Activism, Education, Top Stories

Look Who’s Talking About Educational Equity

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.


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


  1. I wonder to what extent these programs actually harden resentment and mistrust of African Americans among White children and young adults, who otherwise would not have been predisposed to hostility.

  2. Well, these lefties have to inculcate racial problems They need to create usless positions for equity supervisors or diversity officers, otherwise what hope would there be for all those wankers with degrees n lesbian dance theory?

  3. Thanks for an excellent overview of the K-12 disaster.

    They are indoctrinating kids at a very young age these days and the lack of content knowledge, for the unholy sake of equity, is negatively impacting everything upstream.

    Even 20 years ago one could see a decrease in content knowledge and rigor in students coming into the university; but you could work with it. The kids were still, for the most part, disciplined and the ideology hadn’t taken hold.

    Nowadays, they’re bloated with social justice theology. They’re soft. Their heads are full of gender identity, trigger warnings, microaggressions and safe spaces. They can spot “racism” in parts per billion. They have become “anti-racist” search and destroy automatons.

    Students (and faculty) don’t have the same resilience; they are fragile and psychologically brittle. Students (and their parents) are always looking for a way to scam assessments either because of “mental health issues” or “equity”.

    My solution is brute force: Draw a line in the sand and, at the very least, shut down the Grievance Studies courses and Schools of Education. They are nothing more than ideological madrassas.

    Screw this diversity, inclusion and equity garbage. Have strong entrance exams and do not let students into university who shouldn’t be there. A university education isn’t an entitlement, it’s a privilege and it has to be earned.

    Maybe that will send the message downstream that the current educational approach has become intolerable.

  4. I think that rather than resorting to the oppressive legislation required to do this, it would be simpler to just make higher education institutions co-signers on student loans, responsible for (say) half the debt if the student defaults. It might sharpen their focus a bit.

  5. My wife works at a Title I elementary school (i.e., they receive extra funding due to serving a large proportion of low-income and minority children) and I can attest to the fact that these issues do not disappear after teachers enter the workforce. At least in her district, a great deal of the (paid) mandatory training teachers received this summer was not designed to help teachers adapt to COVID-19 teaching conditions, but rather to reiterate equity mantras currently taught in college education programs.

    In private, she found that even some of her more progressive colleagues were not impressed by this misuse of time and funds, as the trainings involved almost nothing of practical use (lots of virtue signalling and buzzwords, very few examples of how to actually help struggling minority students succeed). Her account sounded a bit like religious adherents secretly criticizing the clergy for obvious excesses (Does the chapel really need gilded pews? Wouldn’t that money be better spent on the poor or infirm?).

  6. This article lays out the problems in education, whilst also showing how the very marginalised communities which the Left purports to champion are the least well served by the current system. Perhaps that is why School Choice enjoys such strong support amongst the African American community, or why School Choice supporters appeared at a Elizabeth Warren rally during primary season.

    The irony is that the current system only reinforces social stratification and income inequality. The gifted will always become autodidacts in a system which is knowledge-poor. When schools mistakenly focus on skills rather than knowledge, with the net result that children are less well-educated from school sources, the children of the wealthy will always disproportionately benefit from homes full of books and parents with minds full of knowledge, just waiting to be tapped, on demand. And, of course, with private schools largely dependant on academic results, the generally more traditional approach this requires, will naturally mean that the privately educated will be churned out better prepared for higher education and like in general.

    Unfortunately, this doesn’t inoculate against the ideology. Far from it- if anything the children of the wealthy seem uniquely susceptible to critical theory. This is because the ideology offers the perfect means of assuaging guilt over class privilege and socio-economic advantage by birth. By problematising whiteness, the children of the rich are no longer part of an exclusive and exclusionary elite, but part of a larger problematic whole which they can transcend by becoming ‘allies’.

    It also offers the perfect opportunity to keep out the riffraff in the bottom 90% of White people, who are often less au fait with the hermeneutics of the woke. A study detailed by Reason actually showed that learning about White Privilege does nothing to increase empathy for the African American poor, whilst considerably reducing sympathy for the White working class poor. To paraphrase activist Munro Bergdorf, we should be more sympathetic towards a Black British kids raised in an affluent upper middle class home and the beneficiary of every class privilege under the sun, than a White homeless person living under a bridge.

