A Guide to Unpacking an Ideological Suitcase

Throughout the past two years, I have been involved in leading the Building Bridges Initiative, a collaborative effort to unite education reformers across the political spectrum. One of the most enlightening moments in our discussions was when a participant introduced the concept of a “suitcase word.” Like a suitcase, such words may appear the same to everyone, but each person has their own interpretation of the contents. To avoid misunderstandings and conflicts, it is important to unpack these words and ensure a clear understanding of the concepts at hand.

Suitcase words are prevalent in political conversations and in K–12 education, including terms like “social justice,” “parental rights,” and “accountability.” However, the most significant suitcase word of all is undoubtedly “educational equity.” In the coming weeks, I aim to delve into this phrase and explore what it truly means to achieve educational equity (with a double meaning intended).

From my experience, “educational equity” elicits different reactions from my friends on the left and right sides of the political spectrum. Their suitcases contain vastly different ideas. For those on the left, the phrase represents commendable efforts to help low-income and minority students succeed by addressing historical and ongoing injustices. It entails ensuring that marginalized students have access to schools, teachers, and instruction that are equal to, if not better than, those enjoyed by their advantaged peers. To those on the left, it is perplexing why their counterparts on the right are triggered by this phrase.

However, conservatives view the phrase with apprehension, as they fear a shift away from “equality of opportunity” towards “equality of outcomes” in American society. This concern stems from assertions, like those made by Ibram X. Kendi, that the remedy for past discrimination is present and future discrimination. Additionally, any racial disparities are automatically labeled as racist, according to this perspective. Conservatives perceive this as an oversimplification that disregards personal responsibility, individual agency, and meritocracy. It also opens the door to policies they oppose, such as affirmative action and income redistribution.

So, while liberals view “educational equity” as a means to support underprivileged students, conservatives associate it with Kendi-style discrimination, wealth redistribution, and a sense of accusation and implied guilt.

Nevertheless, if we were to unpack the suitcase, we might discover some common ground. For instance, very few people, regardless of their political leanings, would defend a funding system that consistently allocated more resources to schools serving affluent students compared to those serving low-income students. Nor would many disagree that educating economically disadvantaged students effectively requires additional funding compared to their more affluent counterparts. This is the essence of the “equity” versus “equality” argument. Equal funding for all students is insufficient; high-poverty schools need extra resources to mitigate the disadvantages they face. Consequently, there is agreement on the need for school funding reforms that provide adequate and equitable resources to high-poverty schools, a position embraced by states across the political spectrum.

Identifying alternative words to use in place of “educational equity” will not resolve all our ideological debates. These debates have existed for a long time and will persist. However, what we can strive to do is identify specific education policies and practices that embrace a form of “equity” capable of garnering broad support across the ideological spectrum and benefiting a large number of students. Let me propose three guidelines for achieving this.

1. Instead of lowering standards, aim to raise them when pursuing equity. Instead of adopting an approach that makes all students equally unable to learn, we should strive to avoid restricting access to advanced educational opportunities in the name of equity. This would have negative consequences for high-achieving students, as well as perpetuate low expectations for those with lower academic performance. We should always aim to raise the bar, not lower it, whether the goal is narrowing achievement gaps, diversifying gifted programs, or reducing grading bias.

2. Prioritize closing the gaps between affluent students and their disadvantaged peers, rather than focusing on the disparities between high-achieving students and lower-achieving students. While economically disadvantaged students tend to have lower academic performance due to the challenges they face in poverty, it is important to recognize that not all economically disadvantaged students underperform academically. By implementing policies that prioritize the needs of low-achieving students over high-achievers, we create a double disadvantage for high achieving, low-income students. There is no moral or societal justification for such an approach, especially considering that these high-achieving, low-income students have the greatest potential to utilize excellent schools and selective colleges as pathways to upward mobility and successful careers.

3. Concentrate equity initiatives primarily on socioeconomic class rather than race. It is important to clarify that efforts to combat discrimination must remain race-conscious in accordance with longstanding civil rights laws. However, when the focus shifts from ensuring fair treatment to providing an advantage to disadvantaged students, caution should be exercised in defining disadvantage solely based on race. While it is relatively easy to justify directing additional funding to high-poverty schools, it becomes more challenging to justify providing extra resources to upper-middle-class schools with predominantly Black students. Socioeconomic disparities are closely correlated with racial disparities in education. Therefore, we can largely achieve racial equity through class-conscious but race-neutral approaches.

I understand that not all left-leaning advocates will be completely satisfied with this approach, but it will attract broader support from the center and the right.

In future posts, I will examine how these guidelines can be applied to debates on school funding, accountability systems, advanced education, school discipline, career and technical education, and grading reform.

Stay tuned!

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