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The damaging effects of shifting from equal opportunity to ‘equal outcomes’

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Near the end of the 2020 presidential campaign, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris tweeted a video entitled, “Equality vs. Equity.” It emphasized that equity is attained only when there are equal outcomes — when both the privileged and disadvantaged get to the top of the mountain. The video summed up the position of many progressives: Replace the goal of “equal opportunity” with the goal of “equal outcomes.” 

To see the adverse consequences such a shift for Black Americans, we begin with an analysis of racial earnings disparities. Black men currently earn almost 30 percent less than white men, a gap that hasn’t changed in 30 years. However, from the equal opportunity perspective, we want to measure the gap among equally skilled Black and white men. Adjusting for educational attainment and age — a proxy for work experience — the adjusted gap declines to 20 percent.

However, educational attainment doesn’t take into account occupations chosen, and age doesn’t take into account time away from the paid labor market. When occupation and an accurate measure of work experience are included, the adjusted gap declines to less than 10 percent. Some economists also include general measures of aptitude: SAT scores for college graduates and the Air Force Qualifying Test for others. Once these measures are included, the adjusted gap becomes very small. 

Reflecting on these studies, Nobel Prize winner James Heckman stated that evidence supports the idea that labor market discrimination is “no longer a first-order quantitative problem in American society.” Similarly, leading labor economist Harry Holzer suggested, “Differences in educational attainment and test scores together may account for most of the racial differences in earnings.” More recently, economist Roland Fryer came to the same conclusion.

These results have strengthened the need for developmental initiatives to increase the pipeline of qualified minority applicants for the most desirable programs and occupations: the Fisk-Vanderbilt masters-to-Ph.D. program that prepares minority students for science doctoral programs, the summer programs sponsored by American Economics Association to prepare students for economics doctoral programs, and the Army summer programs that prepare them to successfully pass the officer training entrance exams.            

Those focused on equal outcomes tend to minimize these programs because they don’t confront systemic racism within professions or the biased measures of merit used — test scores or quantitative skills — and because there will be only a small increase in minority students entering the desired fields. Thus, however well intended, these programs are diversions away from attaining equal outcomes.

The most vulnerable Black and Latino children are not worried about getting into selective educational programs but about being prepared to take algebra in the eighth grade; it is not getting into Ivy League colleges but being prepared for urban public colleges. Focusing on equal outcomes often ignores responding effectively to the serious academic deficiencies.

In New York City, activists condemned the absence of algebra classes from many middle schools. In response, Mayor Bill De Blasio announced a plan to require all middle schools to offer algebra. Once instituted, activists projected a 55 percent increase in the number of eighth graders successfully completing algebra.        

These projections assume that, as schools chancellor Richard Carranza has claimed, Black and Hispanic students’ mathematics deficiencies reflect teachers’ implicit bias and not inadequate student skills. These activists ignore basic facts: 142 elementary schools registered chronic absenteeism rates of at least one-third of their students; only 18 of these schools achieved a Common Core pass rate of at least 20 percent on the math exam. And the absenteeism and exam scores aren’t any better in middle schools.          

In San Diego, Black and Latino high school freshmen received D or F grades 20 percent of the time, compared to 7 percent among white and Asian students. Focusing on equal outcomes, the school board announced changes to grading policies: exam grades are devalued and students will be given additional chances to revise their work and show improvement. Furthermore, students no longer will be docked in their academic grades for turning in work late or other factors related to student behaviors, including cheating.

Driven by the goal of equal outcomes, virtually all those with a high school degree are counseled to enter the community college system with the goal of transferring to a four-year college. In New York City, 80 percent of students who enter the community college system require remediation. In 2016, its three-year graduation rate was 22 percent, lowest at the most predominantly Black and Latino colleges. Even the six-year graduation rate was only 33 percent.              

Not surprisingly, in 2018, there were more Black men, 25-29 years old, who had some college but no degree (27 percent) than those with at least a four-year degree (25 percent). Many of these dropouts become disconnected: neither at school nor paid employment. In 2017, 20.8 percent of Black men, 16 to 24 years old, were disconnected, more than twice the white rate.     

For equal outcome advocates, counseling the weakest high school graduates to first begin in occupation tracks is not an option. Instead, just as in San Diego, requirements were changed.  Community college remediation courses were eliminated and no math course was required for graduation.           

Now more students successfully transfer to the four-year colleges. Predictably, a significant share of these ill-prepared students do poorly. What is the response of those who focus on equality of outcome? Rather than raising entrance requirements so that there are fewer ill-prepared students, Brooklyn College will begin analyzing course grading. Faculty members who give poor grades to Black and Latino students will be identified and “offered” counseling. The message is clear: The problem is not ill-prepared students, it is faulty faculty teaching and grading.

The evidence presented indicates the damaging effects when large shares of Black and Latino 10-year olds have deficient academic skills. Instead of focusing on solving this problem, educators and activists change grading policies to move along ill-prepared students. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Robert Cherry is a recently retired Brooklyn College economics professor and a member of 1776 Unites.

Tags Bill de Blasio Education Equal opportunity Racial achievement gap in the United States racial wealth gap

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