An education system that is dedicated to educational justice is an education system that is dedicated to academic excellence. A just learning community is a learning community that refuses to place a cap on a student’s intellectual ability. A faculty that cares about its students is a faculty that sees its mission as teaching children to be the best that they can be.
People who are born rich and privileged are ‘born on third base’. The distance between their beginning and their goal is not so far, and covers less rough country, than that which those born just hoping for the chance to take some good swings, must cover. Those born at the plate know this and, if they are rational, accept it. They know they need to hone their skills — to have a good at bat — to advance to first, second, third and back home again. What they need to reach that goal is an education that will equip them to compete on an equal footing with the privileged. If they have access to such schooling, they can compete and often outperform their more privileged peers.
School rankings, calibrated to student learning outcomes, play a driving role in the dispersion of educational justice. Parents, students and employers must be able to measure the quality and effectiveness of teaching and student learning. An educational system that eschews the formal measurement and ranking of student outcomes is an education system that lacks transparency. Without rankings based on learning outcomes, there is no accountability, and students have no way of knowing whether their school and their teachers are providing them with the educational justice that is their right. Who benefits from an educational landscape that lacks formal rankings? The privileged, for they need not fear energetic competition from less privileged students who have been prepared to challenge them, and those schools whose reputation is grounded in social prestige, not academic accomplishment.
The philosopher David Schmidtz, who is the esteemed Kendrick Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, has begun to teach and publish on the relationship between justice and education. His recent work on what justice might look like in schools is helpful to keep in mind as the annual school rankings are published, accompanied by the inevitable howls of protest from those threatened by their import:
“We still see most questions of justice as questions about what people are due, but if reflection on our roles as educators leads us to ask what is just, it would make sense for us to wonder whether we owe it to students to make them as equal as possible or as excellent as possible. We might think the track coach’s job is to train each child to run as well as possible, not to make sure all races end in a tie. We might think something analogous of every teacher. Moreover, we might in various ways remain hard-core egalitarians for all that, insofar as we think that what children will one day be due qua adult citizens profoundly differs from what they are due today qua young pupils. Further, we might be anxious to institute metrics of achievement, despite knowing that metrics are a dangerous servant and a terrible master; they induce teaching to the test, which is to say they induce teachers to focus on appearance rather than reality. (Perhaps the same risk accompanies philosophical striving to produce metrics of justice.) Yet, we do, after all, need to measure, don’t we?
— “Education: Ideals and Practices”. Edited by David Schmidtz, “Introduction”, p. XIV. Cambridge University Press.
School rankings and learning metrics are not ends in and of themselves. They are a bridge between a learning community and its social context, a bridge between the students’ present striving and their future opportunities.