I’ve been invited to give a talk—and was asked to provide a reading—on educational equity, by an equity team in a local high school. I couldn’t find anything short enough and comprehensive enough, so I rewrote this post. The person who asked me had already read it and knows I’m a philosopher, so she knows what she’s getting. What follows is a slightly longer version of what I’ve written for teachers’ consumption (my wife told me to cut out the long Rothstein quote, but I like it, so it’s back in for CT; she also told me to remove a list of promising reforms, which I haven’t reinserted). It is different enough from the original post that I thought I’d post the revised version here:
The draft of Madison Metropolitan School District’s Strategic Plan Statement of Beliefs says “We believe that academic achievement is not predicted by race, class, disability, sexual orientation, gender or home language.” The draft of the strategic priorities contains the related comment that “we will eliminate the achievement gap by ensuring that all students reach their highest potential.” These comments might suggest a full-fledged commitment to educational equality. But in fact the word “equality” never occurs in the drafts – instead, the beliefs draft says that “resources are critical to education and we are responsible for their equitable and effective use.” Why equity, rather than equality? What does it mean to close the achievement gap? And how responsible are schools for doing it?
If the only unequally distributed good to which education provided access was money, then the case for giving a lot of weight to educational equality would be weak. But, in fact, it turns out that education influences who gets many unequally distributed goods that we all value: interesting and meaningful jobs, the self-fulfillment that such jobs enable people to enjoy, the status that they bring to people, control over the course of one’s life and over day-to-day aspects of one’s life, the freedom from stress that goes along with that, better health and, eventually, the greater longevity that accompanies better health. Since education mediates the competition for all these things the case for giving a lot of weight to educational equality is strong.
The problem is that if we take the fairness argument to its logical conclusion, we seem to reach a very radical principle of educational equality. It is not only unfair that some people are born into worse social circumstances than others; it is also unfair that some people have talents that are less valued by society than those of others. Some would say that it is unfair that some people are born with seriously cognitive disabilities, whereas others aren’t. Certainly nobody thinks that people with severe cognitive disabilities deserve them. In that case it looks as if educational equality demands equal outcomes for ordinary children and children with severe cognitive disabilities, so that they can compete on a level playing field for the benefits to which education provides access. In other words the reasoning supports the following:
Radical principle of educational equality: An individual’s prospects for educational achievement should be a function neither of that individual’s level of natural talent nor of her social class background.
In other words, as the draft of MMSD’s beliefs nearly puts it, “academic achievement should not be predicted by race, class, disability, sexual orientation, gender or home language.” But this principle faces a serious objection. Even spending enormous resources on the cognitively disabled wouldn’t suffice for preventing disability from predicting achievement; we’d have to seriously demoralize and disable ordinary children – leveling down their achievement to the best that those with severe cognitive disabilities can manage. And that sounds absurd
In the face of this objection I, personally, cheerfully hold on to the radical version of the principle of educational equality. This is because I think that it is only one of several principles governing social justice in education, and some of the other principles are more important than educational equality. Here are some examples:
1) A principle upholding the psychological and physical integrity of the person is vital to justice, and prohibits disabling the cognitively normally-abled.
2) It is more important to arrange social institutions to maximize the prospects for a flourishing and enjoyable life of those whose prospects are worst than it is to ensure educational equality. In so far as we can improve the conditions of society to benefit the worst off by training the talents of the talented and getting them to put those talents to work, that’s what we should do. This gives us a powerful reason to foster the talents of people who are likely to develop the wealth and technology that can improve the lives of, for example, the severely cognitively disabled.
3) A flourishing family life is extremely important, and so measures (like removing all children from their children at birth and subjecting them to equally good educational experiences in some sort of super-orphanage) that would implement educational equality at the cost of seriously jeopardizing familial relationships would be wrong.
The point is that we should admit that there are many moral considerations, and there is a hierarchy which helps us to decide what to do in the circumstances. But the fact that one value is more important than another in some circumstances does not imply that the less important value is not important at all. Just that there are limits on what we should do to pursue it.
