Equity, Equality, Sameness, and Harrison Bergeron

Back when our district was attempting to “level the playing field” for everyone by having us use the College Board’s SpringBoard canned curriculum, I invited a school board member that I was on good terms with to my classroom. I purposefully invited her on the day my 8th grade classes were reading and discussing Kurt Vonnegut, Jr’s “Harrison Bergeron” as a lead-up to reading The Giver.

She was impressed with the students’ observations, questions, inferences, and discussions, and when we got to my planning period, she told me that she got my point: leveling the playing field sometimes means destroying excellence. To paraphrase a character in Casablanca, I wasn’t subtle, but I was effective – she got my point.

SpringBoard may be gone from our district for the time being, but its spirit still presides over much of the teaching in our country. Including – still – where I teach. We recently had district writing assessments to give, and were being asked to give them in a writing platform that gave many teachers severe technical problems. When concerns were raised, we were told that the platform needed to be used to ensure an “equitable” experience for the students, that it was part of our district’s strategic plan to have a “consistent” curriculum for the sake of equity.

The idea is that giving every student exactly the same material is equitable. This idea is, quite frankly, wrong. Google “equity versus equality” and you are told that “Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.” Making every child do the exact same work is equality, it is sameness as they call it in The Giver. It is not equity. Equity means helping each student to a similarity of outcome using a variety of methods.

The question, of course, is this: what outcomes are we after for our students? I don’t think it’s any secret that the outcomes we have been commanded to get by the “system” (the state) are test scores. When I was a parent I was more concerned with other outcomes, and if my experience talking to parents at open house recently is any indication, today’s parents share my desire for outcomes other than test scores as well. They want their children to enjoy learning. They want their children to be engaged. They want their children to learn, not just how to pass tests, but to to write well, to enjoy reading and do it well.

Standardizing the curriculum means standardizing thinking – making all thoughts equal. But when our desired outcome is similar performance on standardized tests, it is perfectly logical to standardize everything. But I question the logic here. Is there a research base that says having every teacher in every school in a district who teaches the same subject and grade level teach the same material the same way at the same time improves student outcomes? I’d like to see it if there is. No one has been able to show me this research, but even if it existed, wouldn’t there be inevitable differences between how teachers present the material? It seems that what the system is really reaching for is automated teaching, like the Edgenuity app many of my students went on during quarantine.

Aside from the impossibility, short of moving to actual robo-teaching, of actually standardizing teaching, there is also the unspoken assumption that simply standardizing learning materials makes them qualityu learning materials. When a standardized curriculum map is created by a committee somewhere (I have been on mapping committees, but that’s a discussion for another time), how do we know that is truly effective? There is no time for a trial run. We just throw it at teachers and students and say it is good because it covers all the standards.

But is it? For years I have found my curriculum maps to be short on reading materials, short on nearly everything – especially student engagement. If I look at one area, writing, the problems with the maps are especially stark.

All the writing listed on my map this year is “writing to text” – also known as simulated research. I thought when we moved to our new “B.E.S.T.” standards were leaving Common Core behind. And yet the writing we are asked to do with students is all exactly like the Common Core writing we’ve been making students suffer through for the past ten years. Here is where some of the real motives for all the standardization come in. If students are all writing to the same prompt, using the same source materials, it is easier to grade that essay with an algorithm. This saves money. Rigor has very little, if anything, to do with it. Meanwhile, they are supposed to also be writing narratives, but there really isn’t much of that going on on the map. What the map really does is cover tested standards.

While I know of no research that points to standardization for the sake of standardization, I do know there is research on making things more students-centered, on giving students more choices about how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. Autonomy-supported learning has a strong research base, yet we ignore that. Heaven forbid we give students real choice about what to write about or what to read. It might give them the idea they actually have voice. It might make them think. It might be good for democracy. We can’t have that!

