When Educational Equity Descends Into Educational Nihilism

As students return to school amidst the ongoing disruptions and dislocations of COVID-19, public officials should be focused on providing students the high-quality instruction and support they need to get up to speed. Unfortunately, some officials seem more intent on excusing inadequate instruction. This summer, Kate Brown, governor of Oregon, signed a law repealing the state’s requirement that high school graduates be able to demonstrate an ability to read, write, and do math at a high school level. A spokesman for Brown explained that the state needed “equitable graduation standards,” ones which would benefit “Oregon’s Black, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.”

Well. I have trouble thinking of an educational policy more threatening to any state’s “Black, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color” than the suggestion that it’s fine for them to graduate without being able to read. It seems patently offensive to suggest that expecting high school grads to be literate and numerate is racially suspect, or that we should abandon such expectations when it comes to minority students.

The threat of such a policy is especially severe against the backdrop of the pandemic, a time when low-income and minority students have been hit particularly hard by a year and a half of haphazard remote learning, stop-and-start schooling, and socially distanced interaction. If students are to recover from the staggering disruptions of the pandemic, schools need to buckle down to engage and educate kids — not lower (or eliminate) expectations in the name of “equity.”

And yet we’ve seen a growing conviction in portions of the American left that the fight for “equity” is less about concerted efforts to help students catch up and excel than a destructive crusade against the very idea of expectations and excellence. This nihilistic notion of equity fueled California’s move to eliminate advanced-math instruction and the Oregon education department’s urging that teachers learn to abandon “racist” math practices like asking students to “show their work” or worry about “getting the ‘right answer.’” It even prompted the National Geographic Society to discontinue its 33-year-old, iconic “GeoBee” competition, pointing to the organization’s “increased focus on racial justice.”

What’s going on? To be blunt, too many grownups have thrown in the towel. Indeed, many of the same advocates, officials, and foundation executives who just a few years ago cheered Common Core and Obama’s Race to the Top for their commitment to “rigor” now nod along when the leading lights of anti-racism insist that expectations are nothing more than tools of systemic racism. Now, I’m well aware that plenty of parents and educators are troubled by this nihilistic notion of equity — but I’ve also heard from many who are hesitant to say that out loud, for fear of being tagged as “racist.”

This development marks a troubling break with the recent past when right and left agreed about the perils of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” While regular readers know that I found the sweeping, bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act born of that consensus to be a mess, its spirit represented a powerful, shared conviction that every student should (at least!) learn how to proficiently read, write, and do math, and that we must reject those who would set different expectations for students based on their color or creed — whether fueled by bigotry or misplaced benevolence.

Now, in 2021, Oregon’s Democratic leaders are telling high schools to cut kids loose, whether or not they’ve learned the things high school grads need to know. Worse, they’re claiming they’re doing these students a favor — even as they condemn barely literate 18-year-olds to dead-end jobs and civic disempowerment. And these officials are far from alone.

The frustrating thing is that most reasonable people — right and left — understand the perils in all this. When pollsters ask adults about the primary purpose of education, most say that it’s mastery of “core academic subjects” for students in K-12 and mastering “skills for future employment” in high school. High school grads need to master certain skills, and schools and states should be ensuring that they do.

That’s my take. If that brands me as an opponent of “equity” in 2021, then we’ve got a problem. After all, I just don’t know many educators or public officials — no matter how committed to equity — who really want to spend their time excusing illiteracy, innumeracy, and ignorance.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.