Editorial: Pursuit of Excellence

Equal Opportunity Helps

Equity and excellence have long been aspirational goals of K-12 education, and the apparent tension between the two characterizes the never-ending debate about how best to improve America’s public schools. Should states and school districts focus mainly on providing equality of opportunity or on achieving world-class academic performance? National policy tends to toggle back and forth; No Child Left Behind, for example, is a bid to achieve greater equity, while Race to the Top encourages competitive excellence. The conventional wisdom holds that equity and excellence struggle to co-exist: either excellence must be sacrificed on the altar of equity, or equity prevails at the expense of excellence.

But conventional wisdom is often wrong. That thought came to mind as we read the profile of Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont’s new education secretary, in the Sunday Valley News. Holcombe is squarely on equity’s side, believing that public schools play an essential democratizing role. “What we’re trying to do in school is to make sure that every kid has the opportunity to learn and to take advantage so that they can actually grow up and develop the skills they need and be prepared for the changing economic demands of our time, so that no matter what happens in the future they’ll be able to land on their feet and provide for themselves and their families. I think that is the foundation of civil society,” she told staff writer Alex Hanson.

At the same time, however, Holcombe inherits a school system recognized for overall excellence, despite persistent gaps in performance between impoverished students and their better-off peers. Vermont often outperforms other states and is competitive in the international arena as well. In 2011, the state’s eighth-graders far exceeded average benchmarks in mathematics and science on an international assessment of 47 education systems. In fact, Vermont was second only to Massachusetts among U.S. states and ranked 7th internationally, just behind such Asian powerhouses as South Korea and Japan. Gov. Peter Shumlin attributes such excellence to the state’s education-finance laws, which help equalize state spending among school districts. While it’s difficult to tease out the precise relationship between school funding and student performance, those who would alter Vermont’s redistributional system should consider whether it’s at least partly responsible for achievement gains made in recent years.

In fact, there is evidence that a commitment to equity actually promotes excellence. That evidence comes from Finland, which in the past several decades has turned around its public education system and now leads among the world’s top achievers. The country set out to reform its schools not by emphasizing academic performance and competition but by ensuring that every child had the same opportunities to learn regardless of family background, income or geographic location. When Finland found itself at the top of international rankings in reading, math and science in 2000, experts thought it a fluke; but the impressive results have been consistent ever since.

Needless to say, Vermont isn’t Finland. For one thing, Finland, unlike America, gives teachers a lot of autonomy, compensates them highly and doesn’t require them to administer standardized tests. Instruction tends to be individualized. But perhaps the Finnish experience suggests that the choice between equity and excellence is a false one, and that Vermont and its new education secretary are smart to emphasize equal opportunity for all.