The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Equity or excellence?

A new discussion is starting to emerge in the education world, and it’s refreshing to see it come around again. The subject: whether our schools should focus on equity or excellence.

We have bounced between the two for at least the past 60 years, not really doing either well since the 50s. This dialogue started after the Russians leapfrogged over the US in the space race by launching their Sputnik satellite: that created a mad dash to improve what is now known as STEM education. Lyndon Johnson shifted the focus to equity with his Great Society program in the 60s. Reagan had limited success in shifting back to excellence after his A Nation At Risk report. And of course George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind act, in which all students are supposed to meet basic proficiency requirements, is a pure equity play.

While we are still firmly entrenched in equity mode, some are starting to raise the issue again and to question whether a sole focus here is (a) sufficient to ensure the future of the country, and (b) smart strategy in maintaining a relevant and valued education system. Rick Hess has this; Greg Forster points to the work of Hess and others here.

Let me state clearly: I believe in closing the achievement gap. I think every kid should have access to a good education and be given an opportunity to reach their potential. If they start school behind their peers (as many disadvantaged students do), we should help them catch up, providing them with a platform to excel.

But focusing solely on closing the achievement gap – putting all our political and financial focus there – means we’re not focused at all on helping the rest of the student population meet their potential. Hess shares an anecdote about the decision at Berkeley High School to eliminate after-school science labs and five science teachers so those resources could be redirected to struggling students. And that’s tremendously short-sighted.

While it is noble and good to serve the students who are behind, we ignore the rest at our peril. By denying opportunities for advanced students to meet their potential, we shrink the talent pool of future entrepreneurs, scientists, and tech wizards, at a time when our original high-tech product – the Sputnik generation – is retiring. That spells very bad things for the future of the US in economic terms.

This, by the way, is one of the core mismatches I see between district-level partnership efforts and the interests of businesses. The vast majority of partnership “asks” are focused on equity – providing supplies, mentors, and programs for those students with the greatest need. It’s consistent with district focus, so you can’t blame the partnership folks for focusing here. But if you ask businesses, they’re much more interested in nurturing the future talent pool (see this DeHavilland survey). And when you think about it, shouldn’t the partnership function focus exactly on areas that are not being served well by primary district efforts?

We’ll see if this conversation continues and gains traction; it’s a discussion that’s been had quietly within the business community for some time, and it would be good to see it echoed within education. Regardless of whether ed policy wonks pick it up, however, it would be wise for those interested in community/school partnerships to listen and change their focus accordingly.

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