    The irony, when one considers the Marxist origins of critical theory, is that we are turning the children of the clerisy into a superordinate overclass of priests and priestesses. Nevermind that it’s an ideology which is antithetical to the production of the wealth upon which the West has so long relied- the ideology doesn’t mind if the pie shrinks to a morsel of what it once was- the goal is the arbitrary redistribution, in the form of opportunities, from one class of the proletariat to another, effectively ending social mobility entirely, other than for those groups the overclass chooses to patronise.

    The evidence shows that in order to possess the Moral Foundations of a Left-leaning liberal, one is usually from the old A, B and C1 bands of society. A home environment which judges status on the basis of educational aspiration and attainment is key to the development of cosmopolitan liberal psychological traits. People from minority groups can be invited in, but they will always be more socially conservative by nature, more prone to the in-group preference or loyalty which the Left so despises in Whites.

    The real danger lies in the fact that this ideology is likely to kill off the Golden Goose. Our system may not be perfect. It doesn’t ensure that everyone who has the ability, gets the chance to reach their full potential. Often it is the junior entry-level position to management or specialism, which is the most prone to nepotism, or class-based exclusion. But it does have the advantage of being largely meritocratic, once one is ensconced within the hierarchy. It does a pretty good job of ensuring that people only ever reach one rung above the level their competence should allow. It isn’t perfect, but it works.

    The problem is that the functioning of any large scale organisation requires the existence of a small number of hypercompetent nodes to run effectively- the air traffic control of smooth operations. They are the secretaries, technical types, creatives and administrative geniuses which make everything work like clockwork. The professional management class might not always belong to this group, but they are extraordinarily good at spotting them, harnessing them and motivating them. They make them the workhorses of their Visionary Narcissism.

    It isn’t entirely clear that the new ideology is capable of harnessing these individuals. They are often socially inept (or at least inept in political terms), abrasive and lacking in guile. The originality and innovation which once typified the Academy has largely evaporated, because these generally heterodox and dissenting individuals were drummed out of Universities, or at least persuaded to keep quite and tow the line. Eric Weinstein has detailed the phenomenon is detail, and it probably gives rise to the urban myth that those with a university education are less likely to become inventors.

    The problem is that if we lose the ability to find these individuals, and push them into the nodes where they so often thrive, what will become of profit-making enterprises in general? Often business decline will accelerate because these individuals are prone to migrate when work environments become depressing and subject to low morale. These linchpin nodes might not always be good at identifying their own worth, or negotiating their own salaries- but they will never struggle to find new work and new challenges. What if they end up working in smaller, less scalable enterprises or organisations, where their talents are nowhere near utilised, but at least their unconventional approach escapes the dominion of the HR bureaucracy?

    What a loss to the West that would be. One which can be predicted in terms of effects- lost profitability, organisational chaos and ultimately, in lost jobs. We’ve seen it happen in the Academy, and it occurs in Government departments with increasing frequency. We certainly notice its effect when leaders are able to capitalise on these individuals- who would Steve Jobs have been without Steve Wozniak and others like him. Aaron Swartz was a visionary, but he didn’t necessarily endear himself to the powers that be, and there is every expectation that if he was alive today, his talents and unconventional ethos would be less appreciated, not more so.

    Most of the linchpin nodes in the Western system are less individually significant as these luminaries of the modern age, but in aggregate they are vital to the smooth running of wealth creating systems and the labour they generate. What if by attempting this cultural change the ideologues end up sabotaging the very opportunities they purport to want for the voiceless and disenfranchised, killing off jobs and revenue on a massive scale? Regardless, whatever new order emerges from the rubble, we can be sure our successors will be cognitively predisposed to silence these hyperproductive dissenters and heretics, right from the very outset.

  7. U.S. education schools have been ideological cesspools and academic jokes for at least two or three generations and now we are reaping the results.

