May 4, 2021

Iris C. Rotberg: In pursuit of equity: Thurgood Marshall got it right

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Iris C. Rotberg is a research professor of education policy at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University. Writing for The Hill, Rotberg addresses the issue of establishing education equity, and two different attempts at a solution.

Justice Thurgood Marshall put it this way: “We sit … not to resolve disputes over educational theory but to enforce our Constitution. … I believe the question of education quality must be deemed to be an objective one that looks at what the state provides its children, not what the children are able to do with what they receive.” The government’s responsibility, therefore, is to ensure equal opportunity, not to debate its link to student achievement.

For more than 60 years, the United States inadvertently has conducted a natural experiment that examined just that issue. The experiment is a longitudinal comparison between two very different approaches to strengthening equity. The results have been unequivocal, although the comparison itself was unintended and unnoticed.

In one case, the focus was on initiatives directly designed to make the country more equitable, such as guaranteeing civil rights protections and initiating policies to increase access to social and economic benefits — education, employment, housing, health care, criminal justice and fuller participation in the political process. The point was, in Justice Marshall’s words, “what the state provides its children.”

In the second case, the United States focused on initiatives that had no direct link to equity, but that reformers hoped would raise student test scores and reduce the achievement gap — “what the children are able to do with what they receive.”

The first approach has had a dramatic positive effect. It strengthened equity — and academic outcomes — and changed the country in ways that would have been difficult to imagine even a few decades ago. The second approach did little overall to make the country more equitable or to strengthen academic attainment.

Neither result should come as a surprise.

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