Education, Justice, and Democracy

Education, Justice, and Democracy

by Danielle Allen

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Education is a contested topic, and not just politically. For years scholars have approached it from two different points of view: one empirical, focused on explanations for student and school success and failure, and the other philosophical, focused on education’s value and purpose within the larger society. Rarely have these separate approaches been brought


Education is a contested topic, and not just politically. For years scholars have approached it from two different points of view: one empirical, focused on explanations for student and school success and failure, and the other philosophical, focused on education’s value and purpose within the larger society. Rarely have these separate approaches been brought into the same conversation. Education, Justice, and Democracy does just that, offering an intensive discussion by highly respected scholars across empirical and philosophical disciplines.   The contributors explore how the institutions and practices of education can support democracy, by creating the conditions for equal citizenship and egalitarian empowerment, and how they can advance justice, by securing social mobility and cultivating the talents and interests of every individual. Then the authors evaluate constraints on achieving the goals of democracy and justice in the educational arena and identify strategies that we can employ to work through or around those constraints. More than a thorough compendium on a timely and contested topic, Education, Justice, and Democracy exhibits an entirely new, more deeply composed way of thinking about education as a whole and its importance to a good society.

Editorial Reviews

Eamonn Callan
“In their introduction to this superb book, Danielle Allen and Rob Reich note that just about everything we do in education or say about it is freighted with assumptions about how our educational practice is related to the ideals of democracy and justice. Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of these assumptions is not matched by much rigorous and imaginative thought about their validity. One cause of the poverty of our educational thought is disciplinary fragmentation. The social scientists write about education with little understanding of its ethical meaning, and the philosophers write about it with blithe indifference to how our highest ideals are to be realized in an empirically complex world. What would our educational thinking look like if it captured the best social scientists and philosophers in real conversation with each other? If you want to know, then read this book. It will be an exhilarating and inspiring experience.”
Meira Levinson
“Danielle Allen and Rob Reich have assembled an outstanding collection of essays. Each chapter tackles essential normative and empirical questions about educational justice within a democracy: what it means, what it would look like, and how to make progress toward achieving it.  These are important insights. The book’s most significant accomplishment, though, emerges from reading it as a whole. It models ways of doing normatively engaged social science research, and empirically engaged political theory, that all students and scholars of justice, education, and democracy should immediately heed.”
Michael Apple
Education, Justice, and Democracy is an important book.  By bringing together a range of well-known scholars from different disciplines, it provides exceptionally thoughtful analyses of the limits and possibilities of an education that is connected to democratic egalitarianism. Danielle Allen and Rob Reich are to be commended for their fine efforts in putting a book such as this together.”
Harvard Educational Review
“In the introduction, editors Danielle Allen and Rob Reich make the claim that Americans often take these three ideals for granted. Schools should educate. Schools should be just. Schools should be democratic. What is meant by these normative statements, however, can be terribly unclear or vastly different from person to person. The authors in this collection of essays approach these principles with this lack of clarity in mind, questioning what it means for schools to educate, to be just, or to be democratic. Such an analysis is relatively standard, and necessary, work for political theorists. Yet, the way in which these scholars approach the process of clarification makes this collection a breath of fresh air and, furthermore, an important read for any scholar of education.”
Choice - S. T. Schroth
“The contributors assembled by Allen and Reich provide insight into such diverse topics as achievement, equality, citizenship, intelligence, family, immigration, segregation, and disadvantage. Seeking to ameliorate disciplinary fragmentation, the varying perspectives provide a framework that asks readers to consider ethical meaning as well as the empirical means of testing whether it has been attained. . . . The variety of perspectives presented would make this an ideal addition to a class exploring school and society or the philosophy of education. . . . Highly recommended.” 
Teachers College Record - Beatrice S. Fennimore
“This outstanding book is beautifully arranged, with logical threads tying each section and each essay to the next. The essays are of perfect length, allowing the reader to consider complex issues and ideas in depth without being overwhelmed by the content. In keeping with the message of participatory democracy, the book ties theory to practice, acknowledges that there is often a gap between policy and practice, and opens avenues for the relationship of ideals, constraints, and strategies for ‘on the ground’ democratic change. The content of the book is provocative and creative, breathing new life into debates that might otherwise become discouraging or tiresome. My only concern is that this important collection of advanced and articulate essays might be unlikely to find its way to practitioners outside of the academy or readers new to educational philosophy and policy analysis. It is up to those fortunate enough to read this book, and I hope there are many, to act on its content and extend it to as many others as possible. That this is a matter of urgency clearly resonates in the reminder from author Anna Marie Smith that, for our poorest and most deeply disenfranchised children in the United States, schools ‘represent the only key to equal citizenship that lies within their grasp.’ The powerful messages of education, justice, and democracy in this book hold out a light of hope to inform and encourage all who remain engaged and committed to the essential struggle for equal educational opportunity.”
Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain
Education, Justice, and Democracy makes an important step towards a deeper and more fruitful interdisciplinary approach in philosophy of education.”

