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The Problem of “Raising Yourself Up by Your Own Bootstraps”

A Conversation about Educational Equity

Raise yourself up by your own bootstraps.  

This is a refrain we hear all the time, especially as Americans catechized in the dogma of personal responsibility.

But what if some people don’t have bootstraps?  What if some don’t even have boots?

On this week’s Good Faith podcast, my co-host David French and I interviewed my long term friend Ruth López Turley.

Raised on the U.S./Mexico border, Ruth experienced hardships caused by educational inequities and witnessed first hand the struggle within these constraints.  After several miraculous turns in her life, she attended Stanford and Harvard.  Now a tenured professor of Sociology at Rice University, Ruth is using her position as a researcher and sociologist to raise educational opportunities for those in poorer communities with fewer resources.

In this week’s podcast, we talked about how to build better cities and improve people’s lives through data, research, engagement, and action.  We specifically talked about:

  • Ruth’s personal story of how education transformed her life;
  • How academic research can be used to affect change in the real world;
  • The difference between equality and equity;
  • The modern ubiquity of segregated churches and schools;
  • How friendship affects educational outcomes;
  • How fatherlessness affects career opportunities;
  • How racial segregation created friendship biases;
  • How social capital might be more important than financial capital;
  • Scriptural proof that Jesus cares about group inequality;
  • How the definition of “mercy” includes the concept of “equity;”
  • How property value concerns negatively impact educational opportunities;
  • And how your family can catalyze social change.

DAVID FRENCH: You use the term “equity” when you’re talking about educational equity. A lot of people, in this super hyper-polarized time, don’t like the word “equity.” They prefer the word “equality.” They say “equality” connotes equality of opportunity, that everybody has the same chance to succeed.

“Equity” speaks to an equality of outcome, which is not the norm. Some people are going to do better and some people are going to do worse, even if you have equality of opportunity.

They believe “equity” includes coercive leveling. So if there’s somebody’s not doing well, you’re going to push them up, and if there’s somebody doing too well, you’re going to push them down so that everybody ends up at the same spot.

How do you distinguish the concepts of “equality” and “equity?” And what do you mean by “equity?”

RUTH LOPEZ TURLEY: I love this question, David. You’re speaking to me as a sociologist, and this distinction between “equality” and “equity” is important to sociologists. 

When I said we’re striving for “improved educational equity,” especially in the area of education, by “equity” I mean giving students the resources that they need. It’s not “equality,” in the sense that we’re giving everyone the same thing across the board.  Rather it’s “equity” in the sense that we’re aiming to give some students more resources.

Some people could argue that’s not fair.  But I would argue it’s not fair that they don’t have as many to begin with.

Nonetheless, that is what I mean by “equity.”  We aim to give students what they need.  Some people need more, we give them more. Some people need less, we give them less.

You asked specifically about outcomes, that sometimes equity refers to the same outcomes. Let’s think about “equality of outcomes.”  It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to perform at the same level. I agree. However, I’m not talking about comparing individuals; I’m talking about comparing groups.

We systematically compare groups, say by race and ethnicity.  We have one group that is systematically performing at a much lower level relative to another group.  First of all, the differences are statistically significant and persistent.

When we see that discrepancy, that’s a problem that has to be addressed and there’s no reason for us to expect that to be normal.

When we’re talking about groups of people, we can quibble about grades or test scores or which kinds of test scores, whatever. But the stories are very similar no matter what the specific measure: we consistently see, in particular, Blacks and Hispanics that are performing at a much lower level than Whites and Asians are depending on the subgroup.

That has to be addressed.

CURTIS CHANG: Ruth, let’s boil that down. If you happen to just be born into a certain group, you are much more likely to get what you need or not get what you need to succeed. 

RUTH LOPEZ TURLEY: Exactly.

CURTIS CHANG: And somebody like me, an Asian American who grew up in the predominantly White neighborhood in a suburb of Chicago, attended one of the best public school districts in the country.  I landed in that situation through no virtue of my own, no effort of my own.

RUTH LOPEZ TURLEY: Yeah, just pure luck.

CURTIS CHANG: Pure luck, pure Providence, whatever you want to call it. But it had nothing to do with some inherent virtue in me. I landed in that group where I was in a school with predominantly White, mostly Jewish, actually, high achieving students in a public suburban school.

You, by no virtue or choice of your own, landed in a predominantly Hispanic border town in Texas.  You got a very different set of experiences that got you a very different set of resources which meant you didn’t get you what you needed.

How inequitable is our country right now in terms of education inequity?

RUTH LOPEZ TURLEY: It’s highly inequitable. 

[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]

HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French

PRODUCER: Kris Carter

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.

PHOTO CREDIT: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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