Egalitarian Education: Possible, But Desirable?

Online education, once championed as a great equalizer, promising unfettered access to a variety of quality course material, seems to have fallen short of that guarantee. Even more damning is that online courses may in fact directly contribute to the growing inequality of educational systems — a point well made by Kaveh Waddell in a recent article in The Atlantic.

The article, which was published in late September, addresses concerns of equity as they relate to “massive open online courses” — MOOCs for short. These courses — as their name suggests — are large, free, and open enrollment sections on topics across a variety of disciplines, from comparative literature to linear algebra. They delve into these disciplines using curricula designed by professors affiliated with institutions like Harvard, MIT, and Brown. The promise of MOOCs is understandable: they offer the same coursework found at elite universities without the price tag. However, completing a MOOC does not confer course credit, meaning that one could take an exhaustive list of these online offerings and still not be any closer to completing a college degree. In promising learning for its own sake, MOOCs drastically limit their appeal to a number of potential users. Simply stated, it is not always easy to juggle personal responsibilities and read Faulkner, especially when the added burden does not promise the tangible socioeconomic benefit of a college degree. Droves of data corroborate this disheartening reality: students who took part in MOOCs offered by Harvard tended to live in more affluent neighborhoods, and as the average income of an individual’s neighborhood rose, so did the likelihood that that person would enroll in a MOOC.

However, Waddell places the ultimate blame for inequality in online education on larger structural issues. Surprisingly, the problem does not lie with access to the Internet itself, as 90% of all Americans and 99% of the 18-34 demographic is on the web. Though access is not to blame, differences in technological competency are. While the vast majority of Americans are able to get online, far fewer individuals can navigate the Internet with the skill needed to find and keep up with a MOOC. And, according to data collected by the Pew Research Center, the preponderance of people lacking these vital technical skills are “traditionally disadvantaged groups: minorities, women, and lower-income households.” Waddell concludes his piece by defining what he calls the “MOOC paradox,” wherein efforts to “democrat[ize] education could actually compound existing inequality.”

Ultimately, the MOOC paradox provides the most recent example of promising educational innovation that has fallen short of its stated mandate to democratize education and combat societal inequality. Though online education theoretically offers more students access to the curricula of elite colleges and universities, it is rife with the many of the same systemic inequalities that have plagued traditional classroom settings. In that regard, the MOOC paradox is emblematic of larger issues concerning inequality in supposedly egalitarian educational systems. Broadly stated, the culture of egalitarianism and meritocracy — largely created by well-intentioned educational reform — seldom provides readily accessible benefits to those most in need. The façade of greater access entrenches, rather than combats, existing inequality.

Consider Singapore, which has leveraged an official doctrine of educational meritocracy to quickly transform itself into one of the world’s leading economies. This meteoric rise underscores the strength of the city-state’s much-envied school system, which consistently ranks near the top of global achievement charts in subjects like math and science. In broad strokes, the fixation on competition as a means of driving high achievement and of identifying talented students has met immense success. Yet, the label of meritocracy can be deceiving. For example, private tutoring, a prerequisite to even being able to compete, on average ranges from “$150 to $250 a month.” This amount, though trifling to the estimated one in six Singaporeans with disposable wealth exceeding one million dollars, is far out of reach for others.

The MOOC paradox provides the most recent example of promising educational innovation that has fallen short of its stated mandate to democratize education and combat societal inequality.

Beyond preparing students for the everyday rigor of the classroom, tutors are also instrumental in training Singaporeans in the lead up to high-stakes, standardized examinations. Singapore is not alone in that regard; private SAT tutoring is increasingly popular in the United States, with tutors earning over $50 an hour in cities like New York. However, unlike the United States’ scheme, Singapore’s meritocratic system employs test results early and often, in order to “stream” students based on academic ability. These divisions are not without nuance, as pupils are “banded” according to their success in given disciplines. For example, those who excel at science but are less skilled writers will be given accelerated materials in the former and more foundational work in the latter.

All things being equal, this educational paradigm is immensely appealing, as it offers tailored curricula in line with an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. But unfortunately, some students are more equal than others. This fact undermines the value-neutral intentions of the academic environment. Classrooms constructed with an eye to egalitarianism do little to combat — or even recognize — socioeconomic inequities that may define a student’s home life. Though all Singaporeans may take the same exams in the same spaces, they don’t enter the academic world on equal footing or with equal access to educational opportunities. Here, the specter of private tutoring looms large.

Yet, even without the influence of tutoring, there are still concerns about student measurement via testing. At their core, these concerns undermine the supposedly standardized nature of standardized testing. For example, numerous studies conducted in the US have linked average household income and SAT performance. These studies suggest that standardized test results may not be the result of natural ability alone. While it might be unfair to imply that this relationship transcends national boundaries, it’s naïve to dismiss the correlation between wealth and testing success off-hand.

The pursuit of egalitarian educational spaces is necessary as a means of generating social mobility and fighting socioeconomic inequality, but the present culture of meritocracy and egalitarianism is often blind to systematized inequities that shape educational outcomes. This cultural blindness ignores the advantages — like technical competency or access to private tutoring — that are informed by socioeconomic reality. Paradoxically, classrooms created with equality in mind may magnify, not mitigate, the unequal distribution of benefits along class divides. Hopefully we can jumpstart the process of creating a more equal meritocracy by recognizing the flaws in our existing culture of academic achievement.