    What has been labeled “white privilege” by the racialist, SJW left that infests these schools is largely what we used to call societal norms or cultural standards and values. Things like hard work, deferred gratification, individual responsibility, punctuality, and speaking the King’s English aren’t “white.” They are doing what’s smart and expected in a Western, Anglo society. These are the things, along with family capital passed along from our parents, that make people successful in life. Not everyone has the same background or talent, but if you adhere to these standards, you are far less likely to fail. Throwing this accumulated wisdom away is surely the end of our society.

  8. And it continues… the Democratic-educational-complex will advance their perverse agenda in order to ensure that they maintain a stranglehold over the sorts of ideas that are generated in schools and constitute “education.”

    Public schooling was never a good idea. They should be abandoned. And, barring that, completely de-unionized.

  9. I think you just described my husband. He’s in IT systems/security management. He has a very unique personality. He’s highly intelligent, yet also somewhat lacking in common sense and understanding human behavior. I’d say he lacks the guile you mention. Which is likely what has held him back from reaching a high level leadership position. Don’t get me wrong, he’s done well. Quite well. But not as well as others who have better people skills and can play office politics.

    He was in his early 20’s when I met him. Living on campus but had dropped out of college. He was just sort of drifting and goofing off. I had never met anyone like him. He was the most intelligent person I had ever met, but seemed unmotivated to use it in any productive way. Once we began dating his motivations increased. I told him he was kind of immature and needed to get his act together. I worked full time and was his sugar mama. He was never materialistic and never felt any of the insecurities that often come with not having much money. He knew how to get whatever resources he needed as he needed them. He was never bored. He was imaginative in how to have fun without money. But still, I was ready to settle down and told him if he wants to join me in that, he needs to clean up his act somewhat.

    He had no money, no connections, no relatives he could turn to. He picked up the yellow pages (this was 28 years ago) and started cold calling small businesses. He was offering his technical expertise to anyone who might be interested. He started to network and build his reputation. He valued older adults he worked with, showed them a lot of respect and learned from them. He eventually landed in an incredibly large corporation as an IT grunt, then to a higher level position with a large banking corporation, and from there to the organization he’s with now. I won’t say what that is, because of privacy concerns. He had no degree. He was raised by a highly educated father, and was immersed in literacy, numeracy and history starting at a very young age. Those three areas are what made him confident and capable to navigate the world. That plus joining the Army reserves straight out of high school. While he was raised in an affluent area, and his father had a highly successful technology career in the 60’s and 70’s, by the time my husband reached young adulthood, his father was retired. He also had mismanaged his money and didn’t have enough to help out his son.

    He was not and is not completely asocial. He also was not and is not completely prosocial. He might have a blind spot in understanding that not everyone was raised in a similar environment with the same intellectual values. But he most definitely believed and still does that most anyone can learn the same things he did with enough time and effort. He did eventually go back and earn a bachelors degree, not only because he always wanted to finish but to ensure job security at the level he had already reached without one.

  10. Two historical examples of what “education” amounts to these days, from the 1970s, thanks to the Underground Grammarian. One is a certain Enid Balylock, an “education psychologist”, about what school should be about:

    students are taught to appreciate . . . cultures other than their own and to perceive themselves in a positive light. In addition, they are encouraged to express their feelings openly and honestly, to develop and maintain good interpersonal relationships and to question basic ideas… do not attempt to quantify such crucial concerns as students’ self-perception… our goal should be making better human beings and not simply ‘achievers’.

    In other words, there is no reading, writing, or arithmetic, and certainly no tests that check if “students” (meaning elementary school pupils) actually learned anything, since that hurts their “self-perception” and stops them for being “better human beings”. Well, at least Ms. - I’m sorry, doctor - Balylock’s program certainly ran no risk of creating any “simple achievers.”

    Still, noted doctor Balylock, “most public school graduates” have “mastered modern methods of communication”. This was written in the 70s so it meant most of them - not all - could press rewind on the video tape, or find out when Hawai 5-0 was on and on what channel, all by themselves. If that isn’t quality education, I don’t know what is. Are they “better human beings” or what?

    Now compare this “ecudation proseffional” to Ms. Marva Collins, who isn’t even a doctor, let alone a professor of education. She opened a private school to teach poor black children to read, write, and cipher, and she made them read a lot, write a lot, cipher a lot, and also had tests to check their progress. She showed not the least concern to making them “better human beings”, thinking apparently that knowing to read, write, and cipher naturally would make them better human beings than those whose “education” is all about “expressing their feelings”. The result?

