Achieving Equity and Excellence in Education: Implications for Educational Policy

Article excerpt


Americans have always valued education as a vehicle of upward mobility, yet each year scores of disadvantaged youth fail to complete their schooling. This article explores how the educational delivery system of tracking, or grouping by ability and curricula, accounts for dramatically disparate academic outcomes between economically advantaged and disadvantaged youth, and concludes with implications for educational policy, which flow from the research.



To large segments of the American population, education has always held the promise of upward social mobility, economic stability and equality. This trust in schooling has been supported not only by our historical belief that education is valuable in and of itself, but also by our commitment since the beginning of the nineteenth century to education as an instrument of social engineering. It is also clearly reflected in the growing number of American schools, and the high level of education completed by the general population. Yet each year, disadvantaged children are twice as likely to be held back in school, and more often fail to complete their education [19]. Additionally, minority children begin school with measurable but small differences in skills compared with middle-class students, but within just a few years the advantage that middle class students have in completing college has risen to about four to one [26].

These disturbing statistics suggest at least two interrelated questions. First, why do students from different social classes differ significantly in their academic performance? Second, what impact does schooling have on this process? This article explores these pivotal issues. It presents the major explanations for unequal achievement and finds each seriously lacking. Next, it considers how one educational structure operating within the school--tracking--may account for this disturbing discrepancy. And finally, it attempts to develop some broad-based generalizations, supported by research, which may help to provide the opportunity for greater academic achievement and equity for all students. Let us begin by focusing on the possible sources of unequal school achievement.

The Sources of Unequal Achievement

Contemporary research has repeatedly documented the impact of social origin on educational success, as well as the fact that Black and Hispanic students are less often successful in school than white and advantaged students [15]. But why? In the past, educational sociologists have attempted to explain this unequal achievement in terms of a number of factors including heritability, cultural deficit, and poor school quality. The IQ deficit theory suggests the presence of inherited genetic differences in intelligence among children from different social origins. It contends that the genetic deficiencies of black and disadvantaged youth accounts for their poor academic performance and disparate life-chances [13, 16]. Since intelligence is largely determined by heredity, policies attempting to enrich the child's school environment are doomed to failure. While some accept this explanation, the methodology employed in these studies, as well as the cultural bias inherent in many of the instruments used to measure intelligence, casts serious doubt on this conclusion [17]. Clearly, stronger evidence is required before we can accept this explanation.

A second explanation, cultural deficit theory, suggests that individual inequalities are not heritable but socio-cultural in origin. Accordingly, the cultural, family and linguistic backgrounds of disadvantaged children are so different and inferior that they cannot realistically be expected to learn in school [18]. But, by placing blame on the victims of poverty for their failure, this theory seems to shift attention away from the failure of schooling to the supposed failure of economically disadvantaged people to raise their children correctly. …