Look Who’s Talking About Educational Equity

Look Who’s Talking About Educational Equity

Lyell Asher
Lyell Asher
6 min read

In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, college presidents scrambled to issue condemnations of racism, police brutality, and white supremacy. They often buttressed those condemnations with promises to expand their institution’s administrative bureaucracy. For instance, among other things, the University of Kentucky will institute cultural proficiency and diversity training for faculty and students, and install “diversity and inclusion officers” within each of its 17 colleges. Out west, the University of the Redlands issued an 18-point plan, including an “Activist Residence” program, racial climate surveys, anti-racism workshops, racial healing workshops, and enhanced hiring procedures and performance evaluations that will monitor contributions to “diversity and inclusion.” Similar plans are afoot in colleges across the nation.

However well intentioned, these programs will likely increase inequities rather than reduce them, and push the nation’s colleges still closer to the low level of its public schools. The reason? As I have explained before, most of the college administrators who work in offices promoting “Diversity and Inclusion” and “Equity and Social Justice” and the like have been credentialed by the same dysfunctional institutions that have monopolized the training and licensure of K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) teachers, principals, and superintendents for 50 years—education schools.

A century ago, Harvard president Lawrence Lowell described the university’s education school as “a kitten that ought to be drowned,” and in the decades since, successive studies have reached the same conclusion: Most of our training schools for K-12 teachers lack rigorous standards for admission, graduation, and research—but they’re filled to the brim with ideology.

Worse still are ed school programs in leadership, from which most student-facing college administrators now take their degrees. As early as 1987, when the focus of these programs was almost entirely on K-12 administrators, the National Commission on Excellence in Educational Administration recommended closing more than 300 of the nation’s 500 educational-leadership programs due to lackluster academic standards and professional irrelevance. Because these programs raked in tuition dollars, however, that advice was ignored.

Two decades later, a study undertaken by former Teachers College President Arthur Levine discovered that the number of leadership programs had actually increased by 20 percent. Their quality had not. “Inadequate to appalling” is how Levine rated the majority of programs in leadership and administration in 2005, and he highlighted economic incentives that were creating “an army of unmotivated students seeking to acquire credits in the easiest way possible.” Education schools met that demand with new doctoral programs that were “little more than graduate credit dispensers.”

This race to the bottom has only accelerated with the proliferation of degree programs for college administrators. A study from 2016 reveals that in the brief period between 2011 and 2014, directors of programs in higher education administration tended to reduce research and credit-hour requirements, remove program enrollment caps, and move more coursework online. So-called “executive” doctoral programs in higher education are the newest development, with classes taking place in monthly weekend meetings, in online modules, or in some combination of the two.

Remarkably, the less there is to distinguish ed schools from diploma mills, the more power their graduates have been wielding on college campuses—and not just over students. In the fall of 2018 San Diego State took the inevitable next step by creating several faculty positions in “Diversity and Inclusion” and “Equity in Education,” positions which will report to the ed-school-trained Associate Vice President for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion. More recently, ed schools at North Carolina State and University of Colorado at Denver launched, respectively, PhD and doctoral programs in “educational equity,” just in time to meet a rising demand.

It would be one thing if ed schools had demonstrable expertise in achieving the laudable goal of educational equity. Ideological bias and even low academic standards might be a price worth paying if the institutions had a record of helping low-income and minority students close the learning gap that exists between themselves and their more advantaged peers. But they have no such record—just the opposite in fact.

Their longstanding opposition to coherent, grade-by-grade, knowledge-based curricula, for example, is one of the reasons why colleges and universities have had to spend seven billion dollars a year on remedial courses in an attempt to get 40 percent of first-year college students ready for college-level work. For more than half a century, most ed schools have been in thrall to “constructivist” and “child-centered” theories of learning which stigmatize content-specific curricula as being intellectually stultifying and politically repressive. So it’s no surprise to learn that a recent call to “defund math and STEM” is issued from a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the Illinois College of Education. As fashionably radical as it may sound, the defunding proposal is just the latest variation on a century-old set of bad ideas, ideas which have contributed significantly to a situation in which “America’s high-school graduates,” to quote an NPR headline, “look like other countries’ high school dropouts.”