    Her pupils, many of whom do not know the alphabet when they arrive, take standardized tests at the beginning and end of each year to measure their ability. Their progress has been phenomenal. Many jump from well below to well above their actual grade level. [Time, 12/26/77]

    Let this be a warning. While Dr. Balylock reforms the public schools to create better human beings, Ms. Collins was running a private school. She was in it for the money, obviously, and had the gall to actually teach reading and writing instead - because that’s what the parents who paid her wanted. That’s the free market for you - it ruins everything. Whatever will happen to public school teachers - who can certainly “express their feelings” but are mostly functionally illiterate and innumerate - if Ms. Collins’ crazy ideas were to spread?

  11. Great article. Quillette should have a regular section devoted to the poison of progressive education and, more importantly, some surveys of programs that are doing it right. The more parents realize how bad it is, the cause of it, and the options out there, the faster the alternatives can be set up and the sooner the mediocrity monopoly comes to an end.

    Notice I said nothing about reforming public education. I gave up on that a long time ago because the system cannot be reformed from within; it simply has to be rendered obsolete by parallel systems. There is, after all, one and only one solution. Parents have to learn about the alternatives and collaborate to set them up.

  12. You are assuming there is a relationship between the “humanities faculties”, whose actual purpose is to turn money into worthless diplomas, and the humanities, as in what Aristotle or St. Augustine did.

    If tomorrow the humanities faculties would disappear, the humanities would only improve, because those interested in them would no longer spend time with the “critical theory” nonsense machine, and would study Plato or Shakespeare from someone who doesn’t hate them.

  13. James Bartholemew wrote a wonderful book, called "The Welfare State We’re In’’ which demonstrated how the British welfare state has caused many more social problems than it has solved. One of the interesting statistics he mentioned was that the level of literacy in Egland before the introduction of compulsory schooling was sllightly higher than it is today.

    In relation to schools in the US, I can suggest two reforms. Both of these have been longstanding norms in Oz, though there is some pressure to get rid of them. Fisrtly, make everyone wear a uniform. Ths stops a lot of competition between pupils and makes sure that they are all seen as being in an inferior position to the teachers. Secondly, sned boys and girls to different schools from Year 7 onwards. This removes the elemant of sexual atraction and also allows for the sexes to be taught slightly differently.

  14. There is actually a lot of scientific evidence in favour of your two suggestions: Co-education harms boys (who are the big losers of state education anyway) and school uniforms provide for a less competitive, more focused learning environment (we live in South America and my Kindergarten-daughter cannot wait to go to school like her sister, because she wants to wear a uniform, finally …) - The welfare state destroys families, especially poor families, because it gives incentives to poor, especially black fathers to leave their families and makes mothers dependant on social welfare and turns their sons into wakos (which transforms all of them in devoted democrats and reliable voters, and creates a need for a lot of social workers etc. - - no connection between the two though, of course).

  15. Who is sending these impressionable spineless jellyfish off to school? Perhaps parents shouldn’t look to schools to raise their children. Perhaps the parents should ground their children with bedrock values so as not to be susceptible to charlatan philosophies. Perhaps parents should take some responsibility in the educating and rearing of their children.

    I remember once my daughter came home school and told me she learned about Cuba and Fidel Castro. When I asked what she learned, she replied, “Fidel Castro gave his people free healthcare.” So I told her about a man I knew when I was young boy who escaped from Cuba. He had been arrested and stood up against a wall. The firing squad shot over his head. He said Fidel only had 2 out of every 3 shot so one would be available as a warning to others. He and a friend hid at the end of a runway and stowed themselves in the wheel well of an airplane about to takeoff. He escaped Cuba but his friend froze to death during the flight. I asked my daughter if she could imagine wanting to escape a country so badly she would run underneath a running airplane, climb up into the wheel well and have fifty percent chance of surviving the flight? Once in the U.S. he started a successful business and prospered.

    It doesn’t take a village or a village school to raise a child. It takes engaged parents to properly raise a child.

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