Observations from 60 Years of Equity Reforms: There Are No Silver Bullets

Americans have a penchant for quick fixes and easy solutions. We like to do things quickly and if we don't see results right away, we move on to the next new and improved approach. In no arena is this American predilection toward the fast and easy more evident than in education. We have been through numerous reform efforts in the past 60 years, many of them focused specifically on reducing the gaps in opportunities enjoyed by more and less advantaged groups in our society and our schools. We have targeted money at the problem through supplemental funding streams, like the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and state categorical programs, and through a myriad of state fiscal equity suits and policies. We have tracked and detracked students, tried homogenous grouping by ability and heterogeneous cooperative learning in the classroom. We have tried pullout and push-in instructional approaches to give extra support to students who need it. We have focused exclusively on academics only to turn around and chide ourselves for ignoring the whole child. We have thought teacher testing and formal qualifications on the front end were the answer to low educator quality, moving more recently to test-driven teacher evaluation as the new required solution. And the list goes on.

While often these solutions have a faddish quality to them—that is, they are popular for a time and then die out when the next new thing or new leader comes along—they are not necessarily without merit or void of at least a promising research base. Indeed, in the past 15 years there has been considerable interest in and policy support for adoption and use of what has come to be referred to as “evidence-based practices.” The idea is straightforward: figure out “what works”—usually these are very targeted interventions with a reasonable effect size found in one or more rigorous research studies; adopt and implement the practice at scale; and finally, realize the expected improvements in overall outcomes and gap closings. A corollary to this theme is often the idea that if we adopt multiple evidence-based practices, benefits will cumulate to an overall larger effect. [1]

In the main, we believe that the focus on evidence and effectiveness has been a positive development and has contributed to some portion of the gap closings cited above. But almost invariably, when individual interventions are implemented at scale in schools and districts, the results are far less than anticipated and sometimes disappear altogether. While there are many contributing factors, we see two main interrelated explanations for the diminished effects. First, implementation challenges across multiple and varying contexts lead to uneven and sometimes unforeseen results. Second, individual interventions, usually focused on a specific targeted disparity, often leave untouched the systemic contributors that underlie and perpetuate that disparity. We review each of these problems below and draw out several lessons for moving forward.

  • [1] For example, see Grannis and Sawhill (2013) for a thoughtful discussion of implications of the Social Genome Project and an estimate of the cumulative benefits of a set of research-based strategies.
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