Equality of Opportunity

Countless statistics show that the gap between the rich and poor has widened considerably and continues to widen. To an extreme, an economics professor at George Mason recently published a book in which he predicts the population will be divided into two groups: those who are good at working with intelligent machines, and those who can be replaced by them. This is obviously a scary outcome, but are we focusing on the wrong thing?

At the risk of offending Thomas Jefferson, individuals are not created equal. We all have unique skills and talents, and it is this diversity that helps make the world a great place. Some level of inequality is inherently good for society. Motivation to better oneself and one’s family through hard work and innovation leads to economic growth and job creation. Without financial motivation, economic systems and societies crumble. But what degree of inequality should societies tolerate or even strive for? This is an intriguing question, but one that may be impossible to answer.

Most politicians, economists, and journalists are focusing on equality of outcome, which I believe is the wrong area of focus. The inherent dynamic nature of the human race makes this an impossibility. Rather, we should be focusing on equality of opportunity.

The key variable to increasing equality of opportunity is education, and there are two very concerning trends in our education system – the lack of competitiveness when comparing our students with the rest of the world and the growing gap in test scores between rich and poor children in the United States. Paul Peterson, a Harvard professor, and Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute performed an interesting study that showed a country’s economic growth is directly tied to the cognitive skills of its citizens. Countries at the top of the achievement distribution such as Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong had growth almost 2% per year higher than countries with average achievement statistics. In contrast, South Africa, Argentina, the Philippines, and Peru were at the bottom of the achievement distribution and had growth almost 2% lower per year than countries with average achievement statistics. Differences in education also explain disparity within our country. The current unemployment rate is 7.2%, but that jumps to 11.3% for individuals with less than a high school degree and drops to 3.5% for those who have a college degree or greater.

Improving our education system will enhance our economic growth and expand opportunities for individuals to climb the economic ladder. But how do we best do this? Throwing money at the problem will not solve it. According to Peterson and Hanushek, the U.S. spends on average $12,000 per pupil in grades K-12, one of the highest amounts in the world. Furthermore, states that spent more per pupil did not see higher student performance. How we spend money is much more important than how much we spend. Where to get the most bang for the buck, in my opinion, is by spending money on those that directly impact our students: our teachers. Deciding how to distribute increased funds to teachers should be based on rewarding the most effective teachers, however assessing teacher effectiveness is no easy task. National student test scores contain biases, and results can be skewed by influences outside of the classroom. According to an article in The Economist, a recent study attempted to strip out the biases in test scores and quantify the importance of good teachers. This study found, “exposure to better teachers is associated with an increased probability of attending university, and among pupils who go on to university, with attendance at better ones, as well as with higher earnings.” The study also found that, “good teachers also seem to reduce odds of teenage pregnancy and raise participation in retirement-savings plans.” The authors of the study quantified that the impact of swapping an average teacher in place of a teacher at the bottom of the value-added spectrum raises the collective lifetime income of each class they teach by $1.4 million. A study by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation further supported the importance of teachers by concluding that, “some teachers can produce test-score gains regardless of the past performance of their students.”

In Coming Apart, Charles Murray depicts our society as one in which the new upper class has segregated themselves from others and leads a life that does not intersect with other socioeconomic groups. He traces this trend to the significant increase in cognitive ability at top tier colleges in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Men and women at these top tier colleges then married and had children. The parents’ high income levels allowed both nature and nurture to take effect and spawn a group of highly intelligent and motivated children with parents that would invest great sums of time and money in their education. Many social economists fear the self-perpetuating nature of this cycle. The question is not a matter of inhibiting this cycle, but rather how do we raise the standards of education for those that were not born with the same resources.

I believe the answers to increasing the equality of opportunity lie in a combination of increasing pay of our good teachers, allowing school districts to terminate underperforming teachers, and giving families choice in which schools to attend. I believe these three steps will strengthen our education system and lay the groundwork for future economic growth. Admittedly it will take time and patience before we see any effects of these efforts, but we should focus on what we can control, not on what is out of our control. Let’s provide a wonderful opportunity for all. The outcomes will follow.