More Equal and More Excellent? Yes, We Can!

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

While I’ve been debating the merits of the DC voucher study with Matt this morning, I’ve also noticed Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli have a colunmn attacking NCLB on NRO. They cite John Gardner’s question “Can we be equal and excellent too?” and argue that NCLB sacrifices excellence for the sake of equality – neglecting education for the top students in order to raise those on the bottom.

Their evidence? Students in the lowest decile have made big gains in the NCLB era, while those at the top have flat achievement scores.

The broader question of the tradeoffs made under NCLB I’ll leave for another day, but it seems worth pointing out that Checker and Mike’s evidence doesn’t back their argument; in fact, it backs the reverse.

Pop quiz!

Question One: If the kids at the bottom are doing better while the kids at the top stay the same, is the whole population getting more equal or less equal?

Question Two: If the kids at the bottom are doing better while the kids at the top stay the same, is the whole population getting more excellent or less excellent?

I’ve always agreed with NCLB critics that universal excellence is an unreasonable goal. But if it’s unreasonable, why are Checker and Mike holding that out as the goal by which NCLB should be judged?

On the other hand, if the current system is badly dysfunctional, then by correcting its worst flaws it may be possible to increase equality while also increasing excellence. Eventually we must reach a point where the two goals will start to diverge and we have to make tradeoffs. But that doesn’t mean we’re already at that point – as Checker and Mike’s evidence suggests.

Can we increase equality while increasing excellence? Yes, we can!

3 Responses to More Equal and More Excellent? Yes, We Can!

  1. Parry says:

    A post over at The Quick and the Ed ( suggests that most of the gains of students in the lowest decile occurred pre-NCLB implementation. Not entirely relevant to your main point, but (I thought) worth noting nonetheless.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Thanks – as you have surmised, my post was not intended to engage with the actual merits of Checker and Mike’s evidence, but to point out that even if we stipulate that evidence, it doesn’t mean what they think it means. Whether we should in fact stipulate it is a question on which I am saying nothing.

  3. […] Yes we can have more equity and more excellence, writes Jay Greene. […]

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