Mike Cohen - Flickr

How Equity Breeds Mediocrity and Stifles Achievement

By disincentivizing academic success the pursuit of equity rewards failure

May 25, 2021

There has been a growing push for “equity” in nearly all aspects of American life, in a stark shift away from the term “equality.” The push for equity is especially intense in the education system, where there is growing pressure to increase the educational attainment of African-Americans and other minorities. School districts and university systems are busy making so-called equity changes.

In a settlement with civil rights organizations, the University of California system, which oversees 10 universities, has decided to end the use of ACT and SAT standardized test scores for admissions and scholarships. The university system will not even consider the test scores on an optional basis. This format of standardized testing has never been perfect, it is true. But it would be unfair to assert that the ACT and SAT have offered no credible evidence to the admissions system for the students who use them, or that they inherently disadvantage particular demographics. This change eliminates a reasonable tool for California educators. Is it also an example of the pursuit of equity instead fostering mediocrity?

The University of California is not the only educational system trying to increase equity. The Sacramento City Unified School District has decided to change its grading system by making 50% the minimum grade a student can receive. The goal, according to the district, is to create a more equitable grading system

In 2019, a New York City school diversity panel recommended ending all gifted classes in city schools because they had mostly white and Asian students in them. In April of this year Virginia considered eliminating advanced math courses prior to 11th grade until it was forced to backtrack. Even more recently, the Wall Street Journal has reported on the effort by California education officials to water down math instruction, abandoning gifted education for the sake of social justice, and deriding the notion of “right answers” and “objectivity” in math as expressions of white supremacy.

How is equity different from equality? Equality, which was championed by the original Civil Rights Movement, focuses on equal opportunity and eliminating discrimination. Equity explicitly rejects equal opportunity in favor of equal outcomes. A tweet sent out by Vice President Kamala Harris in November 2020 explains the differences between the two words, according to equity proponents.

Equal outcomes are a foolish thing for a society to pursue. In order to achieve and mandate equal outcomes, the state will have to engage in a never-ending cycle of discrimination. It will be an authoritarian state that is in constant search for victims to compensate and oppressors to punish. 

Institutionalized equity is therefore also an attack on individualism. It reduces everyone to group members based on their race, gender, sexuality, or whatever characteristic the government and those who are promoting equity currently seek to promote or punish. It does not take into account the individual talents and limitations of each individual person. A person of one demographic might be best suited to being a firefighter, and a person of another demographic best suited to scholarship. But if their individual talents and aptitudes don’t advance equity for their demographic groups, then freely achieving their personal best outcomes would not be considered a success. 

The pursuit of equity does not encourage excellence. Instead, equity rewards failure and mediocrity. It effectively removes the ability to fail because failing classes or scoring poorly on standardized tests is the result of racism or whatever “ism” the equity chasers are trying to eradicate. It makes the passing of classes worthless because no one is allowed to fail.

It certainly does not help students learn. The purpose of grading school work and giving tests is to see what students are actually learning.

If individual students are struggling or failing to learn what is being taught, there are opportunities to address those gaps through extra help from the teacher. Instead, by treating academic failure as a systemicrather than an individualfailure, equity purists shift the focus of educational improvement away from teaching the subject matter.

The pursuit of equity is creating is a world not far from the one described by Kurt Vonnegut’s famous short story Harrison Bergeron. Vonnegut describes a dystopian future United States where individual excellence is stamped out in a society where equality of outcomes is enforced by the state. Those who are better looking, more intelligent, and stronger than everyone else, among other traits, are forcibly “handicapped” by the federal government. Whereas in the story the government resorts to various physical devices to handicap its citizens, equity proponents resort to eliminating anything that allows students to excel over their classmates or to fail.

Equitable outcomes will harm the students it is intended to help and will reinforce the achievement gap between classes. Wealthier families will always be able to hire the private tutors, afford the high cost of participating in extracurricular activities, and put their children in private schools where excellence is encouraged. It will be the poorer families who are deprived of yet another means to advance.

If you really want to help disadvantaged students, support popular policies such as school choice which empower individual families and students. Most of all, stop punishing success in the name of equity.

Kevin Boyd is a freelance writer with bylines in numerous publications. You can follow him on Twitter @TheKevinBoyd and find more of his work on his Substack