America’s Sorting Machine

I’ve been in a rather long debate with my co-worker, Igor, about the American public education system.

Igor, being the father of a 9 year old and me, being the husband of a fourth grade school teacher.  This is not to mention the fact that I’m only 6 years removed from high school.  So we both have very strong feelings on this subject and justifications for what we believe.

While Igor and I agree that the American public educational system is not working the way it should and that the American public, in general, undervalues the importance of education (“it is not a first class occupation“), we have a few disagreements on certain areas.  One contention that Igor has is that he sees the trend of integration of all levels of students into one classroom as being a negative one.  He offers that kids should be broken out into different classes based on their proven academic performance.  In other words, they should be tested, prodded, and sorted until we have a clear representation of who’s the smartest and who has no hope.

He proposed the idea that what we are really dealing with is a linear programming problem.  Given that you only have n amount of resources and given a model (a set of equations) for the amount of returns you would get by investing in given class (x1, x2, x3,…xn), you should obviously invest the most in the students that give the highest returns.  Certainly, as a public educational system, we can’t deny the lower level students.  But in Igor’s view, new books should go to the best students.  The best teachers should be allotted to the highest level students.  To the rest, we hold their hands and help them through high school and just hand them a piece of paper if they should make it.

A parallel debate that we’ve had is whether it is okay to sacrifice a few for the greater good of the whole.  In discussing the Three Gorges Dam in China, Igor said that it was unacceptable to force the farmers and villagers at the site of dam (and upstream of the dam) to move from their homes.  According to Wikipedia, up to as many as 1.9 million people will eventually be displaced.  Igor is one of those guys that invoke’s Hitler any time you try to have a discussion with him 😉 His argument being that Hitler had convinced the German people that the sacrifice of the Jews was acceptable for the greater good of the Aryan race (or something like that).  His view is that you can never accept sacrificing the rights of the few for the whole.

In the case of China, I don’t think Igor’s analogy is very good.  To begin with, to my knowledge, people are not being killed by the millions if they refuse to evacuate.  In addition, there is a tangible benefit to everyone, mainly better flood control (which causes billions of dollars of damage to property and crops, thousands of lost lives, and millions of displaced people anyways), an abundant source of clean, cheap electricity (necessary for a developing nation),  and you can even consider tourism to the region to be a source of income for the otherwise rural population.  All this for the sacrifice of displacing (not murdering or exterminating) a mere .01% of the population.  But to me, this is a necessary sacrifice for a population that is nearly 800 times (1.5 billion) the displaced population.  China needs the cheap, clean electricity.  China needs to have control over that fertile land around the river for the sake of improving industry and agriculture.  Certainly, there are unanswered questions regarding the long term viability of the dam including the effects of soot build up, but to me, the benefits far outweigh the negatives and justifies the government’s right of the displacement of those people.

(I could spend forever writing on the topic of above, including how emminent domain helped build our transportation network that was essential to the growth of the United States as a nation.  However, that is a post for another day.)

So you see, Igor counters that integration, in the hopes of giving all students a chance to succeed in the same environment, sacrifices the good of a few, the brightest students, for the better of the whole, all of the other students.  He feels that the best teachers and the best materials should go to the smartest kids, namely his.

Of course it’s a totally ridiculous statement.  It’s like saying that, given 10 obese children, eight of which are dangerously so, a weight loss counselor should focus most of her efforts on the two that are not dangerously obese.  Instead of working with them simultaneously so that the somewhat obese children can help the dangerously obese children in coping and developing good eating habits, we should seperate them and create a counseling group for the somewhat obese kids and one for the dangerously obese kids.  Then we assign our best diet and weight loss counselor to the somewhat obese kids.  Since these kids have the best chance of attaining a normal weight, we’ll also put our best chefs on their meal staff so they get the best tasting, low fat, ultra-healthy meals.  In addition, we’ll apportion most of the time in the exercise room, of which we only have one, to these kids since if they get enough exercise, they’ll have a better chance of attaining a normal weight.  On the other hand, since most of our finite resources are going towards the slightly obese children, there aren’t enough for the majority of the kids, the dangerously obese kids, the kids that need the most help.  Instead, we assign a mediocre counselor to the dangerously obese kids and underfund her as well.  Since our best/most skilled chefs are preparing courses for the slightly obese children, our most obese children end up with a menu that’s not so appetizing, which in turn, causes them to regress and try to sneak in Twinkies.  Since the exercise room is scheduled for the slighly obese kids most of the time, the dangerously obese kids don’t get to spend enough time exercising.  Of course this is an absolutely ludicrous idea; it’s clear that the most help should go into the dangerously obese kids in this situation and that having both types of kids in the same group can have a positive effect.  Why should it be any different with our school system?

What Igor doesn’t see is how this is, in reality, the sacrifice of many for the good of a few, which, in my opinion, is even more unacceptable than sacrificing a few for the greater good of the whole.

To further aggrevate the situation, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment showed that people are easily absorbed into the roles and labels with which they are assigned.  After the experiment was ended abruptly, as both “prisoners” and “gaurds” groups were falling too deeply into their assigned roles, it was concluded that:

“the results of the experiment are said to support situational attributions of behavior rather than dispositional attribution. In other words, it seemed to entail that the situation caused the participants’ behavior rather than anything inherent in their individual personalities”

In addition to this, it is important to note that:

“The group was divided in half at random into an equal group of ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’.  Interestingly, prisoners later said they thought the guards had been chosen for their larger physical size, but in reality they had been picked by a fair coin toss and there was no objective difference in stature between the two groups.

