There is a scene in the movie “The Incredibles” where Dash, a child gifted with superhuman speed, is running in a race against his peers. His family is in the stands is cheering him on until he goes too fast. Then, they yell at him to slow down so he doesn’t make himself too conspicuous. He follows their instructions but slows down too much so they yell at him to go faster. This sequence continues until he finally finishes, not first, but in second place. While the purpose of Dash holding back his natural ability in this animated story differs from the equity initiative in public schools, it is an excellent example of what equity does when applied to the classroom setting.
One would be hard-pressed to find anyone in America today who doesn’t support the principle of equal opportunity for all students. However, ensuring that every student is provided with equal opportunities varies greatly from the notion that schools should ensure equal outcomes for all students. Imagine being a student who is gifted academically only to be told you don’t qualify for selective schools, scholarships, awards, or accolades because of immutable characteristics such as race or gender. Imagine teachers encouraging and celebrating some student achievements while ignoring or discouraging other student achievements in order to “even the playing field.” Imagine being a policy-maker for tens of thousands of students and deciding to lower expectations for all students academically and behaviorally so the data reflects equity when the reality is really mediocrity for all.
The largest school district in Kentucky is striving to do just that at the expense of pursuing excellence. The Jefferson County School District (JCPS) passed a Racial Equity Plan in May of 2018 that focuses on equal outcomes in academics and discipline, among other areas. According to NAEP, “The percentage of students in Jefferson County who performed at or above the Proficient level was 30 percent in 2019. This percentage was not significantly different from that in 2017 (30 percent) and in 2009 (26 percent).” Less than 10 percent of students performed at the “Advanced” level from 2009-2019. With the largest percentage of students performing at or below proficient level, which direction do you think “equity” will take the district?
Equity does not encourage excellence. It does not cultivate a desire to strive above and beyond the average. The result of equity is satisfaction with mediocrity and the stifling of those driven to pursue more. JCPS is just one example, but there are others across the country that encumber the natural abilities and gifts of some students in order to bring about “equitable outcomes” for all students. Ironically, some schools will celebrate high student scores on assessments, touting their special programs and initiatives, while simultaneously pushing to eliminate such evaluations because they are considered “inequitable”. Rather than figuring out what leads some students to excel, they simply get rid of the metrics that measure success.
The Olympic Committee would never dream of telling Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, or Florence Griffith Joyner that their competitors were going to get a head start in their races in the name of equity. They would never consider getting rid of the timing devices that measure their speed. Coaches and athletes did and still do, however, study the training regimes of these highly successful athletes and implement their effective strategies. The result was increased performance across the board. While few people are born with the natural athletic abilities of these individuals, every athlete will get stronger and better by following their sequence for success. This same concept should be applied to schools. Ian Rowe discusses this “Sequence of Success” in his book, Agency. There are ways to raise student achievement and the likelihood of success later in life for all students that don’t require lowering standards or expectations for anyone.
People are unique individuals with diverse talents and abilities. Schools would serve students far better if they provided the foundational skills and content knowledge to individuals while encouraging them to discover and cultivate their strengths and interests. Thomas Sowell wisely stated, “If there is not equality of outcomes among people born to the same parents and raised under the same roof, why should equality of outcomes be expected—or assumed—when conditions are not nearly so comparable?” Schools can’t control the conditions students are born into but they can encourage them to pursue excellence in everything. It won’t bring equal outcomes but it will bring stronger, better students and, eventually, adults.