Should we care about inequality? We might say, for example, that both the poor and rich have always been with us, and that we somehow upset the natural order by even drawing attention to the wealth differences let alone trying to reduce them via government strategies. Should we be more concerned with absolute levels of income and wealth rather than comparisons? In a Rawlsian sense, we could even justify the Haves getting more provided that the Have-nots are not made worse off.
Or is it possible that significant disparities between the rich and poor are good for neither? British researcher Richard Wilkinson believes as much, and has written about the ill-effects of inequality, first in his book Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality, and more recently with his partner Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. (I’ve written previously on Wilkinson’s work here and here.) Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz just published a book with the title The Price of Inequality.
We are familiar with the numbers, or at least should be. Since even before the Great Recession the United States experienced the greatest levels of inequality in 80 years. The rich have indeed become richer while the Rest of Us have seen our wages either stagnate or decline. Moreover, there are nearly 25 million Americans who are either without a job or underemployed, working part-time or in positions paying substantially less than before they were laid off following the collapse of the housing bubble and Wall Street’s near implosion. We can see what’s happened to our national Gini index over the last several decades in this chart:
I’ve been reading a book about education—Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? The author, Pasi Sahlberg has this to say about inequality:
It seems understandable that income inequality, child poverty and lack of appropriate pupil welfare in schools play an important part in improving teaching and learning in national education systems. This has been well understood in Finland during the last half a century.
He goes on to say that Finland’s remarkable educational turnaround must be viewed within the context of a Finnish cultural legacy (e.g., resoluteness, focused problem-solving, and a strong sense of national community) and, most especially, the country’s elaborate social welfare system. Just a few ingredients:
- free education, from pre-school through graduate school
- free meals for all students regardless of socioeconomic status
- universal health care
- a pervasive sense of egalitarianism
- an extraordinary commitment to improving the wellbeing of all citizens, particularly with an emphasis on enhancing human capital via education
The evidence is clear: Finland’s educational system is now the best in the world, with its students routinely scoring at or near the top in international tests. Ironically so, since Finnish students take very few tests during the course of their comprehensive education.
As to inequality and learning, Sahlberg includes this chart:
Note the sharp contrast between Finland and the United States. Finnish students score higher on the OECD-administered PISA than American students, and Finland is one of the most equal societies on the planet.
However, as Sahlberg discusses, Finland’s inequality is rising along with those of other western industrial democracies. He believes that the country’s leaders and citizens need to reaffirm their commitment to social justice and egalitarianism, traits, in Sahlberg’s judgment, that have allowed the Finnish reform movement to succeed where other countries have fail, the U.S. being the obvious example.
Of course, the above scatter-plot chart illustrates correlation and not causation. Moreover, some American students do quite well on the international tests, at least as well as Finnish students as a whole. And this gets to our point. Poor American students perform lousy on these tests just as they consistently do on high-stakes exams like the SAT. Sahlberg suggests that effective educational reform, one dedicated to improving learning among all citizens, requires that social-political context mentioned above.
But that’s a problem in the U.S. Finnish society and its political system are as different from ours as a goat is to an elephant. Based on Sahlberg’s description, Finland has achieved a “kinder, gentler nation,” whereas we can only dream about one. There is absolutely no way that today’s Republicans could even recognize the Finnish experience; they certainly couldn’t embrace it—even if in so doing America would dramatically boost educational performance, and thereby human capital, at considerably less cost that the status quo. It’s enough for the GOP to utter the word ‘socialism’ to send woefully ignorant Americans shrieking to the hills.
That said, whenever you hear a politician or any educational leader for that matter talk about reform, listen for references to the Finnish societal ingredients I listed above. Well, you’ll listen in vain. More likely you’ll be treated to the usual pabulum about “accountability” and “tests” and “competition”—all anathema to Finns. You have my permission, then, to simply ignore the blather, for it amounts to nothing.