Equity (n.): the quality of being fair and impartial
Equality (n.) the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities
Several years ago, during a conversation with a school administrator and two parents, we discussed reasons why the student could not bring her laptop to our public school to assist with class work. The student was experiencing some visual processing delays from mild dysgraphia and the addition of the laptop and its keyboard would have been a reasonable accommodation. After the familiar refrain from the IT point-of-view that the addition of another machine on the network would be problematic, the conversation finally got to it’s fundamental precept. It would not be “equitable” for this child to work on a laptop because other students in the class did not have access to the same equipment. That laptop would, somehow, become a symbol of elevated status or accomplishment.
The final word from the principal was, of course, ”no.” The parents and I left the meeting shaking our heads at the intransigent culture of a public educational system that promotes ‘equity’ at the expense of differentiated instruction and common sense.
This meeting had a lot to do with the transformation in my thinking about equity in the months that followed. In retrospect, with the ubiquitous nature of all things digital in 2012, the outcome of the meeting seemed oddly quaint. The change in my thinking came not as some gigantic ‘aha’ moment or instant epiphany. It was morphed by snippets of dialogue and bits of observation over years. It came gradually, almost as a surprise.
Over the course of the last decade, as I continued to pursue my teaching career into thirty, then forty years, I began to understand that our national quest for excellence in education through fairness and impartiality, a.k.a. equity (read ‘standardization’), has failed our kids, our teachers, and our national psyche. Believe me, there is no one on the planet more committed to diversity and the advancement of the under-educated than I am. But, at the risk of being labeled a misguided misanthrope, or worse, I offer that equity in regard to public education is a myth.
Falling well behind other industrialized nations on international tests of academic performance, failing to graduate 25% of our high school students, and prescribing irrelevance to curriculum and tedium to instruction is the legacy of our decades long move to cookie-cutter educational practice. By conscientiously striving to “leave no child behind,” we have gravitated toward the mean (read ‘average’) and institutionalized mediocrity. Teachers are admonished to teach to and practice for the test. Gifted and capable students languish in uninspired classrooms that do little to stimulate their intellect, while students who struggle, and who may (or may not) reach yearly Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) benchmarks, receive the lion’s share of support from faculty and funding from burgeoning special education budgets.
Can targeting the lowest performers at the expense of the best and brightest be considered equity? If a laptop device is nixed because it will provide “unfair advantage,” then how is extra test prep for those who require it not the same? Unfair? Inequitable? This is a question I see emerging as we roll out the second phase of NCLB, conveniently and equitably renamed “The Common Core.”
What are the realistic gains if this targeted population of basic or below basic students (read children of poverty or having immigrant parents) beats the odds and grows academically on this high stakes measure? (And, given extra time, and intense effort and practice, we absolutely expect that they will.) What if they actually do catch up? Meet AYP scores? We celebrate! But the best and brightest will have progressed, too; usually on their own time and in their own ways, despite their stultifying classrooms. The real achievement gap, the gap between kids who are proficient and advanced and those who are basic and below, the gap that is rendered insignificant by benchmark testing, remains. As long as we have standardized testing on non-standardized students, the gap will remain. There will never be equity in schools.