Equity or excellence?
Our last major lurch forward in education policy was NCLB, which is undisputedly a move towards equity, not excellence. We’re disaggregating data so we can monitor the performance of all student groups and requiring that they achieve a minimum standard of competence. (Despite the histrionics of some, the bar is really not terribly high.) There’s nothing in there about excellence –it presents a lowest common denominator approach to education, and offers nothing to those students who have cleared the bar.
The American Competitive Initiative, on the other hand, is supposed to be about excellence. According to the authors, however, the fundamental conflict between these two priorities has resulted in ACI efforts being largely directed outside of K-12 education (much of the money goes to R&D efforts, not to schools or teacher preparation), and have noted that the Initiative has received little support:
While the push for math, science, and engineering has proved popular, the long-term agenda has proved to be a tough sell. The Administration has had trouble winning support for even the modest new expenditures it has proposed. The ACI has fallen prey to political infighting among various members of Congress, and the initial bipartisan support that surrounded the legislation has waned amid quarrels over jurisdictional issues, funding, and specific provisions.
There is a clear conflict between an equity agenda versus an excellence agenda. In terms of setting priorities, funding, and developing accountability systems, it would be very difficult to create a system in which both can occur. Hess and Rotherham note that:
The tension between the equity and competitiveness agendas is made more poignant because influential state-level actors--including key governors, such powerful philanthropies as the Gates Foundation, and such business-oriented groups as Achieve, Inc.--have prioritized high school standards and math and science education. So, while the federal pressure is focusing on bringing up the bottom in K-8 reading and math, these state-level actors are focusing on raising the level of high school achievement. The implication is that policy can do both, but, in practice, the emphasis on gap-closing necessarily shifts attention from higher-end skills, at least in the short term.
What the authors fail to address, however, is that we’re not doing either one very well: in international comparisons, we fall short on both equity and excellence. Andreas Schleicher of OECD notes the following in an article from Education Week’s Quality Counts 2007 report:
Students that did not surpass the most basic performance level on PISA were not a random group. The quarter of American 15-year-olds with the lowest socioeconomic status was almost four times more likely to be among the bottom quarter of performers than the quarter of the most privileged students. It would perhaps be tempting to attribute the performance lag of U.S. students to the challenges that socioeconomic disparities and ongoing immigrant inflows pose to the education system. But among the 41 countries that took part in the latest PISA mathematics assessment, the United States ranks only 10th in the proportion of 15-year-olds with an immigrant background, and all of the countries with larger immigrant shares outperformed the United States.
In fact, international comparisons also highlight important U.S. challenges at the top end of the performance distribution: Only 2 percent of American 15-year-olds performed at the highest PISA level of mathematics, demonstrating high-level thinking and reasoning skills in statistical or probabilistic contexts to create mathematical representations of real-world situations, using insight and reflection to solve problems, and being able to formulate and communicate arguments and explanations. On average across OECD countries, the share of top performers was twice as large, and in Belgium, Japan, and South Korea, even four times as large.
Hess and Rotherham are certainly right in saying that there are conflicts and tension inherent in striving for both equity and excellence in a cohesive and consistent policy. But since most people would undoubtedly agree that both are desirable goals, is there a way to accomplish both? And can’t we at least reach one while we’re trying to figure this out?