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Education, Justice, and Democracy


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-01262-9

Chapter One

The Challenges of Measuring School Quality

Implications for Educational Equity

Helen Ladd and Susanna Loeb


Nearly all countries, including the United States, view elementary and secondary education as so important for the well-being of both individuals and society that they make schooling compulsory through some age, whether that age is fourteen as in many developing countries or sixteen or eighteen as in various states of the United States. In addition, there is a worldwide consensus that all students, but especially those in primary school, should have access to publicly financed schools with no fees. In practice many countries, especially developing countries with limited resources, do not meet this latter requirement, and they often permit schools to charge fees that in some cases are substantial (see Ladd and Fiske 2008, chap. 16). The policy throughout the United States has been clear: public schools, including both traditional schools and publicly funded charter schools, cannot require parents to pay to enroll their children. Compulsory schooling, supported by full public funding, reflects the observation that elementary and secondary education not only provides private benefits to those who attend school and their families but also brings public benefits to the broader society.

Among the private benefits are consumption benefits to the enrolled students of being in a safe, engaging, and potentially enjoyable school environment; consumption benefits to their parents in the form of child care and satisfaction in their children's development; and future investment benefits to students in the form of higher-paying jobs, better health, and a more fulfilling life (Card 2001; Haveman and Wolfe 1984). These private benefits—both the consumption and the investment benefits—can also be categorized as intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic benefits arise when education is valued for its own sake, such as the pleasure of being able to solve a complex problem or to appreciate artistic expression. Extrinsic benefits arise when education serves as an instrument for attaining other valued outcomes such as the higher income working parents can earn by having children in school, or the potential for the recipients of education to seek higher-paying jobs and more fulfilling careers. Regardless of the classification, it is clear that education provides a variety of private benefits, many of which accrue long after the students have left school.

If the only benefits were private, one might expect families to pay for a significant part of their children's education, as they typically do at the higher education levels. Even in the case of exclusive private benefits, however, there would be a compelling argument for making education compulsory and providing public support. The argument rests on the government's responsibility for protecting vulnerable groups, in this case children, who are not in a position to protect their own interests. Thus it can be viewed as both unfair and undesirable for children whose families invest little in their education—regardless of whether that reflects limited resources or weak preferences for education (see essays by the Suárez-Orozcos and Harris in this volume for the debate)—to be denied access to the skills and orientations needed to lead a productive life and to unlock their potential.

Clearly, however, the benefits of schooling accrue to more than just children and their parents. Among the public benefits of schooling are short-run benefits for others from keeping idle children off the streets and away from crime or other antisocial behaviors, and the longer-run benefits of having an educated citizenry capable of participating in the democratic system and a workforce that is productive and innovative. These longer-run benefits accrue not only to the residents of the children's local community, but also to the broader society. Low educational investment in students in one jurisdiction spills over to other jurisdictions because people move across jurisdictions, citizens participate in the political life of the nation as well as that of their local community, and the productivity of one geographic area of the country can affect overall productivity.

Even without government financing of education, families would have an incentive to invest in their children's education to generate future benefits for themselves. Parents gain directly from the future earnings of children who care for them when they are elderly. Parents also gain from investing in education when having flourishing, happy children increases their own happiness. Many families, however, might invest less than would be most beneficial for the larger community because they do not take into account the benefits that would accrue to others. Such underinvestments are likely to be largest for low-income families, for whom the public benefits of educating their children, including the creation of conditions for democratic participation, could be large relative to their perceptions of the private benefits. In addition, they may have less information as well as fewer resources to invest currently for future returns.

