Equity and Excellence

Equity and excellence: those are two words you hear thrown around by education reformers of all stripes these days. Even the U.S. Department of Education just released the report of its “Equity and Excellence Commission,” with recommendations for improving public schools. So let’s consider those two words for a moment.

When I teach women’s history, we talk a lot about equity versus equality. And my students often struggle with the distinction. We’re accustomed to thinking about equality as the gold standard of liberty: equal pay, equal access, equal rights. But often it’s equity that we are after. In women and girls’ sports, for instance, Title IX protections have helped to level the playing field by providing more equitable access to sports opportunities and coaches, not by mandating equal spots on the football team. Equality implies sameness or equivalence. Equity, on the other hand, implies fairness and a sense of justice. There is an ethical consideration to the term.

The government’s new report acknowledges this point by emphasizing equitable funding for public education. Equitable, not equal. That means sometimes the poorest students need to get more. They deserve their fair share, not the same share. The commission looked at countries with high performing schools and concluded that they “take fiscal equity among schools as a given,” and that “there is agreement across the political spectrum in such nations that poorer students merit extra investment to surmount disadvantage.” [Final EEC Report, 2-2013. p. 14]

That’s an idea we need to get our heads around here in the U.S. – sometimes school districts with high concentrations of poor students (or special needs students or English language learning students) need additional resources. That means that the cost-per-student is going to be higher – indeed, should be higher – in a place like Pittsburgh, than Upper St. Clair. Pittsburgh has one of the highest per-student expenditures in the state and is struggling to reduce costs as it faces looming bankruptcy in 2015. But it’s time to stop asking questions like, “If Fox Chapel can do it for less, why can’t Pittsburgh?” and start asking, “What resources do our poorest students need in order to receive an excellent education?”

So I was glad to see the Equity and Excellence Commission list equitable school funding as its #1 recommendation. It also makes the case for high-quality, early childhood education, which is incredibly important. And the report emphasizes child poverty in the U.S. and the wrap-around services students need in their schools to address health and other needs. All good stuff.

I was less thrilled to see recommendation #2, which focuses on teacher quality. We can all agree that good teachers are terribly important. But the national obsession with “effective teaching” starts with the faulty assumption that we have a plague of bad teachers in our schools. I have yet to see any data that suggests this is the case. In fact, this report states, “Most of our current teachers are hardworking and effective and should be recognized for that. But a small proportion of our teachers do not meet minimum standards, and we must deal with that reality.” [p. 24] It also concludes, “The inescapable fact is that the majority of our teachers are competitive in international terms. Just a small portion is misplaced.” [p. 25]

If this is the case, I fail to see why the Gates Foundation and others are spending millions upon millions of dollars on teaching effectiveness (they were one of the financial sponsors of this report, along with the Broad Foundation, Ford Foundation, and several more). If we’re talking about “just a small portion” of teachers, why aren’t we spending our scarce resources – including time, energy, and public attention – on the things we know are massively affecting student learning, including first and foremost, poverty? To be sure, this report discusses poverty. But it commits far more pages to teaching (and the new Common Core Standards) than it does to school funding, wrap-around services, or even early childhood education for low income students.

Finally, let’s consider the word “excellence” in public education for a moment. At the Rally for Public Education last week, over 320 people gathered to demand excellent public schools for all our children. During the event, participants filled out postcards explaining what they believed excellent schools would look like if they were adequately and equitably funded. Not one person mentioned getting better teachers.

Instead, people wrote about getting more teachers and reducing class sizes. Restoring art, music, science, history, and foreign languages to all our schools. A full time librarian, and social workers and nurses in the building every day of the week. Instruments, field trips, supplies, books, tutoring, abundant healthy food, gym class, a community garden, a better playground, enough teachers to supervise recess, rest time for Kindergartners, full day Kindergarten, working computers, and an end to high-stakes-testing. I read through every single postcard and not one person wished for more effective teachers. One summed up the feelings of many, saying, “My son’s school has fabulous teachers – please let them teach!”

Now this is the grassroots’ vision of excellent public schools. In fact, one person said, “We don’t need excellent public schools – we need good enough public schools, for all our kids.” Indeed, this vision is not so much about excellence as it is about all of our students getting enough of what they need, so that they can have rich, learning experiences. This vision is firmly rooted in the principle of equity, so that our poorest students get everything from art to playgrounds – and more. If you listen to the people, you will hear that they are speaking loudly and clearly about both equity and excellence – and it’s a beautiful vision for public education.

3 thoughts on “Equity and Excellence

  1. I applaud your article. I heard something on NPR this morning; I think that it was referring to this study. Equity was mentioned, but still, as you said, the commentators also talked about quality of teaching. One point they emphasized was how U.S. students compared to those from other countries. They admitted that other countries with better scores do provide equitable (not equal) financing. The whole point is making sure that every child has a chance to learn, and has the help that he and she need. My kids graduated last year from Upper St. Clair H..S. I’m glad they were able to go there; they got the enrichment and help they needed. The students in less wealthy school districts deserve the same. The equity factor must be driven home! Just because the Gates Foundation thinks that teachers are the issue doesn’t make it true!

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