Saturday, October 2, 2010

Opportunity index



It would be very interesting if we had something we might call an "opportunity index" that could be applied to young children to estimate their probability of later success in life. The idea would go along these lines: Take some measure of adult success -- perhaps graduation from college or success in attaining a skilled job or career by the age of 30. Then identify a series of societal developmental factors that enhance the probability of the outcome. Finally, construct an index of these factors for each child that estimates the overall likelihood of success for that child. The logic is analogous to identifying risk factors for heart disease: given this set of factors, the individual's likelihood of O is p.

The positive opportunity factors might include things like this:
  • Quality of schools
  • Reading level at grade 5
  • Presence of caring adults and mentors
  • Quality of family environment
  • Adequate nutrition
  • Adequate housing
  • Adequate family income
  • Access to healthcare
There are probably redundancies here; public health professionals and education specialists would need to chime in. But suppose we've got some set of factors that can be scored 1-5, and suppose the index aggregates the factors to an overall estimate of probability of success. Maybe it goes along these lines: children with low scores in all factors (1) have only a 20% likelihood of success. (I.e. some children survive even crushing adversity; but it is only a small percentage who do.) Children with a 3 score have a probability of success of 75%. And children with the top scores have a probability of success of 95%. (I.e. students with good schools, high reading levels, great families, and affluent circumstances are almost certain to succeed.)

Just supposing we had such an index, what would it tell us when we applied it to a large population of children? The index collects societal factors that influence the child's likelihood of success, and the aggregate index is intended to correspond to the overall likelihood of success. So looking at the distribution of the likelihood of success over a population would be sort of a CT scan of the opportunity structure that is presented to children in different social locations: affluent suburb, poor inner city, declining suburb, farm community, ... And we could then look at the index as a way of measuring "opportunity equity."

My suspicion is that the result of this thought experiment would be pretty shocking. The factors that individually contribute to success are likely to covary by neighborhood, income, and race. It is therefore likely that whole schools full of children are likely to have similar scores. This suggests that there are gross inequalities of probability of success by race and poverty status. And this would highlight what is really a glaring source of injustice in our country: the likelihood of life success varies enormously by race and affluence.

Further, since the factors mentioned here are external social factors which are simply presented to the children, there is no sense in which we could maintain that these differences derive from things the child is responsible for. So, in other words, these gross inequalities of opportunity and outcome are fundamentally unjustifiable.

I'm led to this set of thoughts as a result of spending some time with young people in Detroit. The high school and college graduates I've been acquainted with display a remarkable set of talents and aspirations. They are on their way to success in whatever way we choose to define that term. And yet their own stories demonstrate what a difficult road it has been for them, and how many of their peers have been left behind. Fewer than 50% of Detroit school children go on to graduate from high school. Violence, hunger, homelessness, indifference, and illiteracy have prevented so many of their brothers and sisters from achieving the same kind of success. These are system characteristics, not individual failings. And these are the objective obstacles to opportunity that simply must be eliminated.

8 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

Keep in mind, though, that the present system is set up such that no matter how you define or distribute "opportunity", there's room only for a minority at the top, and only a small fraction of the very top.

Would it be somehow more just to have the same number of people living in poverty, but separate them out on the basis of things they are "responsible for"?

Benjamin Geer said...

You mean there haven't been any studies like this in the US? Bourdieu did things like this in France, correlating children's social class with their educational attainment, and explaining how the school system reproduces class divisions.

Nick Rowe said...

There's something philosophically problematic about your argument here.

Suppose we have some measure Y of adult success, and some list X of childhood indicators. We then run a regression of Y on S. How do we interpret the R-squared in that regression?

You (if I understand you correctly) would interpret the R-squared as a measure of inequality of opportunity, because a high R-squared would mean the child's success is largely pre-determined.

I would interpret the R-squared as a measure of how good we are as social scientists. If we were superlative social scientists, with crystal balls that gathered all the X-data that had any relevance and gave us the right equation, we could push R-squared up to 100%.

Or are you really saying that the explanatory power of *some subset* of that list X is how we should measure inequality of opportunity? If so, how would you decide which items on the list X are things the child is "not responsible for" vs things that are "not problematic"?

Why shouldn't we say that the child is not responsible for anything in X? Why would predictive power of neighbourhood, race, and income be more problematic than anything else?

Noni Mausa said...

Yes, a valuable thing to study. Three points:

First, success can be tweaked at the job/career end of the process also. There will always be necessary professions that don't require complex education or unusual skills, and people whose skills and intelligence are suited to those jobs. But at present Americans who fill those jobs have little leverage, benefits or security. Those jobs are structured to predicate non-success in the large majority of people who fill them.

Secondly, there are in addition to outside factors restricting success, inside factors as well. I am thinking of ADHD and FAE and sub-clinical intellectual and physical disabilities. In many cases these factors can be either prevented or compensated for in early years. One would need to be cautious in applying an Opportunity Index lest it become a way of discarding this large population, rather than assisting them in attaining success.

Finally -- would anyone claim that a nation with a large number of adults sub-optimally raised and educated is a strong nation? In the rush to scapegoat, demonize and discard our fellow citizens, we are essentially fostering an auto-immune condition in the body politic.

Noni Mausa said...

Yes, a valuable thing to study. Three points:

First, success can be tweaked at the job/career end of the process also. There will always be necessary professions that don't require complex education or unusual skills, and people whose skills and intelligence are suited to those jobs. But at present Americans who fill those jobs have little leverage, benefits or security. Those jobs are structured to predicate non-success in the large majority of people who fill them.

Secondly, there are in addition to outside factors restricting success, inside factors as well. I am thinking of ADHD and FAE and sub-clinical intellectual and physical disabilities. In many cases these factors can be either prevented or compensated for in early years. One would need to be cautious in applying an Opportunity Index lest it become a way of discarding this large population, rather than assisting them in attaining success.

Finally -- would anyone claim that a nation with a large number of adults sub-optimally raised and educated is a strong nation? In the rush to scapegoat, demonize and discard our fellow citizens, we are essentially fostering an auto-immune condition in the body politic.

Siyuan Song said...

I feel that the thought experiment is actually true, and it has been true from probably when slave society came into being. The most challenge is not to describe the opportunity inequality, but to find out effective ways to change it, which should be paid more attention by sociologists.

dysontam said...

The Toronto District School Board in Ontario, Canada has had a version of a Learning Opportunity Index (LOI) for over 30 years. The measures get tweaked every once in a while and updated more frequently than that, however it ties external challenges (outside the school) which may impact on a student's ability to achieve in school. It shows a very strong correlation (0.8+) to student performance.

The LOI is derived from the postal codes of each student and rolled up to the school level to act as a literal Index. The LOI is used to determine the ratio of additional resources for more deprived schools.

Simon Halliday said...

I agree with you 0 this would be fascinating.

I would also advocate that commenters should take a look at John Roemer's book Equality of Opportunity and some of his subsequent empirical work on US data as attempts to grapple with this kind of problem. The book also provides a reply to Nick Rowe's point. That is, Roemer attempts to isolate a vector of characteristics that we can agree (by some democratic system, or however) are 'beyond a person's control' and a vector of characteristics (say, effort, while understanding the distribution of effort within that subset of the population) that are within their control. We can then get some better sense of what 'success' means and thus what constitutes just desert.