September 29, 2021


Equity Education Reforms Aren’t The Answer

By: Cooper Conway

It’s no secret that the American education system is in dire need of reform. Proficiency gaps are prevalent in many states, test scores have flatlined, and many children lack access to education options that suit them. Lawmakers have tried to address these issues, proposing all sorts of reforms to help students get the most out of their schooling. Indeed, some education reforms like school choice programs have had great success — producing a body of research showing proof of students learning at higher rates. But not every education reform is built the same. 

Recently, more lawmakers are producing education reforms in the “name of equity,” but all they’re doing is putting children at risk of losing out on the benefits of a good education.

For example, this past month, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed Oregon Senate Bill 744 into law. The bill extends the temporary suspension of Oregon high school students having to prove they’re proficient in reading, writing, and math to graduate until 2024. In a bewildering defense of the bill, the governor’s team claimed lowering graduation standards would make Oregon’s education system more equitable for students of color. 

It’d be an understatement to call the reasoning downright insulting. The idea that Oregon’s minority students need graduation standards lowered to the floor in order to succeed is asinine. If anything, the policy of stripping away merit to graduate high school only further prevents Oregon students from succeeding, giving them a false sense of belief in the academic skills they might not have acquired. 

Employers and colleges looking to hire or admit recently-graduated Oregonians can only view an Oregon high school diploma as a glorified participation award. Even worse, students who put countless hours of work trying to complete their primary education at a high level will have their achievements degraded when their most unaccomplished peers receive the same recognition as them. 

It’s a true punch to the gut.

On a broader level, the policy imposes low expectations on students, telling them it’s not necessary to demonstrate basic and essential academic competence—like performing algebra or understanding the basic rules of grammar. At this point, why even have public education if diplomas are to be handed out to whoever wants one? 

Oregon Governor Kate Brown has thrown in the towel. She’s telling students it doesn’t matter if you can read or write, but she is also telling educators it doesn’t matter if you teach the students. Either way, the state will be rewarding students solely on their willingness to sit at a desk.

Kate Brown isn’t the only legislator who has used equity as reasoning to lower learning expectations. California and New York lawmakers also have been attempting to ban accelerated learning programs that provide challenging academic courses to gifted students in public schools. However, banning accelerated learning programs doesn’t promote equity; it lessens it. Accelerated learning programs, in reality, increase equity as they provide opportunities for the highest-performing students to be engaged and challenged in school regardless of race, income, or other factors relating to the student’s background.

Other states looking to follow the path of Oregon, New York, and California by lowering academic expectations and opportunities in the name of equity should think twice regarding their policy’s feasibility to achieve its stated goals. Talk is cheap. Saying your policies will reduce inequities is easy, but actually doing it is another thing entirely.

If states want to reduce inequities in education, encouraging schools to lower the bar for their students cannot be the answer. In fact, it will more likely than not create a culture of students who stoop to lower levels of learning and miss out on reaching their full potential. 

Instead, states who want to reduce inequities and help students reach their full potential should pass school choice policies. School choice policies provide students — especially low-income students — with more opportunities to attend a high-performing school that challenges them to learn. 

Moving forward, challenging students to learn must be the primary approach to reforming the American education system. In addition, policymakers who propose laws like school choice that challenge students and create opportunities for them to learn will achieve their goals of achieving equity in the American education system because every student will have the necessary tools & resources to rise to the top. 

Kneecapping student’s incentive to learn won’t level the playing field. If we really want to help low-income students, we should be providing incentives for every child to reach their highest academic ability.