Equity Punishes Our Best Students
Excellence should be the standard.
Something to keep in mind when discussing education is that each case really is different. Each district, each campus, each class, and each student—each brings its own set of challenges, and each requires a specific approach from a teacher. If educators are forced to have a one-size-fits-all mindset for students, not only do many students fall short of their potential, but achievement gaps between students actually become wider.
The equity agenda in schools has been a failure. Although the goals of closing achievement gaps and bringing every student up to grade-level standards are commendable in themselves, the fashionable means of achieving these ends and the aspiration to “equity” have devastated the quality of public education for all students. In trying to make America’s public-school students equally excellent, educators have lost sight of what makes students excellent in the first place.
Equity advocates have conducted a war against tracking, i.e., grouping students by ability, specifically blaming advanced academic programs that cater to high achieving students for achievement gaps and poor outcomes. Since advanced classes are dominated by white and Asian students, while more black and Hispanic students fill up on-level classes, activists argue tracking results in unequal, and therefore racist, learning outcomes. It thus follows that removing these advanced classes kills two birds with one stone: ensuring more equal outcomes (i.e., “equity”) and boosting the general average of students’ academic performance.
According to a recent report from RealClear Investigations, this has become an increasingly popular rationale and method for implementing the equity agenda in schools. Against the wishes of most parents, school leaders have dissolved advanced programs, lowered academic (and behavioral) standards, and imposed diversity quotas for campuses. While this has made classrooms more racially diverse, it has also unfairly punished high achievers and created classes of wildly different ability levels.
More tragically, it has made the learning gap worse. According to assessment data for students in these equity-focused schools, “divergence between the high and low performers widened significantly” and “scores for the weakest students fell in both subjects and in both grades.” While it is true that the high achievers who are kicked out of advanced classes boost the general average of classes and diversify class makeup, on-level class issues persist after eliminating tracking. Troublemakers continue to disrupt classes, low achievers continue to underperform, and the achievement gap stubbornly refuses to go away. Moreover, the high achievers—if their parents haven’t pulled them out of public schools already—will eventually see little point to working and either do the bare minimum or start disrupting the class out of boredom.
In practical terms, the consequences of this are classes with lots of group projects, few grades (which are always inflated to reduce failures), and no objective assessments that would expose the ever widening learning gaps. Differentiating teaching strategies for a mixed group of students spanning multiple grade-levels of proficiency is next to impossible. High-achievers will be given independent study or be enlisted to tutor the low-achievers, and the low-achievers will not receive the help they need because their teachers are too busy trying to meet everyone in the middle.
In response to the obvious failures of removing all advanced academic courses, many proponents of equity in education have now started to argue for simply eliminating tracking in the junior high grade levels (6th–9th grade), which they believe will then encourage more underrepresented students to take A.P. classes in their final years of high school. This strategy can be seen on display at Culver City High School in California, and I have observed this at a number of middle school campuses here in North Texas.
Yet the results for this half-measure follow the same pattern. High achievers twiddle their thumbs until their final two years of school, and low achievers stay where they are. Later, the same kids take the same high school courses they would have despite there being no pipeline beforehand: “Despite school officials' concerns about equity, it's worth noting that despite teachers' concerns, black students were almost exactly proportionally represented in A.P. courses—just one percentage point off.” The only real difference is that the kids taking A.P. courses are now significantly less prepared than they would have been otherwise.
I propose going in the opposite direction to address inequity in education: Instead of merging two tracks into one, schools should consider adding two more tracks to better accommodate different kinds of students.
Most of the problems affecting academic performance happen in the on-level classes (the default track for most campuses), which are dragged down by four types of students: students who don’t want to work, students with learning impairments, students with behavioral problems, and students who struggle with showing up. These four are usually the minority of the typical on-level class, while average students who just didn't want to take advanced courses make up the majority. This arrangement forces the teacher to attempt to differentiate instruction for five different groups, which usually translates to dumbed down instruction.
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Creating two lower tracks would address this problem directly. The slackers and slower students could be placed in a remedial class that moves more slowly and includes more scaffolding for concepts and skills, and the disrupters and truants could be placed in a credit recovery program that reduces content to essentials so that these students get a basic education without bringing down everyone with them (to save money, schools might even consider doing remote learning for these students, as I argue here).
Meanwhile, students in the on-level tracks could finally receive quality instruction with real assessments and meaningful grades. And honors classes could be genuinely selective with incoming students and not merely serve as a refuge for kids trying to avoid the chaos of on-level classes. It would be a win-win for both groups who will now enjoy classes that are much better suited to their ability.
Would this arrangement be more “equitable”? Well, the vast majority of students, who are currently enrolled in on-level classes, would benefit the most. This may not be enough to satisfy the activists who want perfect parity between all students, but their goal is ultimately inhuman, and when race becomes their only criteria for measuring equality, it is positively racist. Each student is different, and each will excel at different things in different ways. We shouldn’t seek to eliminate those differences and teach to the bottom, all in the name of equity—which, in too many cases, really amounts to envy. We should recognize the differences between students and offer each an appropriate track that minimizes disruptions and maximizes productivity and growth, all in the name of excellence.