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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Equity & Diversity Opinion

Am I Anti-Equity? You Decide

When it comes to education, the agents of “equity” have lost the plot
By Rick Hess — November 08, 2023 5 min read
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Over the past couple years, Pedro Noguera and I have done scores of events, webinars, and media appearances in which we’ve discussed our book A Search for Common Ground. One theme that inevitably comes up, just because it’s unavoidable in today’s educational landscape, is the issue of “equity.”

Someone will ask about equity. Pedro, as befits an education school luminary, will talk about how we can do better by kids who’ve been marginalized, overlooked, or left behind. And then I’ll nod along as Pedro speaks and say, “Yeah, I’m good with that. But I’m deeply concerned that the push for equity has taken us into goofy territory where ‘pro-equity’ ideologues are doing destructive, inexcusable things.”

And then, depending on the topic, I’ll offer a couple examples of what’s being done in the name of equity. California has sought to eliminate advanced-math classes and bar kids from 8th grade algebra because of equity. In “grading for equity” schools, students encounter no consequences for missed assignments or lousy work because of equity. Teachers have been urged to abandon math practices like expecting students to find the correct answer because of equity. My local school system in Arlington, Va., directed teachers not to cover new content for three months in 2020 because of equity. School systems have eliminated honors classes because of equity. School leaders have hidden word of students’ academic awards because of equity. Academic experts assert that teaching “2+2” is problematic because of equity.

Invariably, when I offer these sorts of examples, most (or even all) in attendance wind up saying something to the effect of, “Yeah, well, I agree that’s silly. But that’s not what this is about.”

To which I’m invariably tempted to say, “That may not be what you want it to be about. But, it seems to me, this frequently is what it’s about.” If this isn’t what most people think “equity” is supposed to mean, they need to confront the ideologues and poseurs who are doing destructive things in its name.

The other week offered another textbook instance. Back in 2021, Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, signed a law repealing the state’s requirement that high schoolers be able to pass reading, writing, and math tests in order to graduate. A spokesman for Brown explained that the state needed “equitable graduation standards,” ones that would benefit “Oregon’s Black, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.”

As I observed at the time, “I have trouble thinking of an educational policy more threatening to any state’s ‘Black, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color’ than the suggestion that it’s fine for them to graduate without being able to read. It seems patently offensive to suggest that expecting high school grads to be literate and numerate is racially suspect.”

In any event, back in 2021, it was promised that the state’s education brain trust just needed a year or two to retool the requirements into something more equitable and refined. Everyone was assured that it would just be a couple of years during which schools would be graduating students whether or not they’d been adequately educated. Well, not so much. In October, the Oregon state board of education opted to suspend the graduation requirement until at least spring 2028. After hemming and hawing in the face of extensive public pushback, the board ultimately decided it was more “equitable” to send illiterate young people out into the world than to ensure Oregon’s graduates could read, write, and do math at a high school level.

Setting aside Oregon’s decision, my persistent frustration in all of this is the shape-shifting nature of equity. For a term that gets used in every mission statement and school district missive, every other research article, and every third education headline, it’s remarkably hard to get a straight answer on what “equity” actually means. Oh, sure, I’ve been walked through all the colorful graphics depicting kids standing on boxes at a fence or under a tree (with the cartoonish distinctions between “equality” and “equity” and so forth). But, in practice, whenever I raise specific concerns about how equity is being applied, I’m told that is, of course, problematic but “that’s not really equity.”

If a school’s disciplinary policy makes classrooms chaotic and kids feel unsafe, is that “equitable”? What about a pedagogical approach that prioritizes struggling readers while leaving students on grade level to fend for themselves? Or a “grading for equity” policy that leads students to cut corners because they can get good grades without doing the work? I don’t see how any of these outcomes are especially “equitable.”

Ultimately, “equity” is often treated as a magic word—it’s all the good stuff. If something is dumb or destructive then, by definition, it’s not a manifestation of equity. Here’s the thing: Too often, that doesn’t strike me as a fair or accurate description of how equity plays out in practice. I think we’re at the point where that term obscures more than it reveals.

I think we’d be better off if we treated the term “equity” like the term “innovation” (which I encourage educators to regard as a four-letter word) and instead focus on what we actually mean. For instance, I believe that high school grads need to master certain skills, and schools and states should be ensuring that they master them. I believe that students should learn to work hard, turn their work in on time, respect their teachers, and feel challenged. And I think this should be the expectation for all students. If that’s consistent with prevailing notions of equity, that’d be news to me.

If that stance means I’m an opponent of “equity,” so be it. If that’s the case, I think champions of equity have some hard thinking to do. But I don’t think that’s actually the takeaway. I think the real lesson is that the agents of “equity” have frequently got so caught up in the rhetoric, spectacle, and conceit of the thing that they’ve lost the plot.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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