Equal Educational Opportunity, High Standards for All and the Achievement Gap

By Thomas F. Kelly, Ph. D.

Income inequality is caused by educational inequality

True educational opportunity will eliminate the achievement gap and income inequality

 Since 1983 with the birth of the education reform movement one of the top educational priorities has been to achieve equal educational opportunity, especially in terms of the achievement gap between races.

 The basic strategy to close the achievement gap has been:

  • To set high expectations for all students
  • To require the same high academic standards for all students set at each grade level
  • To require the same high academic standards for all students for high school graduation

This is seen as equal opportunity for all.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

 To accomplish these ends hundreds of billions of dollars, great effort and countless state and federal mandates and regulations have been created.  After more than four decades of education reform the achievement gap still exists.  Furthermore, in general student achievement nationally is just about where it was when the reform movement began. There is no systemic improvement nationally.  Meanwhile student discipline has declined and dropouts have increased.  There tremendous honest effort has been dedicated to the goal of school improvement.  What do we need now?

 The educational achievement gap is directly responsible for the much discussed income inequality gap.  Our efforts to provide equal educational opportunity have failed.  The reasons for this are clear.

 We have based our efforts on the assumption that all students can and should achieve at the same high levels in all subjects at the same time, i e grade levels and graduation.  This amounts to unequal educational opportunity for all.  

 Ironically while we pay constant lip service to diversity, we ignore the only diversity that matters for learning – individual differences.  We know students enter kindergarten at very different levels of language development.  Nonetheless, we start there expecting/requiring them to learn the same things at the same time and rate.  Our grade level standards maintain this expectation K – 12.  The grade level a student is on and corresponding grade level tests are the sole criteria for what each should learn in that grade.  Real equal educational opportunity for learning is not determined by the grade a student is in but their present individual readiness level for learning.

 The correct criteria for what each student should learn is what they are each ready to learn, regardless of grade level.  In reality each student is unique.  Yet we expect and require that they all learn the same things at the same time.  This factory assembly line one size fits all structure is in fact inadvertently designed to minimize learning and guarantee mediocrity and failure for millions.  As long as this structure remains in place, we will continue to get the same results.  It will make no difference how much we spend, how many new regulations and mandates we create or how hard we work. 

In Deming’s words the system is structured to fail.  It assumes that all students in a given grade level are ready to learn at that level.  In fact most are ready to learn somewhere below or above that grade level.  Human beings can learn only what they are ready to learn. It also assumes they can and should all learn the same things to high standards by the end of grade 12.  We all know these standards are not met by most students either by grade levels or by grade 12 in the current system.   

We must redefine equal educational opportunity. It is not the present definition which is that all students must learn the same things at the same time.  Rather it is that each student must receive instruction on his or her individual readiness level at all times, regardless of grade level. If instruction is too easy, they are bored and if too difficult they are frustrated and fail.  Providing what each student needs at each of their ever changing individual levels is real equal educational opportunity for all.

 With the advent of technology we now have the means to individualize instruction as never before.  When students work at their individual readiness level they will invariably succeed and progress to the higher standards we want for all.  This will not only include finally closing the achievement gap but higher educational achievement for all students.

 For many years now the group with the highest achievement test scores has not been public or private school students s but those on home instruction.  Many of these students are taught by parents who have high school diplomas, not higher degrees.  How can this be?

 If a parent has two or more children they know that they are not the same and therefore not equal in readiness for learning.  Therefore as parents they do not treat them the same in terms of difficulty of what is to be learned.  If they give one a book that is too easy or too difficult they can see that.  Not bound by grade level standards or state tests, they can simply adjust the level of the material to what each student needs.  When a level is mastered, they can move them up to the next level, again regardless of grade level, no need to wait. 

 What about graduation standards?  In place of the same standards for all at the same time we can tailor them , again to the needs and interests of each student.  There needs to be some required standards for all but optional standards for others. 

 High School Diploma standards required for all: Minimum 12th grade literacy and numeracy. Some might say that is not a very high standard for all.  My response is the present system fails miserably to achieve it, much less more. If achieved it will mean students can think clearly and critically, communicate effectively and learn on their own for rest of their lives.  Hardly a description of the vast majority of our present graduates. 

 Once achieved students will be empowered to go on to excellence in many other academic areas that are dependent on prior mastery of the required level of literacy and mathematics for success.  Presently we require they work in higher levels of academics simply because they are in a specific high school grade.  The grade level they are in determines what they are required to do, ready or not.

 Optional standards for each student: 12th grade standards in Mathematics, science, social studies, literature, music, art, vocational, etc.  These standards can be optional endorsements listed on individual student diplomas.  Students would be empowered to advance in those areas when ready if they want.

 The effects of this restructuring of our 19th century education system to let student needs drive all educational decisions and activities will result in:

  • True equality of educational opportunity for all students
  • Elimination of the achievement gap
  • Exponentially higher achievement for all
  • High school dropout rates of virtually zero
  • Creation of a highly skilled workforce – reduction in the income inequality gap
  • Prosperity for America

 We must heed Deming’s great insight.  The system is the problem.  Not the teachers, students, administrators or parents, and not money.  We now have systemic built in mediocrity and failure for most students.  I favor keeping students in their age level grades.  We simply need to change what they do in those grade levels.  As long as we maintain the grade driven structure curriculum, we will continue to get the same results.  When individual student needs drive the system K – 12 we will see an educational renaissance for all.

 We are currently defining equal educational opportunity as requiring the same level of work for all students at the same time.  This is unequal for those who are not ready and those who are functioning above that level at the same time.  When we consider the disruptive behaviors of students that are frustrated or bored constantly even those at the correct level have their learning disrupted.  This amounts to unequal educational opportunity for all. 

 Real equal educational opportunity will exist when each student is given the opportunity to learn at their individual level and progress at their individual rate. 

People can only learn at the level they are ready to learn.  Providing each student what they need is real equal educational opportunity for all.  With the advent of technology we now have the means to individualize instruction as never before.  When students work at their individual readiness level they will invariably succeed and progress to the higher standards we want for all.  This will include finally closing the achievement gap.

ReadersMagnet Authors' Lounge