Achievement vs Equity: A False Dichotomy

Note: This was originally posted on my personal blog on March 5, 2011
In education today, the term that best defines our focus as a nation is the word “achievement.” It’s where we focus our attention as educators, as administrators, as parents, and as policymakers. What’s nice about this word is that when students are not achieving, we can then talk about the “achievement gap.” It sounds clinical, something on a case specific level that could plausibly be addressed through concerted effort and applied resources. But whatever happened to the term “equity”? With the addition of that single word into the conversation, suddenly things get just a bit more complex. When we discuss equity, we are more explicitly acknowledging larger and deeper societal issues.
Like so much of the debate in education today, having to choose sides in such a matter of semantics is a false dichotomy. We can talk about achievement—and we should—because it enables us to discuss how every child is capable of achieving (though even here we must be careful: we must acknowledge that there are many different potential avenues of success). But we also have a critical need to talk about equity, for it allows us to acknowledge that not every child comes into a classroom with the cognitive and social skill-sets that will prepare them for success in that setting.
I think it would make all of our lives so much easier if we could just pretend that on the day a child enters a kindergarten classroom, they are a tabula rasa. From thereon, it would only be the simple matter of achievement—a perfect meritocracy, if you will. Alas, as we know quite firmly from research on early childhood development that this is most definitively not the case. Children are entering classrooms with quite wildly divergent capabilities in language, socialization, and cognitive skill-sets. Some children are positioned with the skills to succeed in an academic setting. Others are not. Hence the “achievement gap.”
The research is quite clear on the importance of early childhood development. The period of time before a child enters a kindergarten classroom is when they develop the foundations of language, socialization, and other cognitive skill-sets that can better allow for academic development. Students who are raised in high poverty homes typically are deficient in these skill-sets. They have not been exposed to a wide range of vocabulary nor experiences that will position them to easily adapt to the classroom setting.
Here it becomes easy to target parents, and many people often do. We descry parental lack of values and concern for the welfare of their children. But I see this is as akin to blaming Chernobyl victims for living near a nuclear factory. If there are chronic problems in our society that center around issues of high poverty, we have to look at these problems as problems of society, not simply as problems of individuals. In other words, we have to examine—dispassionately–the root causes of parental negligence, and seek to create structures and nurture conditions that will alleviate these causes.
In seeking to create structures of redress to these social issues of poverty, community environment, and parenting, we need to talk about both achievement and equity. We can’t pretend that the playing field is equal, but we can’t pretend that students in poverty can’t succeed, either. Both of these realities must be recognized alongside of each other.

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