THE MOST BASIC tenet of post-war civil rights ideology was that equal educational opportunity would eventually lead to economic equality thus eliminating the tensions in our society between poor and rich black and white. That was the reason I was placed on a bus every morning and forced to ride seven miles across town to a white school and once there, was told to study hard so that I could get into Harvard. My mother, according to Christopher Jencks '58, associated professor of Education, would have done as well to have let me attend the nearby black school and any college I might have been able to enter.
"Economic success," writes Jencks in his soon to be published book Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effects of Family and Schooling in America. "seems to depend on varieties of luck and on the job competence that are only moderately related to family background, schooling, or scores on standardized tests." Programs such as Head Start. Upward Bound, busing, and increased school expenditures do little to increase the economic success of the student, according to Jencks.
Jencks's findings come from a research project he conducted with seven associates at the Harvard Center for Educational Policy Research. Over the past four years they have sifted through and reanalyzed an enormous amount of data including the 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity Survey (the Coleman Report), a survey of the nation's educational resources which prompted Congress to push for school integration and compensatory education programs. Jencks's group also reevaluated Project Talent's longitudinal study of students in 100 high schools and Census Bureau studies of social mobility and income distributed. Their conclusions--which have drawn praise from Newsweek as "a potentially liberating force for American education," and damnation in a New York Times editorial--are:
* Educational opportunity is very unequally distributed in the United States. We spend at least four times as much educating the most favored fifth of our children as educating the least favored fifth.
* This unequal educational opportunity is not responsible for most of the inequality in educational results. If we eliminated all qualitative differences between elementary schools, our best estimate is that variation in children's test scores would be reduced by less than 6 per cent. Eliminating differences in high schools would reduced variation in test scores only 1 or 2 per cent. Spending more money does not raise achievement or increase the likelihood that students will attend college.
* Desegregation has somewhat more effect on student achievement than raising expenditures, but not a lot. Desegregation of schools would eventually reduce the test score gaps between blacks and whites by 20 or 30 per cent.
* Genetic inequality is a factor but largely as it effects differences in appearance, athletic ability, etc. rather than learning capacity.
* Taken together the above factors account for about 25 per cent of the differences in economic success. The other 75 per cent is probably explicable by luck and job competence that is not learned in school.
Jencks argues that since equal educational opportunity does not lead to equal economic achievement, society, if it values egalitarian treatment of its members, must act to reduce the effects of luck, social contacts, etc. And this, Jencks says, is best done in a socialist state.
"As long as egalitarians assume that public policy cannot contribute to economic equality directly but must proceed by ingenious manipulations of marginal institutions like the schools, progress will remain glacial. If we want to move beyond this tradition, we will have to establish political control over the economic institutions that shape our society. This is what other countries usually call socialism. Anything less will end in the same disappointment as the reforms of the late 1960's."
Jencks sees his book as a political work, a work that he hopes will not only advance his own political views, but get Americans to re-evaluate one of their most cherished institutions. "I hope that the book won't have an effect on education so much as I hope it will affect the debate about social reform in the country. I went through the sixties like everyone else and I watched a whole kind of movement for social reform get blocked and channeled into educational strategies. The dramatic case is Head Start. Now I'm not against Head Start, I think it's a good program. The kids are having a good time and everything but I do not think it is a cure for poverty. I guess some of the people who promoted it did think it could cure poverty but I don't think they thought very hard about it. I would hope that the effect of the book would be to get people to think more realistically about the actual effect of education on economic inequality and poverty. Even if the book isn't thoroughly understood, if it gets people thinking about whether or not education is the right way to tackle that sort of problem seems to me a pretty important thing to do."
Many of Jencks's critics say that his well documented attacks on programs like Head Start will be used as ammunition to kill the projects, but Jencks strongly disagrees. "We've known for years that Head Start has had little effect, but Congress hasn't cut it out because people like it. Even if head Start and other programs don't have a long term effect if it's satisfactory to the parents, and the kids seem to be enjoying it, it can maintain itself politically because of what it does in the short run."
The New York Times and others have also cried out that Jencks's findings may only serve to lessen aid to the nation's schools that are so desperately in need of funds. But Jencks believes that his criticism will actually help the schools. "If schools were less obsessed with trying to teach the skills that they presume will be the keys to economic success later in life, then schools might be nicer places to be in while you were there. I hope that by saying that there isn't that great a link between what you teach a person in school and whether or not they make a buck later you can force schools to justify themselves in their own right, that they're doing something that is interesting and intrinsically worth doing rather than that you're going to get a reward later."
One of the more controversial issues raised by Jencks is the question of busing. Although school integration reduces the gap between blacks and whites by only 20 per cent according to Jencks, busing should not be debated on its educational merits, but rather on its effects on society. "If we want a segregated society," he says, "we should have segregated schools. If we want a desegregated society, we should have desegregated schools." And Jencks feels that his study can be used by pro-busing factions even in their present line of argument. "Armor's estimate is that desegregation has no effect on student achievement," he said referring to David Armor, associate professor of Sociology, whose recent study on busing showed that school integration had no effect on the gap between black and white student achievement. "We're more optimistic than that and say that busing reduces the gap between black and white achievement levels by about 25 per cent. What we've provided is ammunition for the pro-busers."
EVEN MORE CONTROVERSIAL than his busing statements are Jencks's findings on the role of genetics in determining educational and economic inequality. "Since the collapse of the liberal Democratic coalition in the late 1960's," he writes, "several leading academic psychologists have written articles arguing that genes play a significant role in determining I.Q. scores. This argument, while often overstated, is undeniably correct."