to invest more in their academic success. They will, practically and emotionally, be better able to do whatever life throws at them. The uncomfortable truth that many on the left are loath to admit and that many on the right would rather be left unsaid is: by the age of 18, people who received a private education will be more rounded with higher levels of self esteem, who will do better in their exams and go on to earn more money.
This might be why there aren’t enough black lawyers in America. The support environment isn’t there at the high school level, at the elementary school level, in the kindergarten. It’s well known that school districts with more black students are underfunded to a shocking degree, but those schools will also have an inferior sense of prestige. The lack of funding and the lack of attention that results will mean that children there will have a more modest view of their potential, they won’t aim as high. This won’t be for anything inherent in themselves, but because of the failure of the agents of the system to imagine a future for them and give them the model environment to fulfil it. There is only the money to make sure that most kids pass, to focus some of that capital on a talented few would be to doom the others.
Equality of opportunity is only as good as the equality of environments to prepare for that opportunity when looking at the whole population. So long as the latter is unattainable, the former is an unrealistic pipe dream. While we need exams to obtain suitable candidates for competitive industries, we could give over more of our schooling effort to alternative forms of talent expression, which could in turn create a less risible environment for those who seek the more traditional forms of attainment.
Think about it like this: imagine a game with a single victory condition and an optimal strategy. The game is only equal if all of the players play optimally, in which case they all win at the same time and get a tiebreak reward. If, however one of the players slips up, they will now not be able to attain victory because all of the winnings will have been taken. It is thus not in the interest of that agent to expend the energy to finish the game, it makes more sense just to resign.
Imagine the same game with a large number of different victory conditions, where the optimal strategies involve a cross-policy combination of moves from different victory types. Credit is now distributed among a number of different avenues, and the victory type that an agent takes can be taken at a later branch in the decision tree, when they have had a wider opportunity to explore. A slip up is no longer a zero sum loss, but an explorative move, which might open up a more viable direction toward the reward.
The world of work is generally somewhere between these two scenarios, university like the latter, but a modern school is much more like the former. Schools in most countries are rigid, often zero-sum games of real or imagined competition. As Foucault suggested, the school is a rigid, prison like thing which regulates human behaviour. There is no room for exploration, attempting to do so results in punishment, literally or practically in the form of being almost irretrievably behind. Unless you fit the desired behavioural archetype, you act up, you rebel. You lose your stake in the game and yet you are forced to sit at the table. That does not make for a pleasant environment for you and it certainly does not make you pleasant toward those who are still in the game. There is a chance that they could have everything, there is no chance that you will have anything. So you become resentful, if I can’t have my dream why should they?
Perhaps this contributes to why disadvantaged schools produce so few high value graduates, the people who might rise up are not only ignored, but they are also dragged down by the people they leave behind. The problem of bullying outstanding/different pupils is especially pronounced in societies with especially rigid education systems, like Japan.
It is for this reason that we should lose the impossible, maddening desire for equality of opportunity in favour of a greater diversity of opportunity. Rather than attempting to fit everyone through the same mould of a standard test, we should instead increase the different ways of showing competency that would allow people to identify their real areas of interest. This has been done before, most notably by Finland, however such models lean a little too hard on egalitarianism. Finland’s schools are known to lack support for high attaining students. Instead, an open schooling system that supports excellence would be more university like: Classes would introduce topics and ideas in such a way as to explain them, but leave open plenty of room for questions and discussion. Rather than forcing homework and revision, the courses could be tested with longer projects that can take diverse forms to account for differing learning styles. By getting students to actually do history or whatever other subject, they learn to be curious and self guided learners. The academically minded ones prepare themselves for university and the others learn critical thinking skills, presentation and so on. Beyond basic proficiencies like Maths and English, the proof should be in the pudding: rather than comparing exam scores, schools should focus on the metrics that actually matter. Do a good number of students enter the professions? How many have a profitable business within 5–10 years after graduation? How many students go on to publish an academic paper? write a book? How many attain major sporting awards? How many start a family? By increasing the number of types of excellence we measure, to all of those we value as a society we increase the value that people place on their future. by opening out the curriculum to personal initiative, the academically minded kids will still get where they want to go, but the creative ones will also flourish, as will the sportspeople and the entrepreneurs. The average Joes and Janes will walk a little taller too and maybe drink less. Parents will select schools on the basis of a particular kind of intellectual fertility.
Equality in education is a fiction, there is not a single universal route by which we can turn everyone into the best version of themselves. Instead, we should contrive such situations as allow as many as possible to demonstrate their worth in a variety of avenues, allowing them to prune to those areas as best fit their interests and talents. In the face of an unequal society, perhaps intractably so, it is the only way we can share access as broad as we would wish it so.