Doing Educational Equity Wrong

In the pursuit of something good, there are potential wrong turns

A paper stamped with the word "Excellent" and a grade of "C"

This is the final article in a series on doing educational equity right. See the introductory post, as well as ones on school finance, student discipline, advanced education,  school closures, homework, grading and effective teaching.

For the past several months, I’ve been pumping out posts about “doing educational equity right.” Given that Eight is Enough, it’s time to wrap things up. Let’s conclude with a twist and look at three ways that schools are doing educational equity wrong:

  1. By engaging in the soft bigotry of low expectations.
  2. By tying teachers’ hands without good reason.
  3. By acting like equity isn’t just an important thing, but the only thing.


Equity as an excuse for the soft bigotry of low expectations

A recurring theme of this series is how misguided it is for schools to lower expectations for students “because equity.” Of course, the schools and the elected officials, advocates, and journalists who embrace these practices don’t say they are expecting less from students, but that’s precisely what’s happening.

It’s most obvious in the world of advanced education, such as when districts refuse to let anyone take Algebra in middle school because not everyone is ready for Algebra in middle school. The backlash to this mindset is growing, thank goodness.

But other examples abound and unfortunately continue to be lauded in polite company. For instance, the notion that it’s inequitable and unfair to grade, or even assign, homework because some kids don’t have a quiet place to complete assignments away from school. Just examine this idea for a moment. Do we really believe that lots of American families are so dysfunctional that they can’t figure out a way to clear a space for their kids to do their math problems? Or that teenagers can’t find a place—a community library, the school library, even a McDonald’s—where they could get homework done? Why are we infantilizing kids and their parents like this?

Same goes with policies that allow students to turn in assignments late without penalty. Are we trying to teach kids to procrastinate? To teach them that real life doesn’t deal in accountability and consequences?

Or take school discipline. Plenty of well-meaning people who would never say “we can’t expect poor kids and kids of color to learn fractions—it’s just too hard” are more than happy to argue that we must accept all manner of student misbehavior because of poverty or systemic racism. Journalists might be the worst at this. Just last week, a major article from the Hechinger Report decried the use of suspensions and the like for “subjective infractions like defiance and disorderly conduct.” It’s one thing to be concerned about bias in meting out penalties for disruptive behavior. But as my colleague Daniel Buck wrote, in the real world of classrooms, this leads to paralysis from officials in the face of flagrant, over-the-top, disrespectful behavior by kids. And to misery for their teachers.

Permitting low-level defiance—defining deviancy down in this way—facilitates and fosters more severe misbehavior. If a student comes to learn that adults can be ignored and rules flaunted, behavior escalates. A balled piece of paper is thrown, a teacher asks the offender to move seats, but he refuses. The next day, he’s wandering around the classroom singing. The teacher asks him to sit, but he refuses. Eventually, he’s wandering the halls, telling teachers to “fuck off” if they ask him to return to class, so most don’t. Many other students have joined in the fun, and now there’s cacophony in the halls. Students in class question why they must listen to adults if they don’t want to when other kids get to flaunt the rules. Rowdy, unmonitored halls mean more chances for student conflict and fights.

Surely we can agree that all students, regardless of the challenges they face due to poverty or racism, should be expected to treat their teachers respectfully and comport themselves in a reasonable manner. Teachers in other nations would be aghast if told they had to accept this sort of treatment as part of the job. Indeed, I bet 99 percent of these kids’ parents would be alarmed, if not angry, to learn that their kids were being allowed to behave so atrociously in school.

“Defining deviancy down”—whether in academics, homework, grading, or behavior—will only let our students down. We should stop doing it.


Tying teachers’ hands

Another big mistake some equity advocates make is reducing teacher authority and autonomy for no good reason. To be sure, educators shouldn’t always have carte blanche to do whatever they like; bias is real and it’s one reason we’ve worked to get high, consistent academic standards in place and required teachers to follow them—ideally with the help of well-aligned, high-quality instructional materials. Again, to push back against the soft bigotry of low expectations.

But too often advocates force educators to teach with one or both hands tied behind their backs—refusing to let them use time-tested, effective practices because they conflict with recent preachings of the high church of educational equity.

For example, some districts don’t allow elementary teachers to group students by achievement levels when teaching reading or math, and many more have moved to “de-track” middle school and high school courses, getting rid of “on-level” courses and putting everyone into (wink-wink) “honors” ones. Now imagine you’re a seventh-grade teacher. If your class is typical, your students enter your classroom at achievement levels ranging from third through eleventh grades. So your helpful district-provided instructional coach suggests that you cope by “differentiating instruction.” You might as well ask them for some magic beans so you can grow a sky-high beanstalk while you’re at it. Certainly they’re guilty of magical thinking.

Most research finds that grouping students by achievement tends to help everyone learn more, especially if those groups are flexible and continuously re-mixed. But because progressive education dogma declares any form of grouping or “tracking” to be suspect, we make life dramatically harder for teachers and make learning dramatically less effective for kids.

There are plenty of other examples. Telling teachers they can’t send disruptive students to the office and making them engage in lengthy “restorative justice” circles instead. Mandating minimum grades of 50 percent even when kids don’t turn in research papers or show up for tests. Not letting teachers dock students for missed homework assignments or refusing to participate in class discussions.

Constrained teachers are disgruntled teachers—which is bad for everyone and bad for equity.


Is equity like winning—the only thing that counts?

Finally, some educators and advocates act as if equity were the one and only value in education worth pursuing. I think this comes from a good place; no doubt our system has a long and sordid history of mistreating poor kids and kids of color. A swing of the pendulum was long overdue, and erring in the direction of equity is no terrible crime. But policies and practices that ignore everything else—and everyone else—will prove harmful and unsustainable.

So what are the other values that matter—or should, in our universal public education system? I would put excellence at the top of the list. That means doing right by our high-achievers, who hold particularly great potential for solving our world’s problems and boosting our economy someday. But it also means striving for excellence in everything that schools do, from the basics of teaching and learning, to tutoring and counseling, to extra-curricular activities and more.

A commitment to excellence need not conflict with a drive for equity. Indeed, as I wrote last year, excellence is not the enemy of equity. It’s mediocrity that is the enemy of equity as well as excellence. So we must raise the alarm when “equitable practices” promote mediocrity instead.

Another important value is efficiency. Even America’s relatively well-funded public education system doesn’t have unlimited resources. Trade-offs are inescapable. But we’ll be more likely to land on effective approaches if we look for practices that promote equity and excellence and efficiency. When it comes to discipline and student behavior, for example, it’s not enough to come up with strategies that might be ideal for the disruptive kids. We also must protect the learning environment of their peers and consider the demands on teachers’ limited time.

So it is with the difficult issue of under-enrolled schools. Equity advocates may want districts to avoid closing schools with high proportions of poor kids and kids of color. But if those are the schools with dwindling student populations, such an outcome may be unavoidable—again, because excellence (getting kids into better schools) and efficiency (not wasting money on tiny campuses) matter, too.

Equity advocates shouldn’t be myopic. Balancing their impulse for fairness with concerns for excellence and efficiency will make it more, not less, likely that they will achieve their goals.


* * *

I don’t want to end on a sour note. These many months (and words) spent digging into educational equity make me optimistic that common ground can be found, even on contentious issues. If we assume positive intent, look for practical answers, and avoid getting hung up on culture-war fights over language, we can move beyond the squabbles and toward solutions. Let’s do educational equity right—and let’s do it now!

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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