Equity & Diversity Commentary

Can Equity and Excellence Coexist?

By Charles V. Willie — October 01, 1997 12 min read

Charles V. Willie is a professor of education and urban studies at the Harvard University graduate school of education in Cambridge, Mass.

On June 15 of this year, President Clinton, speaking at the University of California, San Diego, issued a call for “a great and unprecedented conversation about race” in the United States. A week earlier, he had appointed a seven-member advisory panel headed by historian John Hope Franklin to guide efforts over the coming year to promote such a national dialogue and to devise concrete strategies for addressing lingering issues of discrimination. The project, which is to include town hall meetings and other public forums beginning this fall, will culminate with the release of the distinguished panel’s report to the president next summer.

With the following Commentary, Education Week begins a yearlong series of essays aimed at locating the particular role of schools in affecting, for good or ill, the nation’s racial and ethnic harmony. The series also will provide glimpses of how diversity and the cultural issues that surround it have changed educational institutions over the past three decades and what such institutions can do to help resolve the problem Mr. Clinton terms “the unfinished work of our time--to lift the burden of race and redeem the promise of America.”

According to the theory of complementarity, some attitudes, actions, and events ought always to be kept together. Among these, for example, are love and justice, stability and change, excellence and equity. The two go well together. Despite or because of differences within their couplets, each component rounds out the other and gives rise to a new harmonic whole. In great hymns, voices in the treble and bass clefs often move in opposite directions and in so doing make a wonderful sound.

With reference to education, our society has violated the theory of complementarity during the past few years. We have become obsessed with excellence and have neglected to also cultivate equity, its complement. Consequently, educational planners and policymakers have emphasized standards and qualifications, which are indicators of excellence, and ignored fairness, which is an indicator of equity.

Excellence has to do with individuals, and equity is a property of groups. Individuals and groups, like excellence and equity, ought always to be examined together. One without the other is incomplete. Social and behavioral science analysis has revealed that effective individuals all have group affiliations, and groups, of course, consist of individual members. Yet our society, in recent years, has chosen to emphasize the rights of individuals over the responsibilities of groups. We know that rights and responsibilities coexist in an effective society, but have forgotten that these may coexist effectively if the concerns of individuals and of groups are respected and attended to.

There are countless indicators of excellence in American education. Of the 41,610 doctoral degrees awarded by research institutions in 1995, for example, 21 percent went to foreign nationals with temporary visas. When foreign nationals with permanent visas are added, the proportion of foreign students graduating with doctoral degrees from U.S. universities that year reaches one-third. Is it likely that our institutions of higher education would be flooded with international students if our total educational system was as mediocre as reported by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983? Is it also likely that U.S. scholars in science would walk away with the highest proportion of Nobel Prizes for physics during the 1980s if we had “squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge,” as the commission charged in its seminal report, A Nation at Risk?

Any public policy today that hampers the opportunity of people of color to obtain higher education is contraindicated.

While a goal of the national commission was “to help define the problems afflicting American education,” my conclusion after 14 years is that its solutions were based on a misdiagnosis. And the misdiagnosis was this: The commission believed that excellence could be achieved without paying attention to equity. For example, it recommended that “four-year colleges and universities raise their requirements for admission.” This, of course, was designed to promote excellence. Although probably unintended, it is also likely to have a chilling effect on efforts to increase the number and proportion of minority students who attend four-year colleges and universities, which is an equity issue. Any public policy today that hampers the opportunity of people of color to obtain higher education is contraindicated, since the fact is that the number of whites ages 14 to 17 is projected to grow through the closing years of the century by only 6 percent, compared with 21 percent for Hispanics and 18 percent for blacks. This is the age group from which colleges and universities must pick their students and from which industry and commerce must choose their educated workers. If people of color are barred from four-year colleges because these institutions have raised their standards as the commission recommended, this nation will reap the whirlwind of a less adequate labor force.

We know that historically black colleges and universities enrolled slightly more than a quarter of a million students in 1994. This number is only 2 percent of all students in higher education nationwide. Yet one-third of all African-Americans who received bachelor’s degrees in 1994 received them from historically black colleges, despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of African-American women and one-half of African-American men had scores in the lowest quartile of SAT or ACT distributions of test-takers. That a disproportionate number of blacks with bachelor’s degrees received them from historically black colleges and universities and that a majority of these degree-holders tested in the lowest quartile of standardized admission tests are important facts.

Probably more important is the finding by the Patterson Research Institute of the United Negro College Fund that black and white college graduates had comparable starting salaries in their first jobs after receiving a college degree (with white men earning maybe 10 percent more than other beginning workers). Given this equitable outcome for African-American college graduates who had such a bumpy start in terms of test scores when they entered college, one wonders why the National Commission on Excellence in Education recommended raising admission standards rather than enhancing teaching skills or developing better learning strategies. To raise standards higher without planning for ways of helping students who cannot meet these higher standards is to pander to excellence without also promoting equity.

Not to pursue a two-fold goal aimed at excellence and equity is inappropriate. The national commission acknowledged this and said, in effect, we cannot permit equity to yield to excellence or excellence to yield to equity. To favor either goal alone, according to the commission, could lead to “a generalized accommodation to mediocrity in our society on the one hand or the creation of an undemocratic elitism on the other.” Having acknowledged the complementary nature of excellence and equity, the commission violated its own understanding and focused its recommendations largely on matters of excellence, seeming to forget about equity.

