We have been engaged in decades-long public policy debates on gaps and how best to close them: the income gap, the student achievement gap, gender-linked gaps in employment opportunities. But why do we care so much about gaps? In a land of diversity, why are subgroup differences such a concern?
At a basic level, we care about gaps because (or when) our fundamental assumption is that, on a “level playing field,” there should be no systematic differences among people based on ascribed traits, such as race and gender, that are unrelated to the “game.” It is “ok” if a specific Hispanic kid performs at a lower level than his/her white counterpart or vice-versa. But it’s not ok if, on average, Hispanic students’ test scores systematically lag behind that of similar white children. Why? Because we know intelligence and ability are normally distributed across racial/ethnic groups. So, when groups differ in important outcomes, we know that this “distance” is indicative of other problems.
What problems exactly? That is a more complex question. Read More »
There is currently an ongoing rhetorical war of sorts over the gender wage gap. One “side” makes the common argument that women earn around 75 cents on the male dollar (see here, for example).
Others assert that the gender gap is a myth, or that it is so small as to be unimportant.
Often, these types of exchanges are enough to exasperate the casual observer, and inspire claims such as “statistics can be made to say anything.” In truth, however, the controversy over the gender gap is a good example of how descriptive statistics, by themselves, say nothing. What matters is how they’re interpreted.
Moreover, the manner in which one must interpret various statistics on the gender gap applies almost perfectly to the achievement gaps that are so often mentioned in education debates. Read More »
Affirmative action has been defined as “voluntary and mandatory efforts undertaken by federal, state, and local governments, private employers and schools to combat discrimination, foster fair hiring and advancement of qualified individuals regardless of their race, ethnicity and gender; and to promote equal opportunity in education and employment for all.” It is also a highly controversial policy, with few fans and many detractors.
Some of this is due to the history of expedient implementation, where affirmative action came to mean a ham-handed system of quotas. But much of the unease is due to disagreement with the policy’s intent.
Many conservatives argue that fairness requires that we do away with preferences and treat everyone exactly the same way. Meanwhile, some liberals criticize nondiscrimination statutes for their focus on race, religion, and gender to the exclusion of socioeconomic factors that can be more limiting. How, they argue, could you consider the son of an African-American neurosurgeon to be more disadvantaged than the son of an illiterate white sharecropper? It’s a very good question. Read More »
Employment policies associated with unions – e.g., seniority, salary schedules – are frequently criticized for not placing the highest premium on performance. Detractors also argue that such policies, originally designed to protect workers against discrimination (by gender, race, etc.), are no longer necessary now that federal laws are in place. Accordingly, those seeking to limit collective bargaining among teachers have proposed that current policies be replaced by “performance-based” evaluations – or at least a system that would make it easier to reward and punish based on performance.
Be careful, argues Samuel A. Culbert in a recent New York Times article, “Why Your Boss is Wrong About You.” Culbert warns that there are serious risks to deregulating the employment relationship, and leaving it even partially in the hands of the employer and his/her performance review:
Now, maybe your boss is all-knowing. But I’ve never seen one that was. In a self-interested world, where imperfect people are judging other imperfect people, anybody reviewing somebody else’s performance … is subjective.
This viewpoint may sound obvious, but social science research reminds us that the whims of subjective human judgment are not random. The inefficiencies that Culbert mentions are inevitable, but so is the fact that bias tends to operate in a manner that disproportionately affects workers from traditionally disadvantaged social groups, such as women and African Americans. What’s worse – it’s just as likely to occur within as between groups, and we often do it without realizing. Read More »