What does this mean?  If you segregate kids into honors and regular course levels, you are inherently and implicitly labeling them as being either “smart” or “stupid”.  I bolded the last sentence because it shows that people have the tendency, then, to develop an inferiority complex (or rather project superiority upon another group), even if the decision on who goes to the “smart” and “stupid” groups is a completely arbitrary one.

I’ve been following a program on one of the public broadcasting channels in our area titled The College Track.  You can see it right on in the subtitle of this series: “America’s Sorting Machine”; this is what our current educational system is.  Whether Igor likes it or not, this country is made of people of all walks of life, all races, all different types of cultural backgrounds, and all types of values.   As we move forward, to succeed as a country, we need to improve the educational level of everyone.  The proposal that we dedicate our best resources to the few that we think can acheive great academic feats is a proposal to essentially sacrifice the chances of those we think are inferior, academically.

In looking back at my own life, I can see how this panned out.  Igor likes to rag on me about my 1400 SAT score (650v/750m; 90th and 98th percentile, respectively) whereas his “hopeless” daughter got a 1460.  He rags on me because, according to my demographics, I should have gotten much higher.  I like to inform him that my sister did indeed get a 1580 (combined highest) and attended Wharton (not that I seriously place a lot of value in this school as it was academically worthless in my opinion, but Igor is one of those guys that believes in names and prestige).

This morning, as I was discussing this with my wife, I finally realized one major factor in why, given that both my sister and I are of roughly equal intelligence levels, I would do so “poorly” on the SATs.  At this point, I need to preface this with the fact that I think the SAT is worthless as a method of measuring a student’s capabilities, but that’s a matter for another post.

In any case, when we first moved to East Brunswick from Bogota (New Jersey, not Colombia), I was in the 8th grade and she was in the 6th.  Because the East Brunswick school system had no idea how I would perform in their curriculum, even though my grades from Bogota were all excellent, I was placed in average level courses as a process of the sorting system.  At the grade school level, where my sister started, this has less of an effect as the kids are essentially all in the same class anyways.  Essentially, she had a chance to use the sorting machine to her advantage by virtue of a longer sorting process.

On the other hand, I can recall my first day of high school chem.  Regular chem.  By all accounts, I did not feel that I belonged in regular chem.  I looked at our textbooks and at the stack of brand new books that were being allotted to the honors chem class and a fire just burned inside of me.  I felt that I deserved those books as much as those other kids.  (Eventually, I did convince the administration to put me into chem. honors).

When you first sign up at Amazon, Amazon has no idea of what type of music you’re interested in.  But as time passes and you buy more CDs, their software analyzes your purchases and the purchases of others that purchased the same items that you did and uses this data to build a prediction model of what you’ll probably like.  It takes time for this process to work.  If your first CD is a Britney Spears CD for your 12 y/o sister (fictional), then Amazon’s algorithm assumes that you’ll have similar tastes to other 12 y/o females and recommend music along the lines of Mrs. Spears-Federline (luckily, you can uncheck what you don’t want to use for generating recommendations ;-)).  However, given enough time and purchases, the model becomes increasingly more accurate and actually mirrors your taste in music.  You’ll log on and find that Amazon will recommend many of the CDs that you already own and artists that you’re interested in.  The key is that it takes time for the process of sorting to work.  And the pivotal time in the process, in regards to education, is the time before high school as students become more annonymous and harder to sort properly in a large population.

Whereas my sister had a window of three years, I only had a window of one.  Thus I initially ended up in the “normal” classes for a few years and had to have my mom intervene with my guidance counselors to get me to the higher level classes (at the beginning at least).  I had a shorter window to claw my way through the machinery and prove to the system that I was capable (by the time I graduated, I had taken three AP courses and received a total of 12 college credits for successfully passing the exams and I was A/B+ student).

In the Han Fei Tzu, the Prince of Han writes:

“There is not one naturally straight arrow or naturally round piece of wood in a hundred generations, and yet in every generation, people ride carriages and shoot birds.  Why?  Because of the application of the methods of straightening and bending.  Although there is a naturally straight arrow or a naturally round piece of wood [once in a hundred generations] which does not depend on any straightening or bending, the skilled workman does not value it.  Why?  Because it is not just one person who wishes to ride and not just one shot that the archer wishes to shoot.  Similarly, the enlightened ruler does not value people who are naturally good and who do not depend on reward and punishment.  Why?  Because the laws of the state must not be neglected and the government is not for only one man.  Therefore, the ruler who has the technique does not follow the good that happens by chance, but practices the way of necessity.”*

As we move towards a future that will increasingly depend on a skilled, highly educated population, it is becoming more and more unacceptable to create this type of class rift and leave behind the many for the few.  Why?  Because it is not only a few jobs that will require highly skilled, highly educated workers; most jobs in the coming decades will require education beyond the high school level as we see our manufacturing jobs offshored.  There are only a few students that are naturally talented and require little assistance to succeed.  But to allot more of the public’s resources to the few while relegating the rest to an “average” experience, we are placing value on the naturally round piece of wood instead of honing our ability to shape wood so that all may benefit.

* Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 1963, p.253

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