by Bradley Scott, MA • IDRA Newsletter • January 1997

Dr. Bradley ScottThis country is in a time of great change and flux. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tremendous change that is occurring in public schools. The goals and challenges the schools of this nation face include being re-created to work for very different students and diverse populations, producing world-class students with world-class skills that will allow them to compete in a global economy and ensuring that a greater number of these students complete high school, at least, and possibly seek post-secondary schooling while moving into their vital civic and work responsibilities. The challenges, however, go beyond these alone.

In order for those who operate public schools to meet these goals, educators and communities will have to examine how schools currently work and where they are not being successful. They will have to explore new ways of restructuring schools so that they work more efficiently for a greater number of students who differ by race, gender, ethnicity, language characteristic, economic class and social circumstance. Given this challenge, it also becomes apparent that new paradigms are needed for thinking and acting regarding equal educational opportunity, excellence, equity and the protection of the civil rights of students in schools. In fact, the major challenge faced by schools and the communities they serve is to produce equity-based excellence. These challenges will not be easy to confront, but they are manageable so long as those involved in the pursuit of equity-based excellence exercise the determination to see the challenge through to the end.

Certainly big challenges raise big questions. Who must initiate the changes that need to occur? What will be required of them? What concerns must they face in restructuring schools to produce equity-based excellence? What will such excellence look like? What will be the evidence that success is being achieved? What will the alternative look like should this nation not be able to meet the challenge? This article is intended to answer these and other questions as a way of forging a critical action path for change agents including school leaders and their staffs, community-based leaders, parents and students.

Considering Equity

Those who operate public schools are truly working to produce excellent results for students. They, and people in the community, are working together to restructure schools to improve academic outcomes for students in ways that are virtually unprecedented.

Public education has been reshaped by the creation of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 (reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), the School to Work Opportunities Act and ensuing state and local initiatives. While reformers have initiated these activities and conversations about excellence abound, the platitude, “all students can learn” has become the battle cry of schools and communities around the United States (and evidence shows that the slogan is true).

However, the part of the discussion that still requires clear articulation is the role of equity. What is educational equity? How is it related to equal educational opportunity? How do we create schools that are equitable? Who must be involved? How must they be involved? Where do we begin?

Clearly all students in public schools should be the focus of any discussion and resultant actions that occur. More importantly, however, is the fact that all of the stakeholders must identify and accept their part in the creation of the answers that are formulated wherever equity is concerned.

Such clarity concerning these issues does not yet exist. There is a place for equity in excellence, but where that place is and how to make it real are the persistent struggles with which the nation must grapple. Suppose we stretched the limits of the discussion to suggest that there can be no excellence without equity? These are the tough questions that must be answered. How to mesh equity and excellence in a seamless manner and to make this alliance a regular part of school and community activities is today’s compelling issue. If this issue cannot be confronted forthrightly, the nation will fall far short of its aims to produce world-class students skilled and competent enough to compete on a global economic and political stage.

What the Research Says

The nation is not at all sure of what is actually being produced in public education. Everyone has gained understanding about the kinds of skills and competencies students will need to prepare for the global world of work, but the country still struggles with understanding how to produce those skills and competencies among a more diverse student population.

On April 18, 1991, the Bush administration issued America 2000: An Education Strategy, in which the president and the secretary of education challenged the nation to reinvent the nation’s public schools. In that same year, 30 experts in the field of education came together to create a thoughtful debate on the possible implications of the strategy. Their comments and essays appeared in a document entitled Voices from the Field.

In that publication, Dr. José A. Cárdenas, then executive director of the Intercultural Development Research Association, cautioned:

New standards must be accompanied by new strategies so that the extensive number of students who have failed under the old standard can succeed. Comparisons of schools, districts and states will demonstrate what is already known: that some segments of the population perform deplorably in the education process. School, district and state characteristics will be reflected in these comparisons…The challenge is to provide assistance to students [who] are not performing well, not to further stigmatize them (1991).

Researchers P. Keating and J. Oakes posed the question, “If real reform is possible, where might one look to identify the most serious problems and practices as candidates for fundamental change – especially those that have the most damaging impact on disadvantaged youth?” (1988). They concluded there were four areas, including: (1) testing practices that limit learning opportunities for these students; (2) grouping and tracking practices that relegate disadvantaged students to the lowest-quality knowledge and the poorest-prepared teachers; (3) curriculum and instruction practices that are fragmented and low-level, “following narrowly behavioral, rather than cognitive, models of learning”; and (4) school management practices that embrace centralized, top-down, factory production models rather than responsive and professional decision making at the school sites (Keating and Oakes, 1988).

Keating and Oakes suggested 11 policy options that should be at work in schools to eliminate barriers and assure educational equity.

