Are We There Yet? : Equality of learning opportunity in theory and practice

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Title: Are We There Yet? : Equality of learning opportunity in theory and practice
Author: Kalenius, Aleksi
Contributor: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Educational Sciences
Doctoral Programme in School, Education, Society and Culture
Publisher: Helsingin yliopisto
Date: 2020-06-23
Thesis level: Doctoral dissertation (monograph)
Abstract: One of the fundamental questions of all societies is the possible trade-off between quality of outcomes and equality of opportunity. The question of a possible trade-off between equality of opportunity and level of outcomes has a long history in the sociology of education, and it has been seen as a fundamental question of the field. Economics literature recognises that equality of opportunity is not, unlike equality of outcomes, in a trade-off with quality of outcomes. Rather, inequalities of opportunity generate inefficiency and are thus in a trade-off with the level of outcomes. Here, building on this difference, we make a distinction between outcome trade-off and opportunity trade-off. Equality of opportunity is standardly measured indirectly, taking outcomes associated with circumstances to be due to circumstances and thus an indication of inequality of opportunity. This approach assumes that the circumstances of the individual are independent of the responsibility characteristics. The assumption flows from taking responsibility to be inseparable from individual freedom, whereby an individual should not be held responsible for the direct or indirect consequences of unchosen circumstances. When responsibility is directly linked to individual choice, we may also take any between-types differences in outcomes between groups facing different environments as evidence of the differential effects of those environments. Equality of opportunity is a causal concept, decomposing the outcomes as due to just and unjust causes. Due to the complexity of social phenomena such as intergenerational mobility, well-defined causality is out of reach, yet the concept of opportunity requires counterfactuals and causality. We propose that, rather than abandoning the causal core of the concept of equality of opportunity, or high standards in identifying well-defined causality, complex circumstances should be understood as ill-defined treatments. The area of education reveals interesting tensions because cognitive outcomes cannot be redistributed. It is usually taken to follow that differences in cognitive outcomes that are due to innate ability are not unjust, even though this means making individuals effectively responsible for something beyond their choice or control – their innate ability. This is what makes the opportunity trade-off possible. It arises because individuals in different circumstances may differ by innate ability. To bridge the gap between responsibility linked to freedom and learning outcomes linked to innate ability, we propose a typology of responsibility characteristics to allow for a more explicit recognition of the reasons for holding individuals responsible for causes beyond their control. The core concept introduced is natural responsibility characteristic, referring to a cause that individuals are held responsible for, but beyond the influence of persons individually or collectively. This makes natural responsibility characteristics historically contingent rules of regulation that depend on the level of technology, broadly construed. The two hypotheses on the causes of the association between background circumstances and cognitive outcomes emphasise ability and opportunity. The opportunity hypothesis takes outcome differences associated with circumstances as being due to the opportunities that different groups face, while the ability hypothesis takes differences to arise from between-group differences in innate ability. Both innate ability and opportunity can be observed only indirectly, but the opportunity hypothesis predicts that the between-type difference is minimised with high outcomes, while the ability hypothesis leads us to expect that equality of opportunity and the level of outcomes form a trade-off. The two perspectives can be combined in an ability-opportunity curve, the peak of which depends on the contribution of innate ability differences to between-group differences in outcomes. The causal chain between genetics and cognitive outcomes is insufficiently understood to provide clarity to the role of genes in explaining between-group differences in cognitive outcomes. While all researched human traits are heritable and we find an association between genetics and outcomes, unobservable associations between environment and genetics currently prevent well-defined identification of the causal contribution of genetics to between-group differences. The empirical sections of the work approach the question of equality of learning opportunity and the level of learning outcomes using IALS and PIAAC, two studies of adult skills. The ability-opportunity curve is approached, observing the association between equality of opportunity and the level of learning outcomes for different parental education types. The results indicate a positive association between equality of learning opportunity and the level of adult skills for all parental