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Curmudgucation: Is It Really Equity vs. Excellence?

Mike Petrilli (Fordham Institute) just published a piece about "The True Enemy of Equity," and while it makes some useful points, it misses a critical issue. 

Petrilli is spinning off a Stephen Sawchuk piece about how "equity" has become a "trigger word" and includes the quote “Equity may be the law, but we don’t agree on what it means.” Petrilli agrees that equity is a Good Thing to which the nation should aspire, and yet...

I can understand Sawchuk’s confusion because, properly construed, the call for greater equity can and should command widespread support from Americans across the ideological spectrum. A potentially unifying argument might go something like this:

In a great country like ours, we should aspire for every child to grow up to achieve his or her full potential. Anything less is a waste of talent and a blemish on human dignity and flourishing.

Searching for the reason this is not a unifying theme of our nation, Petrilli notes that we know that inequity starts between birth and age 5, so equity work ought to address those years. The left, he says, has been working hard there, though he argues the right can contribute as well, mostly by supporting the "success sequence" (he doesn't use those words, but that's what he's describing--family stability, marriage before parenthood, etc). 

Then, he says, schools have to back that up. "Schools," he writes, "may not be able to overcome all the damage of poverty, family instability, and their associated ills, but they can do a lot." And so we arrive at his central point.

Educational equity, then, means providing children, and especially poor children, with excellence—excellent instruction, excellent curricula, excellent teachers, excellent tutoring, excellent enrichment. Some of that costs more money in high-poverty settings, so yes, educational equity demands that we spend more public dollars on the students who need it most.

The greatest enemy of equity, then, is mediocrity....

Note what is not an enemy of equity: excellence. Indeed, far from it—excellence is the antidote to inequity.

He thinks the solution to Sawchuk's puzzle is this-- that "equity advocates" have turned the notion into a "trigger word" by "arguing that excellence is indeed the enemy."

By their line of thinking, anything that helps a subgroup of children achieve at high levels, or even just celebrates that achievement—such as gifted-and-talented programsexam schools, or National Merit Scholarships—is at war with equity. These advocates see equity as a zero-sum game. Rather than focus on helping every child achieve his or her potential, potential that inevitably varies from individual to individual, they seek a world in which the outcomes children achieve are closer to equal—even if that equality comes by leveling-down the high achievers.

There's no doubt that there are folks out there who, in the name of fairness, want to Harrison Bergeron the hell out of everybody and slap every fast runner in a pair of cement shoes. I met plenty of them when I was in the classroom. But that's only a slice of the issue. The real heart of it is this--

Who gets to define excellence?

Petrilli's own piece includes multiple examples of anti-excellence that are highly debatable, from decisions blocking charter schools to rules that keep schools from retaining their best young teachers to test scores (and the full on baloney flap about Virginia schools that aren't "celebrating" students with a fourth place get-no-prize finish on the PSAT). I don't want to go down a rabbit hole of arguing each of those, but I want to note that, on the subject of excellence, we keep having this conversation:

Pat: The [SAT/exam school/gifted program/etc] is biased and favors students from particular backgrounds. It's not really measuring excellence.

Sam: Why are you opposed to excellence?

I absolutely agree with Petrilli that mediocrity is an enemy of equity--especially when we slap a medal on it and call it excellence.

Look, this is not a new issue. In English, much of what we think we know about the most excellent words to use and the most excellent way to pronounce them is simply because of the belief that the most excellent people in London used language in a much more excellent way than the poor folks out in the sticks. Things like the notion that Latin-based language is more elevated and excellent is an artifact of cultural and historical events.

"Excellence" is inevitably defined by the dominant culture. I'm not arguing that it has no meaning at all, but its meaning is slippery, and if we are not careful, it is a hugely biased and tilted playing field. Excellence can only exist in response to a set of standards, and those standards are always human-made--sometimes consciously and sometimes not. Those standards cannot be treated as if they were plucked full-blown on stone tablets from the heart of a burning bush. 

So I agree with Petrilli when he writes 

John Gardner once asked if we can “be equal and excellent too.” The answer is an unequivocal “yes!” And in the domain of racial equity, the way to do that is to ensure that all children, from every racial and ethnic group, get what they need to live up to their full potential.

But "get what they need" is doing so much heavy lifting there. 

I also agree that programs like gifted and talented programs should exist (though often they involve giving a select group of students opportunities and supports that all students ought to get). But if that gifted and talented program seems to mostly include certain sorts of students from certain backgrounds, somebody had better back up and take a look at what standards are being used. 

Unquestioned belief in a particular measure of excellence, particularly when that measure is a bad one, can cause a great deal of damage (insert here everything I've said about the Big Standardized Test in the last ten years). But--and here I am agreeing with Petrilli again--that doesn't mean we should never make the attempt to identify, locate, support and celebrate excellence, even as we regularly examine our measures of excellence and the values that we have embedded in them. 

That discussion--what is excellence, how do we spot it, how do we support and celebrate it--is one of those education discussions that will never ever end, and it should very much be tied to a never-ending discussion about equity. 

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...