  • Place equal educational access high on the public policy agenda.
  • Eliminate the remaining vestiges of race and gender bias in schooling practices and curriculum materials.
  • Upgrade teaching and increase the access of disadvantaged students to highly qualified teachers.
  • Alter formulas for compensatory educational resources and services to account for the impact of the longevity and high rates of poverty in schools.
  • Eliminate rewards for assessing and labeling students on the bases of social and/or personal dispositions.
  • Develop model, integrated curricula and instructional strategies suitable to diverse groups of students.
  • Join forces with all those who have a stake in schools: universities, social service agencies, the private sector.
  • De-regulate schools and build capacity for improvement.
  • Hold schools accountable for both equity and learning.
  • Marshal new resources and reconfigure existing ones to give schools greater autonomy and flexibility to excel (Keating and Oakes, 1988).

Equity-based Excellence

The challenge before the nation is to produce restructured schools that have, as a part of their regular way of operating, the production of equity-based excellent outcomes for all students. How must this be accomplished?

Producing excellence for some students and not all is discrimination. It is a violation of federal law regarding the protection of an individual’s civil rights to equal educational opportunity. The National Coalition of Advocates for Students includes equal educational opportunity in its list of entitlements all students deserve in public schools (see box at right).

This is a framework for the production of equity-based excellence. Others have called for equity and excellence in public schools as a way of assuring the United States’ pre-eminence as a world leader. Researcher F. McKenzie explains:

The economic necessity is becoming the key to increasing our commitment to educational equity…It is clear that the shaping of educational policy must include a reshaping of schools and community colleges to better equip them to meet the challenges of providing educational equity (1993).

Dr. José Cárdenas suggests that as schools restructure, they also need to embrace a new educational paradigm that has the following three characteristics to produce equitable educational outcomes for atypical students:

  • Without exception, the program staff should value students in ways not found in traditional schools;
  • Students participating in schools and programs in those schools should receive support services that are not provided in traditional school programs; and
  • Schools and programs should create unique home and school relationships not found in traditional school programs (Cárdenas, 1995).

Cárdenas also presents a developmental matrix involving 77 cells that describe what an equity-based excellent school would look like (1995).

Lee, et al., showed compelling evidence that such restructuring efforts produce organic rather than bureaucratic school organizations that depart from conventional practices rather than adhering to conventional ones (1994). They started with a sample size of 22,000 students in about 1,000 U.S. middle-grade schools. They followed these students into high school in 1990. After the application of certain data filters (such as students attending Catholic or elite private secondary schools), they ended with a student sample size of 11,794 sophomores in 820 high schools. Their findings include the following.

  • Students attending schools that are restructured learn more in mathematics, reading, history and science.
  • Students learn more in smaller rather than larger restructured high school environments.
  • Students are more engaged in smaller restructured schools, and engagement is more equitably distributed. (Equity in this study only referred to socioeconomic status.)
  • Students learn more science in schools with better resources.
  • Schools committed to restructuring should decide on a modest number of reform strategies and engage these strategies in depth. Doing so increases the likelihood of significant gains in student achievement in restructured schools (Lee, et al., 1994).

According to their findings, restructured, organic, smaller schools that focus on fewer rather than many reform efforts can make a difference in student achievement outcomes (Lee, et al., 1994).

IASA-Sparked Reform Can Further the Goals of Equity

It is surprising to think that “equal opportunity” may be a term of the past. With the passage of the Improving America’s Schools Act in 1994 and the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the Department of Education established the foundation for a new kind of consideration of equity in public schools. Where once equal educational opportunity was clearly the goal, these two pieces of legislation strongly support the notion that while equal educational opportunity is necessary, it may not be sufficient to bring about high achievement outcomes for all children regardless of race, sex, national origin, economic circumstance or handicapping condition.

The IASA and Goals 2000 suggest a notion originally described in a 1989 publication of the 10 Regional Desegregation Assistance Centers called The Resegregation of Public Schools: The Third Generation (Scott, 1995). The creators described educational equity as a strategy designed to provide differentiated educational responses to students who are different in important ways so that these comparable educational outcomes may be achieved. From an educational perspective, all learners cannot be treated the same because their different learning, social, cultural, emotional, psychological and physical needs (characteristics) naturally give rise to varying interventions for them to achieve comparability (Network of Regional Desegregation Assistance Centers, 1989).

In the January 1995 issue of the IDRA Newsletter, I proposed that a new generation of desegregation, civil rights and equity was emerging. I called it the fourth generation of desegregation (see box on page 4). The goal was to create new schools that work for diverse students, producing world-class students with world-class skills and to create new paradigms for civil rights and equity-based excellence. I also listed some concerns upon which this new era seemed to be focused. I suggested then that the discussion was just beginning. In truth, no one had any idea of how new the discussion was or how complex it would become.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the Improving America’s School Act of 1994, now has as its focus five major themes the following:

  1. High standards for all students – with the elements of education aligned so that everything is working together to help all students reach those standards.
  2. A focus on teaching and learning.
  3. Partnerships among families, communities and schools that support student achievement to high standards.
  4. Flexibility to stimulate local-based and district initiative, coupled with responsibility for student performance.
  5. Resources targeted to areas of greatest needs, in amounts sufficient to make a difference [emphasis added] (US Department of Education, 1996).