education types, matching the prediction of the opportunity hypothesis. While high proficiency can be achieved with high levels of equality of opportunity, the two usually go together. The positive association between equality of opportunity and the level of learning outcomes is stronger for lower parental education types and on longer time frames. The longer-term equality of opportunity is a strong predictor of the level of learning outcomes even in the short term. Equality of outcomes, here captured by income inequality, explains much of the same variation as equality of opportunity, supporting the opportunity-equalising effects of income equality attested to by the Great Gatsby curve. Longer-term equality indicators also predict learning outcomes of the high parental education type over time to the same degree as contemporary equality indicators, implying that equality indicators may provide advance warning of the direction of the evolution of learning outcomes. The results imply that developed countries still find themselves on the upward-sloping section of the ability-opportunity curve. In the analysis of possible traces of education reforms in between-cohort differences in equality of opportunity, IALS and PIAAC paint a largely concordant picture of the evolution of proficiency across cohorts. The pattern applies to the youngest groups of IALS, implying that cohort discontinuities in adulthood may be associated with differences in educational experiences in youth and with policy reforms. Comparing the timing of the observed discontinuities with the timing of education policy reforms, we identify 29 discontinuities that can be associated with notable changes in education policy. Reforms towards longer education and more comprehensive schooling seem mainly to be associated with improved equality of learning opportunity, while in some countries similar reforms in the 1990s seem to be associated with declining equality of opportunity. A brief, slightly more in-depth, look at Finland reveals a large increase in inequality in the 1990s, which broadly matches other data sources. The observation is of interest for several reasons. It would, if the results of our analyses are anything to go by, predict a later decline in learning outcomes, something that Finland has famously observed over the last 13-25 years. In addition, many of the internationally-known characteristics of the Finnish education system have been linked to the reforms of the 1990s and those reforms have been used to explain the rise of Finland to international fame and to the position of a global benchmark. The timing of the increase in inequality matches these reforms. The results suggest that the causes of Finnish success might have been misidentified and that we may have, both nationally and internationally, learnt the wrong lessons from Finland. Keywords: equality of opportunity, learning outcomes, large-scale survey, adult skills, education policyVäitöskirjassa tarkastellaan mahdollisuuksien tasa-arvon sekä lopputulosten tason suhdetta sekä teoreettisesti että empiirisesti oppimistulosten kontekstissa. Vastuu liitetään yleisesti vapauteen, mutta synnynnäiseen lahjakkuuteen perustuvia eroja oppimistuloksissa ei lähtökohtaisesti pidetä epäoikeudenmukaisia. Yksilön mahdollisuuksia ei voida suoraan havaita, vaan ne ovat määritelmällisesti olemassa potentiaalina. Kun yksilö on vastuussa vain asioista, joihin voi vaikuttaa, erot eri ympäristöistä tulevien lopputulemissa voidaan tulkita tulokseksi ympäristöjen erosta ja merkiksi mahdollisuuksien eriarvoisuudesta. Asetelma mutkistuu, jos yksilö on vastuussa lahjakkuudestaan, jota ei myöskään voida havainnoida. Yhteiskunnallinen peruskysymys on, päätyvätkö ihmiset eri ympäristöistä eri lopputulemiin ympäristöerojen takia, vai koska ihmiset eri ympäristöissä ovat sisäsyntyisesti erilaisia. Jos erot selittyvät ympäristöeroilla, eroja ryhmien välillä voidaan kaventaa samalla saavuttaen korkeampi osaamisen taso, kun taas synnynnäisistä syistä johtuvien erojen kaventaminen johtaa tulosten laskuun. Empiirisen tutkimuskirjallisuuden perusteella ei toistaiseksi voida arvioida missä määrin taustaan liittyvät erot eri ryhmien kognitiivisissa tulemissa selittyvät ryhmien sisäsyntyisillä eroilla. Työn teoreettisessa osassa esitetään, miten empiirisesti arvioitujen mahdollisuuksien ja normatiivisesti relevanttien mahdollisuuksien välinen suhde tulisi ymmärtää, ja esitetään ratkaisua kysymykseen siitä, miten oikeuttaa yksilön vastuu valintojensa ja kontrollinsa ulottumattomissa olevasta lahjakkuudestaan. Lisäksi työssä esitetään ympäristö- ja sisäsyntyisyyshypoteesien yhdistämistä kyky-mahdollisuuskäyräksi nimetyllä heuristisella välineellä. Empiirisessä osassa havaitaan, että kansainvälisten aikuisten osaamistutkimusten perusteella korkeammat oppimistulokset ovat positiivisessa yhteydessä parempaan oppimismahdollisuuksien tasa-arvoon sekä tasaisempaan tulonjakoon. Tulokset viittaavat siihen, että mahdollisuuksien tasa-arvo ja tasainen tulonjako ennakoivat korkeita oppimistuloksia myös yli ajan. Lisäksi analyysi osoittaa, että nopeat kohorttien väliset erot oppimismahdollisuuksien tasa-arvossa ovat ajallisessa yhteydessä koulutuspoliittisiin uudistuksiin. Tulokset ovat osin ristiriidassa Suomen koulutusmenestyksen syitä koskevan kirjallisuuden kanssa.
Subject: kasvatustiede
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