All this helps us to understand why education scholars and administrators started talking about “educational equity”. Scholars seem to use ‘equity’ as a kind of signal that they are concerned to promote educational equality but that they are not monomaniacal about educational equality, recognizing that it is just one important principle among many, and also signaling that they don’t want to get into a deep philosophical debate about exactly what the other principles are or about how much weight they should have. It means, in other words, something like this:
Children should have roughly equal prospects for educational success, but there are all sorts of limits on what we can, and all sorts of limits on what we are permitted to, do to achieve this, and it is very hard to articulate or get agreement about exactly what those limits are so we’re not going to try and get much more precise, because right now there are some quite practical measures we can and should pursue to make things somewhat more equal than they are.
Adopting a principle of educational equity usually signals giving some priority, in state and district-level policy, in the policies and design of a school’s instructional mission, and in classroom practice, to raising the prospects for achievement of the lower achievers, but allowing appropriate room to give some weight to improving the achievement of other students, and to compromise with the barriers that will be placed in the way of improving low-end achievement.
So the phrase ‘educational equity’ helps people to evade the long philosophical discussions about exactly how to understand “educational equality.” This makes sense because prospects for achievement in America are radically unequal, much can be done to make them more equal without violating other values, and schools could not make them completely equal even by violating other important values.
Educational equality and equity are moral values, or principles of justice. So debates about them can, understandably, get fraught; disagreeing about the importance of equity is disagreeing about something fairly fundamental, and moral in nature. This is a very different sort of disagreement, though, from disagreements about what sorts of practices and policies one should adopt to implement equity. I’ll mention three disagreements about in-school practices:
- Full inclusion instead of special-education classes
- Differentiation within heterogeneous classes instead of tracking or skill-grouping within subjects
- The demand for culturally-relevant curricula and hiring more African-American and Latino/a teachers
The demands for full inclusion, heterogeneous classes, and culturally relevant curricula and more minority teachers are sometimes treated as if they are, themselves, principles of justice, and educators sometimes feel inhibited from having open and deliberative discussions about them for fear of being thought to have the wrong values. But in fact people who share exactly the same values will disagree about exactly which practices to adopt because these are complex and nuanced judgments based on empirical evidence the implications of which are not self-evident. Take heterogeneous classes (in high school) for example. The evidence we have suggests that tracking has usually been bad for equality; but this has usually been because schools have given less priority to the achievement of the children in the lower tracks than those in the higher tracks. This is unsurprising in an environment in which schools are accountable to parents, and the parents of the higher achieving kids are more able to press their demands than those of the lower achievers. If children were sorted into skill based groups, and more experienced teachers were assigned to smaller classes with the lower skill groups, that might be better for equality, and perhaps better for the pursuit of other values, for all we know, than heterogeneous classes, especially if heterogeneous classes are suddenly established without large-scale investment in preparing teachers to differentiate effectively within the classroom. Or think of the demand to hire more African-American and Latino teachers. No-one I know of says that we should hire fewer – even the conservative commentators Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom say that we probably should hire more – but the evidence suggests that children from racial minorities perform best when they have well qualified, experienced, and highly skilled teachers regardless of their race suggesting that getting skilled and experienced teachers should be prioritized over getting same-race teachers if what we care about is educational equality.
Think, finally, about full inclusion. Inclusion is interesting because there may be quite difficult trade-offs within the principle of equality. We owe a lot to the cognitively disabled, but we also owe a lot to children from families which are multiply disadvantaged. Including cognitively disabled or emotionally disturbed children in a class of highly motivated upper middle class children may well do little to inhibit the achievement of those children, and even if it does we might say that is a price worth paying for equality; but including them in a class largely populated by children who come to school not well-prepared to learn and who have great difficulty concentrating may damage those children’s prospects quite a bit, and those are children whose bad performance is part of the problem of inequality.
I’m not trying to advocate for or against any particular policy here; just pointing out that these are policy choices rather than value judgements. Which practices help us to implement equity, and move toward equality, depends on which improve the achievement of lower achievers more than that of higher achievers in the particular circumstances in which they are adopted. This is not a question of values, but a technical question, answering which requires considerable evidence and a good deal of judgment (because the research is almost never unequivocal and is never ever about a school in your exact circumstances). Treating inclusion, or heterogeneous classes, as if they are matters of principle, rather than difficult technical judgments, makes it harder for people to learn and think responsibly about them.