Governments have the potential to overcome some of these underinvestments. They can raise taxes and make schooling less expensive so that people invest more to account for the externalities of education, the benefits others get from an individual's schooling. Governments can also give loans to make it easier for families to invest, and they can require attendance.

Given the benefits of education, almost all societies invest in an education system, and the vast majority provide free education to young children. In so doing, each government needs to make many choices about how to fund and govern schools. These decisions have implications for the quality of schools and the educational opportunities available. Well-informed choices require a clear definition of education quality and an understanding of how to measure it.

In this chapter we explore the complexity of defining and measuring education quality in a way that can help public decision making. We discuss common approaches to measuring education quality and explore the advantages and disadvantages of each in terms of accuracy and reliability. We then turn to a discussion of the distribution of education quality in relation to the normative standards of equal quality schooling, equal educational opportunity, and adequacy, and we highlight the merits of the different approaches to measuring school quality with respect to each equity standard.

What Is Education Quality?

In its simplest form, education quality can be conceptualized as the investment and consumption value of the education. The investment portion captures benefits in the form of higher earnings, better health, contributions to the arts, effective participation in the democratic process, and other outcomes that education enhances. The consumption portion of education quality captures the benefits to children and their families of having safe, supportive, and happy environments. From the perspective of the community, the quality of an education system refers not only to the sum of the investment and consumption benefits, but also to how they are distributed across individuals. The value of any particular pattern is likely to differ across societies. For example, highly unequal patterns of education consumption across individuals may be unacceptable in some societies, while in others they may be more acceptable provided all children receive a minimum floor of consumption. As another example, some communities may look for equality in the investment benefits of education, while others may want to provide greater investment benefits to students whose families are less able to provide them, compensating for low family resources. The distribution of both consumption and investment benefits may also affect the robustness of the democratic process and the degree of societal cohesion, both of which are valued in a democratic society.

Of course, it is unlikely that all members of a community will agree on the value of different components of education quality or on how they should be distributed. Children and their parents often differ on what constitutes a high-quality day at school. Families also disagree on what is high-quality education—with some valuing investment returns of one type and other families another type. For example, some parents value the development of art and music skills and appreciation for its own sake, while others value the arts primarily for motivating students to learn more math or develop better reading skills. In addition, families disagree on the values children should be learning in school. Educators also often differ with children, with parents, and among themselves about worthwhile outcomes as well as worthwhile types of education consumption.

Communities and their government representatives have to decide how to balance these differing perspectives, much the way they need to balance perspectives in other areas of public decision making. Education may be particularly sensitive because it touches on parenting, rights, and values. It is further complicated in federalist systems where many different communities have a say in public education. Certainly in the United States, local, state, and federal governments all play important roles in the public education system and often disagree on the best approach to schooling. While much could be and has been written about how best to govern and finance education in a federalist system, those issues are not the subject of this essay. We have a more limited, but nonetheless challenging, goal of better understanding what education quality is and how to measure it.

In keeping with this discussion, ideally we would measure the quality of an education system by the investment and consumption benefits it provides. Measuring education this way is not an easy task, however, in part because some of the benefits of education are difficult to quantify and in part because investment benefits do not emerge immediately. We do not know, for example, how much income a first-grade child will earn two or three decades in the future. Moreover, even if we could look at data thirty years after the child attended school, we would be learning about the quality of the education system thirty years earlier, which is not much use for current decision making. As such, we need proxies for education quality. Not surprisingly, none of the available proxies is perfect.

In what follows we discuss the relative merits of commonly used proxies for education quality.

One set of proxies aims to capture the inputs to schools that are the building blocks or ingredients for a high-quality education system. Measures of resources—in the form of either spending per pupil or specific school inputs such as the number of teachers per pupil—are the most concrete proxies for school quality and are the most commonly used. Although resources may be necessary for a high-quality school or district, they may not be sufficient given that some schools are likely to use their resources more effectively than others. Thus, direct measures of school processes, as observed by external evaluators, can serve as alternative measures of school quality. For a number of reasons, including the complexity of schooling and the difficulty of standardizing evaluators' ratings, even measures of school processes are flawed as a measure of education quality. A third type of quality measure uses proximal student outcomes such as test scores and educational attainment. Although these measures do not fully capture the investment outcomes of interest, they are often justified on the grounds that they predict such outcomes. One of the challenges in using outcome-based proxies for quality is determining what student outcomes would have been in the absence of the schooling system so as to uncover the contribution of schools to the outcomes in question.

