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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Is 'equity' the enemy of excellence?

The "exodus of families from traditional public-school districts is a warning message," writes Jessica Levin on EdPost. Focusing exclusively on "equity for academically struggling, marginalized students" may come at the expense of high achievers, including talented young people from Black, Brown or low-income families.

Parents worry schools are lowering expectations and rigor to "narrow achievement gaps," Levin writes. They may be afraid to say so aloud for fear of being called "anti-racist," but they're thinking it. And leaving for schools that balance equity with excellence.

A co-founder of Education Leaders of Color, Levin worked at TNTP and at the U.S. Education Department.

"High-achieving early-elementary students who are low-income or Black are more likely than others to lose ground as they move through school," she writes. "Of low-income first graders who score in the top 25% on reading tests, about half will fall below that quartile by fifth grade."

Schools are held accountable for "getting low-performing students up to a 'proficiency' bar, while ignoring the gains or losses of higher performers," Levin writes. In many schools, one teacher is told to to “differentiate” instruction to meet the needs of students performing at as many as nine-to-eleven grade levels, she writes. The "shameful history of tracking" makes it hard to discuss research showing that "more structured, performance-based groupings -- either within one or multiple classrooms -- benefit higher-performing students, without hurting, or possibly even helping, other students."

More recently, we can see the quest to bring up low-performing and vulnerable children morphing into concerted efforts to dismantle advanced learning opportunities for higher achievers, including selective schools, gifted programs, honors classes or other opportunities for acceleration well beyond gifted programs. For example, recently on the chopping block: selective-admissions middle schools and elementary gifted programs in NYC; accelerated middle and high school math classes (and the most coveted selective high school) in San Francisco; fourth through sixth grade advanced learning programs in Boston; the accelerated cohort program in Seattle.
Many cities which have retained their selective schools, Chicago, Fairfax County, and Philadelphia among them, have significantly expanded their admissions criteria, eliminated admissions tests, instituted a partial lottery and/or added other requirements to ensure geographic and/or economic representation.

However, eliminating tests closes an avenue to higher-level education opportunities for minority students, who may not be seen as gifted by teachers, writes Levin. "When Broward County, for example, tested every student for entrance to its gifted programs, it increased the entrance rate of Latinos by 130 percent and of Black students by 80 percent."

Limiting achievers' opportunity to excel doesn't help other students, she argues. We need to nurture the talents of our best students in elementary, middle and high school. Levin also takes on “equitable grading strategies” that eliminate "homework deadlines, extra-credit, late penalties, and even grades."

"Are we eliminating tests and grades to mitigate, or merely mask, achievement disparities?" she asks. "If we expect less of all children, will they give us less? Which workplaces will consider it acceptable to repeatedly show up late or decline to complete tasks on time?"

While there was a massive exodus of parents from traditional public schools during pandemic school closures, significant enrollment declines are continuing, with kindergarten classrooms taking the biggest hit (beyond what demographic changes would predict). One parent survey, for example, shows that between spring 2021 and spring 2022, there was a nine percent drop in families saying their children were enrolled in traditional public schools.

"School systems must understand which of their policies may be driving away their families," she concludes. "Enrollment declines mean less overall school funding which leaves struggling students with even less."

Who gets to be brilliant? asks Autumn A. Arnett, executive director of The Brilliance, Excellence, and Equity Project. "It is estimated that there are nearly 1 million Black and Hispanic students missing from gifted education in the United States — because educators don’t know how to identify and assess giftedness in Black and Hispanic students," she writes.

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