What exactly is this idea of equality, or equity as it is called in many public schools? A quick dictionary reference shows that both embody the concepts of fairness, egalitarianism, impartiality. Synonyms for equality encompass the concept of congruity, parity, and (Oh, yeah…) uniformity. One could argue that these ideals are essential to our democracy and have been written into our nation’s foundational documents for a reason. One could also argue – although many women would disagree – that legislation through the years has cemented the right to equal treatment for every American citizen regardless of ethnicity, creed, or gender orientation. Or that equality and equity mean equal access to classrooms, to educational supplies and materials, to special education services, and to instruction. But that’s where the concept of equity gets murky.
As one who has lived and breathed educational policy for over 4 decades, I have been an eyewitness to abject disparity from district to district, from school to school, and from classroom to classroom. Classroom spaces, adopted textbooks, and even access to technology can approximate congruence. But equity does not, and cannot, exist in a single school or school district in any state in our great nation regardless of its noble desire to be truly democratic. Kids do fall through the cracks regardless of a school’s determination to meet the physical, academic, and social-emotional needs of ALL of its students. This is why I believe equity, as harsh as this sounds, is simply unattainable. Here’s my reasoning:
- Students and their parents are not, and have never been, equal in what they contribute to the educational environment.
- Faculty, staff, administration, and school boards, as well as the states and municipalities that control funding are unequal in their benevolence in meting out educational resources.
- Regardless of the uniformity of curriculum spelled out in the Common CORE standards recently adopted by 47 of 50 U.S. States, and regardless of the standardization of assessment once these standards have been taught, students never receive the same caliber of instruction as another student in an adjacent classroom, let alone a district, city, county, or state.
- School environments – by their very nature – do not have the same access to supplies, materials, technology, or gifted or special education programming.
If you believe any of this is untrue, I have a lovely bridge in New York I’d like to sell you.
NCLB and Common Core legislation, and its mandates for performance equity in every public school, has done no demonstrable good. Standardizing curriculum, homogenizing textbooks and teaching methodologies, and uniformly credentialing teachers won’t magically make the learning experience for all students equal. Punitive responses to poor test results won’t suddenly make schools more competitive or students more likely to succeed. Like neighborhoods, where families coexist despite differing income levels, political attitudes, and traditions, school classrooms coexist within schools where differing levels of student behavior, engagement, and achievement are the norm, and where the caliber of teaching runs the gamut.
Pouring more dollars into practice packets and testing materials, mandating teacher in-service training, closing schools and reassigning staff from so-called “program improvement schools,” do next to nothing to assist students on their journey toward knowledge and understanding. However, meeting Maslow’s foundational needs; having adequate food, safe housing, warm, clean clothing, and care from an adult other than a selfless teacher, before the student even enters school, certainly would.
We’ve gotten our ‘-ity’s confused. We are thinking equity when we should be thinking priority.
For public education to be truly equitable, all families would have to start equally; with the same financial status, the same opportunities for advancement in job status, the same language skills, the same educational resources, the same… well, you get the drift. But that’s not how America functions in 2015.
Quite frankly, I don’t believe our country has ever really functioned with true egalitarianism, despite the lip-service government policies and officials sometimes give it. Our nation has chosen to develop social strata. That’s been our history. Perhaps not the best history. But in some strange and significant way that history — of ‘making it’ against all odds — might become our ally as we look for a pathway out of our current educational conundrum. Overcoming adversity through critical thinking, problem solving, and hard work is our national legacy. We can, and should, use that same tactic to overcome our slide into intellectual mediocrity.
Standardized curricula and tests geared to make school equitable have robbed a generation of their right to think creatively, to be curious, to become entrepreneurial, and to challenge the status quo. ‘Liberty and justice for all…’ should never be translated into ‘one size fits all.’ Forcing equity isn’t the antidote for under-motivated students, poor pedagogy, or failing schools. Inciting critical thinking is. Inspiring creativity is. Spurring curiosity is. Nurturing collaboration is. Promoting diversity and social justice is. Cultivating intellectual independence is.