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Equity and Quality: Is it Possible to Get Both?

Much of the history of American education over the last half century or more can be seen as a struggle between those who favor quality and those who favor equity as the top priority for national education reform.  The stage was set at the dawn of the last century, when the battle was played out under the auspices of the National Education Association, not a union, as it is now, but the great tent under which American educators of all job descriptions were gathered.  At first the Committee of Ten, dominated by the leading college presidents of the time, won the day for a demanding liberal arts curriculum in our secondary schools, featuring mathematics, English, Latin, foreign languages and the sciences.  Not ten years later, they lost the battle they had so recently won to those who argued that the vast mass of workers and immigrant children were ill served by such an elitist curriculum, and it should be replaced by a curriculum much better oriented to their presumed capacity and vocational aims.  Later Sputnik would mobilize the country to insist on a much more demanding math and science curriculum to prepare an elite that could beat the Soviet Union.  Then, when the civil rights movement took center stage, the needs of minority and low-income students took top priority.  For a century, first one camp had the upper hand and then the other.  For a century, the United States behaved as if it was obvious that no country could excel on both agendas at the same time.  But what if that is not true?  What if it is possible that a country can top the charts in both equity and quality at the same time?  What if we have had it wrong for a century or more?

The OECD-PISA data answer these questions unambiguously.  On page 15 of their recent report, Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, there is a graph with the title "High performing education systems combine equity with quality." The X axis shows where the countries place on a dimension line formed by the percentage of variance in performance among the countries that is explained by the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (a measure of the degree to which socio-economic status predicts student achievement).  Countries in which socio-economic status is a relatively poor predictor of student performance are on the right and those in which it is a good predictor are on the left. The mean scores for reading achievement for each country are on the Y axis, with the low performers on the bottom and top performers on the top.  Fourteen countries, those that scored very well for reading achievement, but in which the socio-economic status of their students was a poor predictor of student achievement, are in the upper right quadrant of the chart.  These are the countries that top the charts in both quality and equity.  But the United States is not among them.

In fact, the United States just barely escapes being in the lower left quadrant of the chart, those that score worst on both quality and equity.  We are saved by the fact that our reading performance is slightly higher than the average.  Had the OECD used our mathematics performance, we would have been in the lower left quadrant, among the lowest performing countries on both dimensions.  So it is clear that it is in fact possible to do well on both goals at the same time.  But we are not even in the ballpark.  Why not?  What can we learn from the top-performing countries about what we should be doing?

The report identifies five places we should be looking for answers in the policy arena:

Postpone tracking until upper secondary: What they mean here is that, through grade 9 or 10, the top-performing countries typically have the same demanding curriculum for all students.  This means that they rarely do ability grouping.  Ability grouping, from grade one on, has long been a hallmark of American education.  These other countries have learned that, when students are assigned to ability groups at a young age, those assigned to the lower groups for several years have such an undemanding curriculum that they don't stand a chance of succeeding against a more demanding curriculum by the time they get to upper secondary school.  Their elementary and middle schools really are common schools.  They set high standards and expectations for all their students and those students meet those expectations.

Eliminate grade repetition: For a long time, we have moved our students through the grades whether they were ready for the next grade or not, on the theory that students who are held back are often so humiliated that they just give up.  But then we find that many who are moved ahead are not ready for the next grade and cannot do the work and many of these students give up, so we insist that they repeat the grade until they are ready.  But this is a Hobson's choice; both alternatives are very destructive.  What the top-performing countries have succeeded in doing is training their teachers to constantly assess their students, embedding that assessment in their curriculums, so that they can catch a student who is starting to fall behind very quickly; they also train their teachers to be very good consumers of research to the point that they can identify the right solutions for the students who are beginning to have trouble and get them on the right path very quickly.  They also tend to increase class size to the extent necessary to give teachers more time to give one-on-one assistance to students who need it and to plan how they are going to give each student the time and attention needed to make sure that he or she succeeds.  The solution to eliminating grade repetition is not pushing students ahead who are not ready.  It turns out to be making sure that all students are pursuing a demanding curriculum and all students are keeping up with that curriculum.

Make funding responsive to needs: The United States has a local school funding model that makes it virtually inevitable that the lion's share of our resources—our best teachers, our finest facilities, the most enriching activities—go to our wealthiest students and our poor and minority students get what is left over.  The top-performing countries typically make sure that the most resources go to the students who are hardest, not easiest, to educate.  No surprise that this makes a big difference when it comes to the chances that students from low-incomes and minority homes will achieve at the same level as students from well-to-do homes.

Manage school choice to avoid inequities: All over the world, we see school choice programs operating in such a way that parents with the time, money, ambition and resourcefulness to move their children to better-performing schools do so, and leave behind students whose parents are less resourceful, have less money and are not so ambitious for their children, creating larger and larger differences between the better-performing and worse-performing schools.  Many of the top-performing countries, however, place a high value on choice in schooling, but they have taken strong measures to make sure that their choice systems are as fair as possible.  Some move some of their best teachers and principals to some of their poorest-performing schools.  Others constrain choice when it is having unfair effects on equity.  Some vary those constraints based on the severity of the inequities they see in different locations.  There are a variety of strategies for dealing with these issues, but all of the top-performing countries that place a high value on choice find some way of leveling the playing field for all children as they design their school choice programs.

Design equivalent upper secondary pathways: In most of the top-performing countries, the common school ends around the age of 16, and then students pursue different pathways.  In most of the advanced industrial nations, there is very strong parental pressure on students to go to college.  But nations need balanced work forces and students have different talents and interests.  Top-performing nations find ways to make all the paths that lead to balanced work forces attractive to students, while at the same time making the barriers between those paths very permeable, so it is never too late for students who want to change paths to do so.  Some countries deal with this problem by simply declaring that all paths are equal, but this never works.  Others, as I said, work hard to make all of the different paths attractive. The top-performers realize that all education is vocational, in the sense that medical doctors have had a vocational education no less than the auto mechanic.  But not all vocations have the same status in society.  The most successful nations design their upper secondary school programs so that all paths lead to jobs that can provide a good living and a rewarding career.  One way to do that is to make sure that all tracks have substantial academic content and then make sure that all students have what it takes to pursue tracks with substantial academic content.  That way, there are no dead ends.  This stance stands in sharp contrast to the current situation in the United States, where at least a third of our students leave high school unable to enroll in their community college without having to take remedial courses in mathematics, English or both.

Yes, Virginia, you can have it all.  We can get high equity and high student achievement.  But we will have to go at it differently, very differently.
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