Education policy debates have long pitted supporters of equity against advocates for excellence. A report from a congressionally chartered commission suggests we can’t have one without the other.
“For Each and Every Child,” issued last week by the federal Equity and Excellence Commission, echoes the sense of urgency of the “A Nation at Risk” manifesto that came out 30 years ago. But its primary focus is on the dramatic inequality of opportunity that characterizes America’s schools.
“With the highest poverty rate in the developed world, amplified by the inadequate education received by many children in low-income schools, the United States is threatening its own future,” it says.
The 52-page report centers its recommendations on five themes: developing fairer approaches to school funding; training and retaining good teachers; expanding pre-school; mitigating the effects of poverty; and tying governance and accountability systems to the goals of equity and excellence.
The commission that produced the report was packed with influential figures: scholars, union and civil rights leaders and others. And the members seem determined not to let the report gather dust. They’re out doing media interviews and writing op-eds about their findings and recommendations.
Yet implementing their ideas will likely be a struggle. For one thing, state-level fights over charter schools, vouchers, teacher evaluations and testing are sucking up so much energy that it’s hard for anyone to step back and look at the big picture. For another, the increased federal role envisioned by the commission may be a non-starter with many members of Congress; and much of the public is weary of federal involvement after a decade-plus of No Child Left Behind.
It’s also arguable that the report covers too broad an array of policies in an attempt to win support from all 27 commission members. In places, it reads like it was built by a large committee.
“Forging a consensus on a panel with people holding vastly different views of what is important in school reform and the issue of equity must have been difficult,” Valerie Strauss wrote last week in the Washington Post. “The tension is obvious.”
The differences were on display last Friday in an NPR interview with panel members. Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor, emphasized disparities in school funding and teacher salaries. The Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek decried the fact that the U.S. trails other countries in comparisons of student achievement. It was almost like they were describing two different reports.
Media and interest-group responses have been similarly subject to the Rashomon effect. Is the report a call for national action a la “A Nation at Risk”? A rejection of standards-and-accountability reforms? A warmed-over serving of failed liberal ideas? A “muddle”?
Most readers will find parts they like and parts they don’t. It’s bullish on the Common Core State Standards, which won’t win over anyone who thinks they are a bad idea. It’s agnostic on charter schools, and it doesn’t delve into whether school choice is good or bad for equity.
I’m disappointed it doesn’t make a bigger deal of American education’s growing separation of rich and poor, what Jonathan Kozol has called “apartheid schooling.” It suggests federal incentives to help states reduce the isolation of poor children and promote diverse schools; but it never refers to segregation, despite convincing evidence that U.S. schools are growing more segregated.
But the commission is on target with its central point that anyone who claims to care about excellence – and American competitiveness – ought to care about equity.
“America can really catapult forward,” commission chair Christopher Edley Jr. told NPR, “if we make equity and narrowing these achievement disparities and these resource disparities, if we really make that a guiding principle.”