Equality of group outcomes is a fantasy

Whether it’s in school or in the workplace, the U.S. is obsessed with engineering equal patterns of results for all groups (“The University of Denial,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 23).  When the goal is not achieved, charges of discrimination in one form or another are blamed.

But the truth is that no group is a monolith.  Some members are smarter or work harder than others.  To attribute differences to anything else denies reality.  I’ll restrict my comments to schools in this column, although I submit that they apply elsewhere as well.

Differences among groups of students are referred to as the achievement gap.  Whenever it occurs, these differences are said to be ipso facto evidence of discrimination. Yet so many disparities happen because people make different choices.  No matter how hard we try to provide equal opportunities, there will always be unequal outcomes.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t do more to help students be the best they can be (the old Army recruiting slogan), but we need to accept reality.

In 2006, Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder published a paper whose title summarized my view: ‘Proficiency for All’ – An Oxymoron.  “No goal can simultaneously be challenging to and achievable by all students across the entire achievement distribution.”  No standard can do both.  In short, we can’t have it both ways. Yet we persist.  I submit that diluting standards eventually harms those it purports to help.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “Equality of group outcomes is a fantasy”

  1. It’s not merely differences in choices, but also differences in ability or other factors beyond the control of the individual student. It is likely — virtually inevitable — that Group A members will, on average, have higher or lower ability than Group B members. Likewise, it is virtually inevitable that the many factors (not including discrimination) that impact a person’s academic (or other) achievement will, on average, be different for Group A members than for Group B members.

    The obvious ability example is athletic ability. It is statistically more likely that a black person will have professional-level basketball or football ability than a white or Asian person. No one seriously argues that NBA or NFL owners discriminate in favor of blacks and against whites or Asians when hiring pro basketball or football players.

    Re other factors — It’s statistically more likely that a child from a high-SES family will have high test scores than a child from a low-SES family. It’s likewise statistically more likely that a high-SES family will be white and that a low-SES family will be black. Combining these factors, it is statistically more likely that a white student will have high test scores than a black student and/or that white students, on average, will have higher test scores than black students.

    Arguably, racial discrimination against blacks causes some — even all — of the SES differences between the average white family and the average black family. But, that racial discrimination is by society at large, not by teachers alone. Therefore, the fact that white students have, on average, higher test scores than black students does not demonstrate that teachers are discriminating against black students.


  2. Labor Lawyer: I’ve never understood why discrimination is not cited as a factor in the racial composition of professional athletic teams. Why isn’t diversity an issue here? Clearly, the members possess superior athletic skills. Yet a double standard is at work when the issue is test scores. Can it be that students scoring higher also are superior academically? I don’t think teachers are to blame. But some will never rest until there are equal patterns of achievement. I say it is a quixotic undertaking.


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