The record of ed schools on the pedagogy of reading instruction is nothing less than a national catastrophe. Despite more than half a century’s worth of scientific evidence showing that systematic instruction in phonics is, for most beginning readers, the royal road to literacy, the latest report from the National Organization for Teacher Quality found that only one-third of graduate ed school programs surveyed give aspiring teachers adequate instruction in the science of reading pedagogy. Many schools neglect this science in deference to an antiquated “progressive” orthodoxy which insists that phonics instruction is unnatural, and that “student-centered” teaching will minister to the “whole child” with “whole words” and “whole language.” In the second of two audio documentaries on the decades-old debacle, “At a Loss for Words,” American Public Media’s Emily Hanford asked Ken Goodman, a central figure in this movement, about the overwhelming scientific evidence that contradicts this theory. “My science is different,” he replied.

The students who suffer most from this rejection of science are the very ones whose interests education schools have long claimed to be serving: black, Latino, and low-income students, whose disproportionate rates of delinquency, poverty, and incarceration correlate with disproportionately high rates of illiteracy. It’s these same students who also lose the most in a content-poor, skills-based curriculum. As ED Hirsch showed in Why Knowledge Matters, when students from poor backgrounds aren’t given the content knowledge that their more advantaged peers pick up at home, they’re often further behind them when they finish school than when they started.

Fortunately, there are schools where educational equity and social justice are matters of record, not rhetoric—where low-income and minority students not only match but often surpass the performance of their more advantaged peers. Their teachers and principals manage this feat, however, not because of their ed school training but often in spite of it. More than a decade ago, education writer Karin Chenoweth profiled 16 such “unexpected” public schools in her 2007 book It’s Being Done. Though the schools vary in size, quality of facilities, and geographical location, one thing the teachers and principals in these schools share is the recognition that new teachers will have to be trained “more or less from scratch” since “university education programs do not even begin to prepare teachers for teaching.”

Another thing they share is a commitment to coherently organized, content-rich curricula—a commitment that’s central to New York City’s highest-achieving charter schools as well. Jeffrey Litt has been focusing on sequentially structured curricular content as long as any educator in the nation—beginning in 1992 with PS67 (Mohegan elementary), and then in 2001 as the founding principal of Icahn Charter Schools, whose seven schools in the south Bronx he superintends. Mr. Litt’s longstanding rejection of the skills-centered, anti-curriculum orthodoxy is central to his success in not only narrowing, but often closing the achievement gap. South Bronx parents have been voting with their feet in his favor: there’s always a waiting list of thousands of students—more than 90 percent of whom are black and Hispanic—trying to get out of New York’s traditional public schools and into the Icahn schools.

There is, then, no small irony in the fact that the very institutions whose putatively “progressive” agenda has for 50 years militated against coherent K-12 curricula, ignored the science of reading instruction, and thus hobbled generations of disadvantaged students, have been sending their graduates to “reform” what has been the one bright spot in the American educational system, its colleges and universities. There, from administrative offices in “Equity and Inclusion” or “Diversity and Social Justice,” they promote the view that it’s really faculty “microaggressions,” or their “implicit bias” and lack of “cultural awareness” which are the real obstacles to educational equity. It’s an expensive bureaucratic ruse.

The 2019 National Report on Educational Progress reveals shockingly low levels of subject proficiency among high school seniors: only 37 percent are proficient in reading, 27 percent in writing, 25 percent in math, and 12 percent in American history. College professors have experienced these deficits first hand for decades. They know how ill-prepared most first-year students are for college-level work, and they know too that it’s the lack of content knowledge, not its possession, that’s genuinely repressive.

But college faculty will accede to the latest round of “equity” programming, whether out of ideological sympathy, intimidation, or indifference. Whatever the motives, the educational costs of their acquiescence will be borne by the same group of disadvantaged students who have born it for 60 years in the nation’s K-12 public schools. There’s nothing equitable about that.

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Lyell Asher

Lyell Asher is an associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College.