How practical is it to demand that educators and schools take up the task of implementing educational equity? This is what school leaders and policymakers do when they demand that schools “close the achievement gap”. Just as the phrase ‘educational equity’ demands interpretation, so does the phrase “achievement gap”. In fact there are numerous achievement gaps; but the two current foci are the gap in achievement between children from different racial groups (and, especially, between white children on the one hand and African-American and Latino children on the other) and the gap in achievement between children from different socio-economic backgrounds. There are, furthermore, two different ways of understanding what that gap is. Some people worry about correlation between social class or race and achievement at all levels – in other words, they think that race and class should have no influence at all on levels of achievement. Others worry mainly about the influence of race and class specifically on educational failure; that is, they demand just that no-one should fail because of their social class or racial membership.
The principle of educational equality demands that race and class have no influence at all on achievement. But if this is what policymakers are demanding, it is strange to think that schools, and especially high schools, where children spend only the four years of their childhood in which they are the most difficult for adults to influence, are the sole appropriate instrument. As Richard Rothstein puts it:
If you send two groups of students to equally high-quality schools, the group with greater socioeconomic disadvantage will necessarily have lower average achievement than the more fortunate group.
Why is this so? Because low-income children often have no health insurance and therefore no routine preventive medical and dental care, leading to more school absences as a result of illness. Children in low-income families are more prone to asthma, resulting in more sleeplessness, irritability, and lack of exercise. They experience lower birth weight as well as more lead poisoning and iron-deficiency anemia, each of which leads to diminished cognitive ability and more behavior problems. Their families frequently fall behind in rent and move, so children switch schools more often, losing continuity of instruction.
Poor children are, in general, not read to aloud as often or exposed to complex language and large vocabularies. Their parents have low-wage jobs and are more frequently laid off, causing family stress and more arbitrary discipline. The neighborhoods through which these children walk to school and in which they play have more crime and drugs and fewer adult role models with professional careers. Such children are more often in single-parent families and so get less adult attention. They have fewer cross-country trips, visits to museums and zoos, music or dance lessons, and organized sports leagues to develop their ambition, cultural awareness, and self-confidence.
Each of these disadvantages makes only a small contribution to the achievement gap, but cumulatively, they explain a lot.
If what policymakers are demanding, however, is that schools address, narrow, or close, the achievement gap in the second, weaker, sense of eliminating failure, then that seems more feasible. This must be what the drafters of the MMSD strategic priorities mean when they say “we will eliminate the achievement gap by ensuring that all students reach their highest potential.” After all, if some have more potential than others then getting them to realize their highest potential will result in inequality of achievement. But nearly every child has the potential to be literate and enjoy reading, to be financially literate, to enjoy being artistically creative in some way, to speak a second language proficiently, to cook home meals, to play complex and enjoyable games and sports, and to understand something of the history of their country and some other countries as well as the basic workings of the institutions that frame their lives. It is not only reasonable for high schools and educators to demand of themselves that they make sure that every child reaches certain goals, but it seems odd that they would be satisfied with less. (This is really what my dad is talking about here).
How might schools and education policymakers help to eliminate educational failure? By tapping into the knowledge we have of the ways that disadvantaged children can learn better, and by directing the productivity gains yielded by feasible school improvement partly to disadvantaged students. Failure probably cannot be eliminated by schools acting alone, and teachers and school leaders have reason to resent the assumption, sometimes made, that the rest of society bears no responsibility for helping to raise the floor of achievement. But it does seem that a good deal can be done by educational policymakers and schools, and much of this can be done while schools simultaneously ensure that other children achieve at a high level
 The actual version says “academic achievement is not predicted by race, class, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or home language”. The use of “is not” makes the statement just false; empirically some of the factors do, indeed, predict academic achievement. An aside to CTers: the reluctance to use openly moralized language is not unusual, especially in these sorts of documents, but I still find it a bit bewildering especially when it leads to statements that are so obviously false on any natural reading of them.
 CTers might note the absence of discussion of culturally relevant curricula. I’ll figure out what to say about that some other time.