In short, themes one, two and four speak to excellence regarding academic outcomes. Theme five concerns equity, allocating resources in varying ways to meet the educational needs of different learners in order to produce students who all reach high standards.

In answer to the question, Who is responsible for these equitable outcomes?, theme three suggests that everyone is responsible “families, communities and schools.” The success of all students is everyone’s responsibility. The federal government is saying to local communities, Do what you will, use your own initiative to move all students to high standards, but move all students to higher standards.

In the final analysis, all of the school reform efforts in the nation will do little to no good unless all students benefit from the changes that occur. Only school reform driven by a notion of equity and measured by the standards of equity can be deemed effective in assuring that all students have a fair, comparable opportunity to learn, to achieve and to excel. The answers to the questions in the box at left will determine if educational equity is being achieved, or even approached.

The degree to which schools and districts can answer these questions affirmatively and offer hard evidence through the comparably high outcomes and results in student achievement, is the degree to which those schools and districts can say that they are truly excellent because they are producing equitable outcomes for all students. Clearly this era of school reform and high achievement of standards is calling for equity-based excellence. Nothing else will do. The twenty-first century can tolerate no less.


  1. Do all students have access to schools, courses and programs in a non-discriminatory manner?
  2. Are the educational interventions, including instruction, curriculum, materials and support, structured to respond to the varying characteristics of diverse learners?
  3. To what degree do these educational interventions represent the best of what is known from current research about achievement and equity as they relate to minority, poor, female and special-needs students?
  4. Do these interventions take a “non-deficit” approach to the varying characteristics of learners?
  5. Are the educational interventions truly student-centered or are they teacher- and/or system-centered?
  6. Are the educational interventions supported by the resources necessary to provide the strongest impact, in a way that is pedagogically appropriate, for those who are farthest away from the desired standards of excellence?
  7. Do the educational interventions produce comparable academic and other school outcomes for populations of learners of different characteristics, including race, ethnicity, language, economic level, gender and special needs?
  8. Can learners of differing characteristics perform at comparably high levels of competency on appropriate measures and assessments as a result of the educational interventions provided?
  9. If different learners are not performing comparably well academically, has a strategy been developed and implemented to correct the systemic instructional deficiency?
  10. What is the evidence that all educational interventions are provided in a context of respect, high regard, positive expectation for success and a sense of valuing of the differing characteristics of diverse learners?


  • Children are entitled to have parents, advocates and concerned educators involved in all decisions affecting their education.
  • Children are entitled to learn in an integrated, heterogeneous setting responsive to different learning styles and abilities.
  • Children are entitled to comprehensible, culturally supportive and developmentally appropriate curriculum and teaching strategies.
  • Children are entitled to access to a common body of knowledge and the opportunity to acquire higher-order skills.
  • Children are entitled to a broadly-based assessment of their academic progress and grading structures that enhance individual strengths and potential.
  • Children are entitled to a broad range of support services that address individual needs.
  • Children are entitled to attend schools that are safe, attractive and free from prejudice.
  • Children are entitled to attend school unless they pose a danger to other children or school staff.
  • Children are entitled to instruction by teachers who hold high expectations for all students and who are fully prepared to meet the challenges of diverse classrooms.
  • Children are entitled to an equal educational opportunity supported by the provision of greater resources to schools serving students most vulnerable to school failure.

– National Coalition of Advocates for Students


Cárdenas, J.A. Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy. (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon & Schuster Custom Publishing, 1995), pp. 501-530.

Cárdenas, JA”Widening, Not Narrowing the Gap.” In S. Halperin (Ed.), Voices from the Field: 30 Expert Opinions of America 2000, the Bush Administration Strategy to ‘Reinvent’ America’s Schools. (Washington, D.C.: William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship and Institute for Educational Leadership, 1991), pp. 28-29.

Keating, P. and J. Oakes. Access to Knowledge: Removing School Barriers to Learning. (Denver, Colo.: The Education Commission of the States, 1988).

Lee, V.E., and J.B. Smith. Effects of High Restructuring and Size on Gains in Achievement and Engagement for Early Secondary School Students. (Madison, Wisc.: Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin and the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, 1994).

McKenzie, F.D. “Equity: A Call to Action.” In R.S. Brandt (Ed.), Challenges and Achievements of American Education. (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993), pp. 9-18.

National Coalition of Advocates for Students. “Introduction,” The Good Common School. (Boston, Mass.: The Eusey Press, 1991), pp. 3-9.

Network of Regional Desegregation Assistance Centers. Resegregation of Public Schools: The Third Generation. (Portland, Ore.: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1989), pp. 1-19.

Scott, B. “The Fourth Generation of Desegregation and Civil Rights,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 1995), pp. 3, 6, 11 and 20.

US Department of Education. Companion Document: Cross-Cutting Guidance for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, September 1996).

Bradley Scott directs the IDRA Desegregation Assistance Center. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]