The Equity Agenda: Holding Fast to Our Shared Beliefs in a Rough K-16 Educational Climate


In 1983 a report about the nation’s public education system was released, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” It famously warned:

Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world….If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

Since then, nothing that has been done in the name of school reform has improved out national outcomes. Twelfth grade NAEP outcomes are statistically unchanged since first recorded in 1971.

But one thing has changed. The world has changed. Information, technology, and innovation have changed everything, except the way we run our schools and the outcomes they produce. Poor outcomes in 1983 have far less relevance than the same poor outcomes today, in the age of ideas, learning, and innovation. If you are not a learner in the modern world, you will be left behind.

The tragedy of our 1983 outcomes cannot begin to describe the tragedy of so many young men and women today who do not have the skills of a lifelong learner, and who will not be able to compete for high skill high pay positions. They will be relegated to low skill low wage futures. The gap between rich and poor, between privileged and unprivileged will continue to grow. We will continue to move toward a two tier society, with some enjoying the benefits of technology, ideas, affluence, and learning. But poor learners will never know those benefits.

While I do not subscribe to the belief that some sinister cabal of globalists has secretly designed and maintained our system of education, I do observe that state and local leaders across the nation continue to look away from the awful results of our vulnerable, poor, neurodiverse, and minority students in schools across the nation. We allow it to continue. We continue to use a one-size-fits-all curriculum-driven age-based system of instruction. We have not chosen to seriously call for the systems change needed to give vulnerable kids a chance to succeed as learners, love to learn, and learn for life. We have not chosen to look at the fact that, if you wanted a system of learning that screws vulnerable students, you’d invent the one we have.

Let’s devise a plan which will systematically damage the learning future of poor and minority students, while making it look like the fault is entirely theirs.

  1. Use a one-size-fits-all curriculum approach, so that we can pretend everyone is getting the same learning opportunity even while we know that many kids are not developmentally prepared to be successful at that level of instruction. Use lines like, “All students have a right to rigorous high-quality content standards,” to shut up those who might question our approach.
  2. Make the curriculum and pacing guide so aggressive that there is no opportunity for teachers to give serious attention to understanding or remediating an individual student’s learning delays. Suggest that, “High quality teachers can cover more content than low quality teachers,” to obfuscate the reality that racing through content makes no sense at all.
  3. Use scripted instructional programs, rigid pacing guides, district assessment schedules, and mandatory annual standardized testing to put the pressure on teachers to keep up with the standardized delivery of a standardized content system. Without telling them, take professional discretion and problem-solving out of the teaching profession. Make them behave like automatons.
  4. Using the same approach, make sure kids know that school is about learning what we tell you to learn. Turn students into passive recipients of what we deem to be worth learning.
  5. Keep students in age-based grades so that we can consistently sort them into winners and losers. First we cover, then we test, then we sort. And repeat. Give vulnerable students the message that they are among the learning “losers” many thousands of times.
  6. Sometimes a great teacher can make a connection with a student that causes him/her to give incredible effort to being successful in school. Diminish the likelihood of this happening by making the instruction pace so fast so that teachers do not have time to build relationships, teach prosocial classroom behaviors, establish positive classroom routines, and help the students bond as a team to support each other.
  7. Each year, as vulnerable students fall further behind, require that all students move to the same higher levels of instructional challenge. Even in a school with a large majority of students who are several years behind in their reading or math skills, move to more challenging content in which they are likely to be frustrated.
  8. As students get frustrated, they are more likely to disengage from learning and misbehave. Create an angry, frustrated, punitive adult environment in the school so that school staff is more likely to respond with anger to misbehavior rather than trying to understand why the student is choosing to misbehave.
  9. Marginalize parents. Keep giving them the message that we know what their kids need. Avoid asking for their input regarding their children’s academic, social, and behavior needs.
  10. Use bureaucratic requirements to overwhelm school leaders who might want to innovate, create more humane teaching and learning environments, or respond to the individual learning needs of students.
  11. Construct a funding system that manages to offer fewer resources to students who need the most instructional support.
  12. Use economic and safety incentives to keep the best teachers in the most affluent communities.

About the Author Bob Sornson is a regular contributor to Community Works Journal, and a best-selling author, international consultant, and founder of the Early Learning Foundation. His work focuses on early learning success, competency based learning, and parent involvement. His next book will be out soon, entitled Brainless Sameness; The Demise of One-Size-Fits-All Instruction and the Rise of Competency Based Learning (Rowman and Littlefield). He can be contacted at:


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