Aside from all of that, I’ve been told we need to have consistent map so that when we have long-term substitutes they will know what to do. And yet we ask all teachers, even old-timers like me with thirty years of experience, to follow the same map designed for long term substitutes. Admittedly, we do need more and more long-term subs, but perhaps this is because teachers are leaving the profession in droves due to micromanagement. I’ve also been told that we need to all be teaching the same thing at the same time in case students need to change classes. We seem to think that students can’t adapt at all. I often get out-of-state or out-of-district students in my class who have not been following my district’s map, and they adapt to whatever we are doing just fine. I just think it’s worth noting that supposedly in the name of excellence, we are apparently basing everything we do on the needs of long-term substitutes and students who change classes. Not to insult either group, but this seems to be playing to the lowest common denominator.

To a certain extent, there truly is equity when standardization reigns. So far as I can tell, many if not most students come to resent, dislike, or even hate reading and writing in school. So there is an equal outcome after all! But to have a positive outcome, one in which students are not only competent readers and writers, but also enjoy and even love literacy and lead literate lives, we should be promoting more reading-writing workshop approaches like Nancy Atwell’s. Or we could actually be using Jeff Wilhelm’s inquiry approach – EMPOWER – or some combination of the two (which is what I do). Many of the thematic units in textbooks these days, including mine, are pale imitations of real inquiry units.

Not only does standardization tend to disengage students with school, it also makes teachers extremely unhappy. I know there are some teachers who like being told exactly what to do so they don’t have to think too much (like Mrs. Merritt in my comic strip), but for money, I like teachers who think about what they do. I have often wondered, why should we attend professional learning, or professional conferences, or read professional books, to improve our practice? We supposedly have everything we need planned out for us, calendared and calculated for maximum coverage of standards. Of course, this attitude makes me think of a quote by Howard Gardener: “The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage.”

Early in the Common Core era, our district brought in one of the Common Core “architects” to talk about disciplinary literacy – literacy across the academic disciplines. He talked about a survey that asked teachers at all levels how important a textbook was to instruction. In Math courses it was essential. History sort of needed one but access to primary texts was more essential. In English classes – these words are still emblazoned on my brain – the textbook is irrelevant. And yet we have made the textbook the be all and end all of teachers’ instructional lives. My textbook has activities and options for every contingency. It tries to be teacher-proof. And yet we still need a map that tells us how to use a teacher-proof textbook. This does not make me feel that my intellect, much less my creativity, is valued.

We claim to want equity, but as students near the end of their high school careers in English, something very interesting happens. Some students go to “regular” (a term I question for many reasons) and Honors, where teachers are told to keep following the map. Our very brightest students go to to Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate classes. I teach next to an AP teacher; I am married to a senior IB teacher. Guess what they have? Very broad guidelines and a high-level test to prepare students for, and aside from those things – autonomy. They chose the texts to read. They create the writing assignments. They set the pace. They get to actually be real teachers.

I don’t have time to argue for or against the merits of these two advanced programs here – every “program” has its flaws and its benefits. What I find interesting is that the pinnacle of high school English instruction, the very best thing we can offer students, is an experience with clear goals, but with a very high level of teacher autonomy, creativity, and intellectual and curricular freedom. That may not be equal, because it means not every IB teacher or AP teacher is choosing the same books, assignments, and activities. It may not be equal, it I believe it does offer equity.

Only a teacher who knows his or her students, their needs, their strengths, their interests can create a truly equitable experience. It can’t be done by committee. It shouldn’t be done as far away from the classroom as possible. The best instruction is home-grown by creative teachers who know where their students started, where they want to take them, and have ways to take them there. Or, if their current toolkit doesn’t offer a way to take students where they need to go, they read or take a workshop. Or maybe, just maybe – they get creative.

We seem intent on putting weights on teachers, on putting noise-making earbuds in their ears, of putting masks over their individual talents. We seem intent to take aim at any teachers who stand out and maybe dance on air near the ceiling a bit.

But if we want to have excellence in teaching, we need to stop handicapping teachers and let them grow and think and meet the needs of their students as only they can.

Instead of standardizing teachers out of the profession, we should be encouraging their growth, their autonomy, their creativity, their ability to actually think about teaching. The whole Diana Moon Glampers approach has got to go. But I fear it won’t any time soon, and we’ll move from turning human teachers robotic to just settling for robots.