Proxies for School Quality

The three most common proxies for school quality are measures of resources, of internal processes and practices, and of student outcomes. In this section we discuss each of these measures and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in light of the framework just presented.


Spending per pupil is an intuitively appealing rubric for measuring education quality. Setting aside for the moment that price levels may differ across places, we all have a sense of the scale of a dollar, what it can and cannot buy. Such a measure can be interpreted as a weighted average of the various inputs a school uses, with the weights being the prices of each input. According to such a measure, a school or district with more teachers who are experienced (and hence have higher salaries) would be spending more than a school or district with fewer experienced teachers, all other factors held constant. Thus, to the extent that the differential salaries paid to teachers reflect their true quality, a measure of spending per pupil appears to be a reasonable way to capture both the quantity and quality of the resources available to a school.

An advantage of using spending per pupil as a measure of school quality is that it is not based on any specific assumptions about the best, or preferred, way for schools to allocate their total resources among specific inputs. For example, the same amount of (per pupil) spending in two schools could be used for smaller classes with less experienced teachers in one school and larger classes with more experienced teachers in the other. In the absence of evidence that certain configurations of resources are preferred to others in all schools regardless of their context, it would be inappropriate to attribute higher quality to one school than another. Finally, this single-dimensional measure allows for straightforward comparisons across schools or districts with statements of the form: district A spends 40 percent more than district B, with an implied comparable statement about the relative quality of the two districts.

In the United States in 2007, the average current expenditure per pupil for public elementary and secondary education equaled $9,683 (US Department of Education 2007). This average masks great variation in spending both across states and across districts within states. On average, for example, schools in Utah spent $5,706 per pupil, while those in New York State spent an average of $15,546. By one estimate, about 70 percent of the variation in spending per pupil across US school districts is attributable to variation across states and about 30 percent is attributable to variation across districts within states (Corcoran and Evans 2008, table 19.2). Largely as a result of the school finance and property tax reform efforts in many states that reduced variation both within state and across states, spending inequality across school districts throughout the country declined substantially between 1972 and 2000 but then rose slightly in subsequent years.

There is far less information on the distribution of dollars across schools within districts. Because of the single salary schedule and the associated well-documented propensity for the more experienced—and hence, more costly—teachers to leave schools with high proportions of low-achieving, low-income, and black students, one might expect spending per pupil to be lower in these schools than in more advantaged schools. Working in the other direction, these schools may receive more funds from state and federal governments targeted toward needy students. As one example, New York City public schools spent an average of almost $12,800 per pupil during the 2003–2004 school year, with school-level spending ranging from approximately $3,500 to $24,500 per pupil. In this district, schools with higher proportions of poor students, low-achieving students, and especially special education students spent more per pupil on average than other schools, though much of the variation across schools is not easily explained by student characteristics (Schwartz, Rubenstein, and Stiefel 2009).

Despite the intuitive appeal of spending per pupil as a measure of school quality, it suffers from serious drawbacks even as a measure of a school's resources. First and most important, the costs of any given quality-adjusted input often differ significantly across districts and may also differ across schools within a district. As a consequence, at a minimum spending would need to be adjusted for the costs of inputs to be used as a measure of a school's resources.

Costs of inputs differ for a number of reasons. The costs of facilities, or the annual debt service needed to finance them, are likely to be higher in large cities, where land prices are higher than in smaller cities or rural areas. Probably most important, that college-educated workers earn different wages in different parts of the country means that districts in high-wage areas typically have to pay higher salaries to attract teachers than districts in low-wage areas. As an example, Taylor and Fowler (2006) found that in 1999–2000 starting teacher salaries were 27 percent higher in California than in Kansas ($32,190 versus $25,252). Because most of this difference was attributable to the higher wages for college-educated workers in California, the cost-adjusted teacher salaries in the two states were almost the same ($29,481 and $29,528, respectively).


Excerpted from Education, Justice, and Democracy Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Danielle Allen is the UPS Foundation Professor of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. She is author of Why Plato WroteThe World of Prometheus, and Talking to Strangers, the last published by the University of Chicago Press. Rob Reich is associate professor of political science with courtesy appointments in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Education at Stanford University. He is coeditor of Toward a Humanist Justice and the author of Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in Education, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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