Equality Versus Excellence in America

Another tension in the American dialectic that I wanted students to focus on and join in on was the following: excellent versus equality.

Americans have always wanted individuals to have the freedom to choose their own paths without interference from others. At the same time, when individuals become too different in terms of the accretion of wealth or knowledge, voices rise up to complain about inequality and “privilege.” There is a clamor for more quality.

I choose for students to have this discussion after having looked at FDR’s 1937 “Second Hundred Days” where American liberalism reached a high-mark in terms of focusing on inequality. As FDR stated, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much;
it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” A clarion call for more equality.

In that spirit, I propose a couple of different proposals for greater school equality, which will have an impact on later earnings and lifestyle equality. How to improve the education for low-income students, often those “of color” living in places where few middle class students live. Firstly, let’s get rid of tracking and AP classes at our school. (The AP students are horrified at the prospect.) Secondly, let’s get rid of our magnet school and force students to attend the regular high schools in the area. (“No thank you. I have friends who go there. I know what it is like.”) Next, let’s forcibly bus half the students form our high achieving magnet high school to the lowest achieving high school in the area. (“That school where I took the SAT on a Saturday? The one with locked gates everywhere and all the signs everywhere saying to not bring weapons on campus? My parents would put me in private school first!”) Finally, let’s involuntarily transfer half the teachers to that low achieving school. (“I would have to take a good look at that place first, but I would probably quit before I would do that.”)

A very powerful conversation about equality, opportunity, individual freedom, and collective responsibility. We had an entire heated 90 minute Socratic seminar on the topic and then we wrote on the class blog.

Powerful stuff. Years and even decades later I can remember student insightful and impassioned comments on this.

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