Want Real Innovation? Disrupt Inequity!






Let’s all answer what teachers call an essential question. The answer reveals core moral values and political judgments.

Should every child in the United States have access to the same level of high-quality education resources?

“Yes,” means bringing every public school up to the standards of class size, teaching effectiveness, curriculum and support resources, breadth of learning, and professional development for teachers that upper-middle-class families take for granted.

If you answer, “Yes,” without reservation, keep reading.  If your answer is, “No,” and you want to continue to ration education resources to keep rewarding the already privileged, you can stop reading because your values will lead you in a different political direction.  But I’d suggest that you develop an honest answer that you can both live with and defend when someone on the short end of resources asks you, “Why not?” to your, “No.”

Now, the follow-up question:

Is education equitable, now? 

Maybe that is rhetorical because by almost anyone’s measure the answer is, “No.”

Now, some people answer, “Yes,” to the first should question, but when what they advocate for or accept is analyzed it is clear in practice they meant, “No.”

Advocates for charter schools and vouchers say, “Yes,” to the equitable should but meant, “No,” because at best those efforts help only some children and drain limited resources from the schools that other children attend.

Anyone who defends the patently inequitable practice of funding public education through widely divergent local property taxes may say, “Yes,” to the equitable shouldbut meant, “No.”

Anyone who makes the case that turning the education of the nation’s children over to the market forces may say, “Yes,” to the equitable should but meant, “No,” because there is no arena in which competitive private enterprise has produced equity.

People who want to curb or end teachers unions may say, “Yes,” to the equitable should but meant, “No,” because states with unions have stronger education systems with better results than those without unions.

At best, there is a gap between intent and action.  At worst there is dishonesty or unwillingness to define and explore the first principles that frame solutions.

What are your first principles?

Before we jump to solutions, let’s start with first principles: Education should prepare every student for life, work, and citizenship. That is all three goals, not one or the other. All. That principle affirms equity and broad purpose education.

In the United States, education prepares some children for all three than better others. That is not a given. That is not a natural phenomenon.  That is a choice made politicians elected by the citizens who choose to vote. That is a result of too few people who believe in equity not questioning and pressing decision makers or worse.  That is a result of too few schools preparing students for participation in democratic citizenship.

Those are the problems.  We need to elect people who profess and fight for equity and democracy.

The United States rations education and as a result, some students graduate (or don’t) better prepared than others.  The factor that explains the most variation in education outcomes is the socioeconomic status of parents, which is linked to their level of education and their race. Of course, effective teaching matters, as does sufficient funding for small class size and resources.  But that is all a function of a by-design intentional continuum in which wealthiest kids get far more of what they need for high-quality education and the poorest get the least. That includes well off children having a life not burdened with things like insufficient nutrition, healthcare, and housing or the disruption of un- and under-employed parents.

Inequality has been the consistent status quo in our country. Inequality affects the majority of kids in the United States, not just the poorest.  Things got better for a while in the 1960’s and early 70’s, and since then it has gotten worse again.

It has gotten worse for at least two reasons. One is a several decade-long, bipartisan effort to shrink government efforts to promote the common good.  As a result, too little has been done to mediate the effects of globalization and job replacement due to technological advances. The other is a bipartisan withdrawal from efforts to promote integration.  Yes, Republicans have cynically led the way.  But, too many Democrats acquiesced in a shortsighted, politically naïve strategy that assumed white voters were hopelessly racist and that they could accept corporate donations without abandoning the very working-class voters they hoped to attract. That strategy was a dismal failure.

What can we do?

Want to disrupt the status quo?  Disrupt inequality.  Now, that would be innovative!

Start with ensuring free universal health care and pre-school and post-secondary education for everyone in the United States.

Next, reinvest federal and state funds to provide every American with a decent roof over their heads.

Then, invest in infrastructure, medical and scientific research, (especially climate change prevention), and the arts to improve the lives of all of us while creating well-paying jobs.  Increase Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.

Decouple education funding from local property taxes.  Instead, ensure that children most in need get more, not less.  Do not defund well-resourced public schools.  Instead, increase the rest to their level.  Stop giving resources to private schools. Instead, increase income, capital gains, and corporate taxes on the wealthy and almost wealthy.

Many of them will complain and lobby.  So what.  They are the minority.  If the rest of us vote on these issues, there are way more of us. We win.

Most important, stop blaming insecurity brought on by a globalized economy and replacement of low-skilled jobs by the latest technology on its victims.

This is what a society that values decency should, can, and must do.


Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist.  He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.

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