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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."
Genes, says Jencks, do not directly determine the cognitive abilities of one group or another. But if genes affect an individual in a given way, but giving him a skin color or other distinguishing factor that allows society to discriminate against that individual, then genes have indirectly effected the individual's ability to gain those skills that would allow him to score well on I.Q. tests. "The assertion that gene's explain differences between individuals' test scores does not necessarily imply that genes affect an individual's learning capacity. If, for example, a nation refuses to send children with red hair to school, the genes that cause red hair can be said to lower reading scores. This does not tell us that children with red hair cannot learn to read. Attributing red heads' illiteracy to their genes would probably strike most readers as absurd under these circumstances. yet that is exactly what traditional methods of estimating heritability do."
Jencks is also a believers in the "so-what theory of genetic superiority, first popularized by Noam Chomsky. That is, he believes the whole argument about which race is more "intelligent" is a useless and inconsequential debate. "The importance of genetic differences between races is political rather than scientific. As of 1972, white people still ran the world. Those who have power always prefer to believe that they 'deserve' it, rather than thinking they have won it by venality, cunning, or historical accidents. Some whites apparently feel that if the average white is slightly more adept at certain kinds of abstract reasoning than the average black, this legitimates the whole structure of white supremacy. Instead of accepting the myth that test scores are synonymous with 'intelligence' and that 'intelligence' is the key to economic success, we would do better to recognize that economic success depends largely on other factors. We could then try to tackle economic inequality between blacks and whites directly."
MOST OF THE DIFFERENCES between the test scores of blacks and whites is due to cultural differences, according to Jencks. "You can go back and look at the Italians and Jews at the beginning of this century in New York," he said. "We have a student who took the school records of New York and did the same kinds of things we did in analyzing school expenditures, etc. He came to the same conclusion that we did, that nothing seemed to matter, Italians still scored lower than Jews. All you can say is that the kind of culture that Jewish kids were brought up in led them to do well in the kinds of things they were supposed to do in school." The situation, "explained Jencks, is the same between blacks and whites today.
Jencks is an old hand at educational studies, surveys, and reformist ideas. As an undergraduate at Harvard he majored in English and wrote articles on higher education for the Crimson. His interest in educational reform led him to enter the Graduate School of Education, where he met David Riesman '31 Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences, who was just coming to Harvard. Riesman took an immediate liking to Jencks, and the two began to collaborate on a book "The Academic Revolution." Work on the book was interrupted, however, when Jencks won a Knox fellowship that allowed him to spend a year at the London School of Economics. Returning to the State he went to Washington where he got involved in a number of projects including developing plans for the educational system in the new town of Columbia, Maryland, giving Congressional seminars on educational policy, and acting as a consultant to several White House committees and conferences. During his stay in Washington, Jencks also served as an editor of The New Republic.
In 1967, at the close of the Johnson Administration, Jencks was brought to Cambridge dean of the School of Education. Jencks brought with him a sketchy outline of a best he had done a great deal of thinking about, The Limits of Schooling. Once in Cambridge. Jencks set up Harvard's Center for Educational Policy Daniel P. Moyalitiean, Professor of Education and Urban Politics and Thomas Pettigrew, professor of Social Psychology, were giving in which they were conducing re-analyses of the Coleman Report. The data that was unearthed meshed perfectly with some of the thinking Jencks had been doing on educational reform so he and seven colleagues put together a proposal for additional research and were funded by the Carnegie Corporation. The results of their work is Inequality.
"During the course of writing the book I became more radicalized in my thanking about the issues," he explained. "The more I thought about it the more pessimistic I became about the political possibilities of maintaining a system which provides for economic redistribution without a change in the basic character of the institutions."
BUT DESPITE HIS "radicalization" Jencks remains coolly pragmatic about the solutions to economic inequality. "I've always had the idea that if you want to get rid of poverty the best way to do it is to give people money. If you want to solve some other problem like the way poor people behave, then maybe you would need another solution."
Some of the things the Jencks recommends to alleviate economic inequality are progressive taxation, income maintenance, direct government regulation of wages, and tax incentives to employers for equalizing waged.
"I'm not an absolute egalitarian. Any society has to have rewards and punishments for appropriate behaviors so that's almost bound to produce inequality because some people will behave in ways in which society values and thus reap rewards. The usual utopian method is to use sanctions, some type of pressure to induce appropriate behavior. I find the use of economic sanction much more attractive. If everyone received the same hourly wage, and the only source of "Inequality was how hard you worked, then I wouldn't feel a bit bad about that. But I take John Rawls's (professor of Philosophy), position that you don't want to reward virtues and vices for which people deserve no credit. There is no advantage to rewarding things like extraordinary intelligence, luck, or anything like that, but there is an advantage in rewarding effort."
But Jencks is not optimistic about the possibility for reform of radical changes. The educational institutions of America have too firm a grasp on the peoples' minds, and the political climate in the country is not ripe for dramatic change. Nevertheless, Jencks sets forth the conditions he feel are necessary for the radical transformation.
"A successful campaign for reducing economic inequality probably requires two things," he writes. "First those who low incomes must cease to accept their condition as inevitable and just. Instead of assuming, like unsuccessful gamblers, that their numbers will eventually come up or that their children's numbers will, they must demand changes in the rules of the game. Second, some of those with high incomes, and especially the children of those with high incomes, must begin to feel ashamed of economic inequality. If these things were to happen significant institutional changes in the machinery of income distribution would become politically feasible."
Both Jencks and Inequality are iconoclasts. Because he attacks almost every sacred cow in education and "ecommends politically radical solutions, the book is sure to cause mounting controversy. Inequality is bound to have some effect on the upcoming presidential election as both sides cite the portions of the research that support their beliefs. Whether or not the book will ever advance Jencks's beliefs and his call for open reform is still open to question. But at least he's got people thinking.
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