In fact, none of the commission’s recommendations mentioned equity issues, despite the fact that several school districts were still under court order to achieve unitary status or equity in distribution of their educational resources by race when A Nation at Risk was issued. The report uttered not a word about school desegregation and the equity it fosters.

My concern for raising this issue of excellence and equity is that educators still are on the fringe of school reform efforts.

Willis D. Hawley, now the dean of education at the University of Maryland, said at the time that gains in education are associated with the school desegregation movement. I fully agree with him. Among the gains that have come through the school desegregation equity movement are increased opportunities for special education students, who now must be accommodated in the least restrictive learning environment; protection for students who speak English as a second language, who cannot be excluded from school as they were years ago; increased physical education opportunities for girls and women, including their greater participation in sports; linkages between schools, colleges, universities, and museums, businesses, and cultural and social service institutions as ways of enriching educational offerings; construction of new schools and rehabilitation of older buildings; new student-assignment methods such as “controlled choice"; and finally, the introduction of magnet schools with unique curricula available to all students on the basis of their interest, not limited to a few gifted, talented, and high-achieving students.

Many naughty things have been said about courts for intervening in public school systems to promote desegregation and guarantee justice for various population groups not treated fairly in the past. Despite the harsh rhetoric, the consequence of court intervention has put our public school systems nationwide on the justice track. If we understand justice as love in action, then the outcome will have been worth the hassle and hardships of court supervision.

Ralph McGill, the famous former editor of The Atlanta Constitution, said that the phrasing of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education “rationally anticipated that the knowledge and skill of educators ... would assume direction of the process of desegregation.” This, however, did not happen. Mr. McGill observed that many school desegregation plans were created “not by educators but by political officeholders and lawyers” and “hardly met the test of equal protection of the law.” Such planners, Mr. McGill said, “took a [court] decision delineating the rights of [all] children ... and dishonestly distorted it.”

My concern for raising this issue of excellence and equity is that educators still are on the fringe of school reform efforts. My guess is that educators have been slow to give direction to reform because they have been too busy with matters of professional status and less concerned with matters of equity. They have made a Faustian bargain with the public that is coming back to haunt them. According to the legend, Dr. Faust sold his soul to the devil in exchange for youth, knowledge, and magical powers. In exchange for prestige and status from the public, educators have made a Faustian bargain to absolve the public from any major responsibility for inequality in education.

The late James S. Coleman told the public back in 1966 that “the school appears unable to exert independent influences to make achievement levels less dependent on the child’s background.” In other words, the influential Coleman Report was saying, family background imposes a constraint on the opportunity to take advantage of educational opportunities. That claim was music to the ears of people who were opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Brown decision of 1954. The equality that these legal instruments sought to achieve was misguided if family background, rather than school practice, was the prevailing determinant of achievement and other adaptations of children.

It is not the desegregation movement that has harmed schooling. Rather, it is the continuous bashing of public education by educators that has been most harmful.

Formulation of the theory of family determination and education during the latter half of the 20th century is not unlike formulation of the theory of family degeneracy and mental illness advocated by French psychiatrists during the latter half of the 19th century. The theory of degeneracy absolved society of any contribution to mental illness, since those ill were predisposed because of “bad heredity” or “immoral lifestyles.” And, of course, the schools were not responsible for ignorance and lack of achievement because of the predisposition of children to receive or reject education due to their family background.

It is not the desegregation movement that has harmed schooling. Indeed, as I have pointed out, this movement helped education become more equitable. Rather, it is the continuous bashing of public education by educators that has been most harmful. There is evidence that one goal of this bashing during much of the century has been to gain more resources and prestige for the teaching profession. Educators have exonerated society for its culpability in providing inadequate education in exchange for rewards and respect for the teaching profession. But the plan did not work out as intended. In bringing down their students as a group, teachers also harmed their own professional status.

Rather than endearing teachers to the public and causing greater appreciation of their efforts, the work of the National Commission on Excellence in Education backfired. I have analyzed, by five-year intervals from 1955 to 1990, the rank order of funding for public services by all city governments in the United States. Education ruled the roost and received the largest proportion of city government funds each year through 1980. Following the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983, education fell, in 1985, from first to fourth place in terms of the amount of funds spent for a local service. By 1990, police protection received the highest proportion of city funds, and education lagged behind in third place. If a cause-and-effect relationship were inferred from these variations and associations, it would be a sad and regrettable conclusion that the harsh criticism of education by educators may have contributed to undermining public confidence in public schools.

I wish now to say directly what I have suggested indirectly: that school desegregation has been wonderful, although difficult, and has contributed more to education reform than any other experience during the 20th century. School desegregation returned equity to the formula for public education that increasingly has advocated excellence only. It is by way of desegregation that our schools have been required to diversify their student bodies. This is an equity property. And diversity has been long recognized as the source of new ideas and creativity. Creativity, of course, is the property of excellence. There, you have it: equity and excellence. The two go well together. You can’t have one without the other.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1997 edition of Education Week as Can Equity and Excellence Coexist?


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