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Scholars: Equity, Competitiveness Agendas Can Be at Odds

By David J. Hoff — May 08, 2007 4 min read

Given the choice between policies promoting economic competitiveness or educational equity, politicians will almost always choose the former, two prominent policy analysts say.

Efforts to improve mathematics and science instruction are supplementing what schools already do, they say, while equity-driven efforts are trying to force schools to change radically. Politicians trying to court voters are more likely to choose the easier approach.

Frederick M. Hess

“It’s disruptive. It’s unpleasant. People don’t want to do it,” Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said of accountability measures in the federal No Child Left Behind Act that are intended to promote equity.

By contrast, economic-competitiveness programs attempt to upgrade schools across the board by improving the quality of teachers and curriculum. But they don’t have accountability attached to them.

“We’re talking about things that produce less gut-wrenching change,” Mr. Hess said during a May 2 panel discussion at the AEI’s Washington headquarters.

Andrew J. Rotherham

In the end, Washington politics undermines aggressive equity initiatives, either by abandoning them or watering them down, added Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of the think tank Education Sector and the co-author of a paper with Mr. Hess on the topic.

“Doing the tough work on equity … has upset the special interests,” particularly teachers’ unions, Mr. Rotherham said.

This year, Congress is considering significant measures aimed at improving U.S. economic competitiveness and educational equity. The 5-year-old NCLB law is scheduled to be reauthorized, and President Bush and leading lawmakers on education policy are working to meet that deadline.

The House and the Senate recently passed separate bipartisan bills to shore up competitiveness. Among a host of other provisions, those bills would seek to recruit new math and science teachers and improve the skills of existing ones. (“Math-Science Bills Advance in Congress,” May 2, 2007.)

Mr. Rotherham said that a competitiveness measure is more likely to be enacted this year than the reauthorization of the NCLB law.

Serving Both Aims

But one thing that the No Child Left Behind law has going for it, Mr. Hess said, is that it has significant support among powerful politicians and influential advocates outside Congress.

“There is still a passionate coalition focused primarily on the equity agenda,” he said, citing President Bush, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller are the chairmen of, respectively, the Senate and House education committees.

“NCLB and the Competitiveness Agenda: Happy Collaboration or a Collision Course?,” January 2007, is available from the education journal Phi Delta Kappan.

In the past, though, federal officials have clearly chosen economic competitiveness over equity, both Mr. Rotherham and Mr. Hess argued at the AEI event. The discussion centered on an article that the pair wrote for the January issue of the education journal Phi Delta Kappan.

Mr. Rotherham and Mr. Hess are frequent collaborators, but they sometimes disagree over the best approach to policies. Mr. Rotherham, a former education adviser to President Clinton, is more likely to support government interventions to help schools, while Mr. Hess favors free-market approaches.

Their organizations also play different roles politically. A major goal of Education Sector is to provide independent analysis of policy issues, while the AEI takes conservative stands on issues, particularly in foreign policy.

The two scholars’ argument is generally accurate, respondents on last week’s panel said, but differences between the economic- competitiveness and equity agendas aren’t cut and dried.

For example, the $12.7 billion Title I program—the NCLB law’s biggest program—distributes funds widely across school districts, said David Goldston, a visiting lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a former aide to the House Science Committee.

What’s more, past and pending competitiveness bills include provisions aimed at improving the achievement of low-income students, said David L. Dunn, the chief of staff for Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

The current bills include programs to expand the number of Advanced Placement teachers in schools serving disadvantaged students and for interventions for students struggling with mathematics, Mr. Dunn said.

“They are very clearly targeted to address both issues,” he said.

Even if the distinctions between competitiveness and equity goals are blurred, policymakers are more likely to choose programs that don’t challenge school officials to make radical changes, Mr. Hess and Mr. Rotherham stress.

The competitiveness proposals are more likely to create supplemental programs that would allow schools to conduct the work in a slightly different way, Mr. Rotherham said. By contrast, the NCLB law’s accountability measures are forcing school officials to identify schools that fail to meet adequate-yearly-progress targets for students in reading and mathematics.

Because that law’s accountability rules require schools and districts to track the progress of students across racial and ethnic categories, suburban schools with stellar academic reputations are often failing to meet their achievement goals. Formerly, shortcomings among some subgroups of students were often masked by strong overall achievement.

“The push-back on No Child Left Behind is greatest in the suburbs,” Mr. Rotherham said.

And for lawmakers, that’s where the votes are more likely to come from, Mr. Hess said.

“The voters tend to be in suburbs,” Mr. Hess said about the NCLB law. “They tend to be in the middle-class schools. … Most public officials have a natural tendency to placate the people who show up.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2007 edition of Education Week as Scholars: Equity, Competitiveness Agendas Can Be at Odds

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