Friday, October 1, 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.

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