Addressing Critiques of the Human Capital Approach

As noted above, Chiappero-Martinetti and Sabadash (forthcoming) critique human capital theory for its inability to account for contextual and societal factors that can influence both an individual’s outcomes as well as overall program effectiveness. In Sen’s view, the capabilities approach can address this critique because of the distinction he draws between a view of equality based on “shares of goods” and a view based on the “relationship between persons and goods” (1980, p. 365). Sen believes that a person’s ability to achieve should be measured by the extent to which that person is able to convert available resources and freedoms into valued achievements. Rather than seeking to equalize resources available to each person, the capabilities approach is sensitive to each person’s “conversion of resources . . . rather than their equal shares of resources” (Terzi, 2010, p. 151). This view does not ignore the need for resources; rather, it shifts the emphasis from the amount of resources available to a consideration of the opportunities to convert the available resources into valued achievements.

Robeyns (2006) also has addressed the “shares of goods” view in her comparison of a human capital model and a rights-based model, with a capabilities model. She notes that both the human capital model and a right to education model seek to guarantee that resources, such as early education, are provided. However, providing a program as either an investment in human capital or a legal right does not address the issues of the quality of the program provided or of access to the program. For example, if the program provided is of low quality, its value as a resource can be highly questionable; if transportation is needed to participate in a program and none is provided, access to the program and its resources are in effect denied. Thus, it can appear that a “shares of goods” view is equalizing resources when in fact that may not be the case because of barriers hindering opportunities to access the resources making them either less available or unavailable.

The research described above points to two significant implications the capabilities approach has for early childhood education. These are in the areas of children’s agency and in assessment practices. Recent work by Jennifer Keys Adair outlines how the capabilities approach challenges notions of children’s agency (2014). She notes how our understanding of agency needs to be both broadened and contextualized with attention to the culture of children and their families. Likewise, the Learning Stories assessment practices developed by Margaret Carr and her colleagues (Carr, 2001; Carr & Lee, 2012; Carr, Smith, Duncan, Jones, Lee, & Marshall, 2009) describe assessment practices consistent with the capabilities approach focus on children’s agency. Learning Stories engages children as agents in the design, assessment, and documentation of their learning activities. The documentation by teachers, children, and their families makes visible the ways children reflect upon and value the leaning activities and their outcomes.

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