Social Justice, Title I, and Achievement

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Nearly everyone would agree that ‘social justice’ is a good thing, but what social justice is – and how we achieve a socially just society – has less agreement. For many people, social justice means the equal distribution of resources and opportunities to all people within a society. This aligns with American ideals of a meritocracy and an equal opportunity society – that achievement is based on individual talent and effort – as well as the philosopher John Rawls’ version of social justice. A critical distinction in this view of social justice is an emphasis on equal opportunityandnot equal outcomes. This means that everyone is provided the same educational opportunities – but isn’t guaranteed to receive a bachelor’s degree. To use the metaphor of a marathon: everyone begins at the same starting line, has similar quality of running shoes, and receives similar amounts of water from volunteers – yet is free to cross the finish line at their own pace.

One of the main avenues people think about creating a more socially just society is via education. We often think about Title I as a way to “level the playing field” for lower-income children, in that resources are devoted to students and their schools to provide more equitable educational opportunities. In this way, the intent behind Title I policies is social justice.

What Title I funds can’t do is address all of the ways money matters in education. For example, Title I funds don’t allow low-income families to invest in tax-advantaged 529 college savings programs when their children are young. These programs likely matter by making college seem more realistic and school more relevant when those children reach adolescence. This is a common advantage of middle- and upper-income families – because they have the economic resources to invest in their children – that low-income families don’t have because their income must be devoted to basic household needs. Title I funds also don’t pay for music lessons that teach children focus and discipline – and that learning can be meaningful and fun – another advantage of middle- and upper-income families that matters for achievement.

This suggests that one explanation for why Title I hasn’t fully reduced achievement gaps across racial groups and income levels are the advantages that familial economic resources contribute outside of school. So returning to the marathon metaphor, Title I is a way to help the runners be equally prepared, but Title I can’t address the fact that the families of some runners give them distinct advantages (some runners have people giving them cups of water and cheering them on along the race route, some don’t). In later columns I will consider other social, developmental and economic “inputs” into schooling and why they matter.