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Getting to Excellence with Equity

Ron Ferguson talks about opportunity, achievement, and raising the bar for all students
Magnifying Glass

Ronald Ferguson was one of the first scholars to bring widespread attention to the consequences — academic, moral, and economic — of educational inequity. In the years since people first began talking about the achievement gap, Ferguson has widened his scope of inquiry, developing a broad vision for correcting inequities that centers less on the differences between groups and more on raising the bar for all students.

Ferguson is faculty director of the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) at Harvard University and also faculty chair of an upcoming professional development institute called Closing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Excellence in Education (June 28–July 2, 2015). We asked him to talk about the institute and his latest observations.

You argue that educators and policymakers should focus less on “closing the achievement gap” and more on “excellence with equity.” What is the significance of that shift?

There are two issues. One is that just closing achievement gaps could give us equity without excellence. That would be insufficient for achieving the quality-of-life outcomes that we want for our kids. The second issue is that a narrow focus on racial equity inside schools and districts generates very little enthusiasm from families on the topside of the gap. If I’m a white parent, I may even fear that too much progress for my child might be seen as a setback for the district. This is real! I have spoken with more than one superintendent about complaints from white parents alleging their children are being neglected because of the focus on closing racial gaps.

So how can educators and districts respond?

In response to the first issue, I’m suggesting that the emphasis should be achieving excellence with equity. More specifically, the goal should be what I call “excellence with group proportional equality.” Imagine two bell-shaped curves representing achievement for two groups, one high achieving and the other low achieving. The excellence part of the goal is to move both curves upward over time toward superior outcomes. The group proportional equality part of the goal is to move the lower curve up faster and farther until the two curves become completely overlapping — until both groups are equally represented under each part of the curve. At this point, group membership conveys nothing at all about educational outcomes. That’s how I talk about the goal: completely overlapping curves at high achievement levels, characterized as excellence.

I suggest that local leaders should organize social movements for excellence with equity that engage all segments of the community. In addition, we should stop framing the equity goal as closing gaps between groups inside particular schools and districts. Instead, gap-closing goals should focus on gaps between local groups and external benchmarks. For students of color as a group in a particular school or district, the initial goal might be to reach and exceed state-level averages for white kids. For already-high-achieving kids of all groups, the goal might be to surpass the 75th percentile of the state distribution. Whatever the goal, the comparative benchmark should be external to the community.

How will this be addressed at this summer’s institute?

So, at the CAG institute, we ask, “What should striving for excellence with equity encompass? What are the experiences we want children to have in each of the settings where they spend their lives, and what are the things adults can do to create those experiences?” We look at what’s going on at home, school, and in their peer group. For the home piece, we talk about parenting — where we focus on the Fundamental Five early-childhood caregiving practices and on school-age interventions — and about parent engagement, or what schools can do to build community with families. We also talk about teaching that raises achievement and builds personal agency, peer dynamics that support rather than undermine success, community-level leadership and engaging the business community.

Today people are also talking about “opportunity gaps.” Does this echo what you’ve talked about in your work on early literacy and college access — that equity is a necessary ingredient in achievement?

Opportunity gaps are a focus of work at the Achievement Gap Initiative. In 2014, we published a conference report, Creating Pathways to Prosperity, which builds on the Pathways to Prosperity Project that I co-directed with Bob Schwartz, and that Bob has transformed into a multi-state network with Jobs for the Future. Among current projects, I am excited about a demonstration project working with community-based organizations to saturate neighborhoods with information and supports around the Fundamental Five early childhood caregiving practices that I mentioned earlier. And, for older children, we are working a lot with data from the Tripod Project [now based at Tripod Education Partners, Inc.], which I founded more than a decade ago to help school leaders understand what students of different racial, ethnic, and social class backgrounds experience at the classroom level. Beyond helping schools directly, data from Tripod surveys provide the AGI, graduate students, and research colleagues with a way study opportunity patterns in tens of thousands of classrooms from around the nation. The AGI will release a report this spring on how teaching affects opportunities and outcomes for sixth-to-ninth graders across 14,000 classrooms from the 2013–14 school year. The report will emphasize the relationship of teaching practices to student engagement, development of success mindsets, and personal agency.

Let’s get specific: What are the top three interventions that we ought to do, as a society, to get closer to equity?

I suppose I could name home visiting programs for new parents, tutoring programs for elementary school students, or school-to-career supports for adolescents.  But I resist naming interventions. Instead, I think there are basic principles. Interventions (both in-school and out-of-school) for any particular age group tend to be very similar in purpose, no matter what their label.  Generally, they’re focused on age-appropriate developmental goals. Children from particular backgrounds have some distinct needs, but most needs are common. As a society, the focus should not be to spread a short list of specific interventions, though interventions are important. Instead, the focus should be to embed key principles in the experiences we provide in all of the interventions where children (and even adults) spend time and develop.

Let me just list a few things that come to mind:

  • First, adults responsible for teaching and caring for children should have the tools, supports, and inducements necessary for doing their work well. We need arrangements — interventions, if you will — to equip parents and teachers with state of the art skills, social supports, and tools to do their work well, including appropriate forms of accountability.
  • Second, learning experiences across multiple settings need to help children overcome identity-related mindsets that can limit self-realization for individuals and perpetuate inequity for the society. Parents, teachers, and out-of-school-time providers need to help children from all backgrounds understand:
    • (regarding purpose) that their racial, ethnic, neighborhood, or social class origins do not limit what careers, life options, or interests they are entitled to choose.
    • (regarding personal growth) that their abilities are not determined by their social origins. No matter what skills they may have today, abilities can be developed — the brain actually changes physically — with hard work and determination.
    • (regarding belonging) that the world is just as much theirs as anyone else’s, so they should feel entitled to participate fully, even where they feel unwelcomed.
  • Third, local, state, and national systems that support children and families need development and maintenance. Often, diagnosing problems, monitoring progress, or mobilizing people to respond to a particular challenge or opportunity, are no one’s main job and they go undone. That’s why we need local movements, with strong leadership. I think groups like the national Strive Together organization are helping to make this happen.

What does your work focus on these days?

Beyond specific projects, my preoccupation these days — as I spelled out in a recent paper — is to help people understand that we are already in a social movement that is defining for the 21st century how we prepare young people for life. Several contemporary trends are converging and will compel us to make changes — from birth to career — in how the country prepares its young.

Among the most consequential trends is that the nation is undergoing an historic change in racial identity. As of 2011, the majority of babies born in the United States are children of color. Moreover, our fastest growing groups tend to be lowest achieving. So we have some work to do in helping children from lower-achieving groups to excel. But there is also a second trend: even white students in the United States are no longer leading the world. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), there are more than a dozen other nations where, by the time children reach 15, math problem-solving scores are higher than for white students in the United States. So there are gaps between various segments of the U.S. population, and there are gaps between even our high-performing groups and our international peers. That’s my preoccupation.

Learn more at Closing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Excellence in Education, a professional development institute led by Professor Ronald Ferguson, happening June 28–July 2, 2015.


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