I've learned from the media that many in our country are disturbed about economic inequality, with lots of attention given to the income and wealth gaps between the 1 percent and .1 percent and the 99 percent. While it is sad to see how simplistically most reporters and journalists treat so complex an issue, I am not qualified to join that conversation. Nevertheless, I do have some very strong views about the inequality of opportunity that many young people face in schools. And I have ideas about how such inequality might be addressed in schools and how success in doing so would impact the larger society as well.
I believe that schools can make a contribution to reducing overall inequality of opportunity in our society and economy but in what might appear a contrary way: by actually creating inequality in schools. Yes, contrary to what might be common wisdom, I propose that schools fight inequality with inequality.
Current efforts to address inequality are not working. What's killing us is trying, in the name of "equity," to provide the exact same learning opportunities for every learner. I am not alone in pointing out that schools abuse learners by insisting that every one of them master the same learning standards, at the same time, in pretty much the same way, and are assessed using the same tests. These policies and the practices they provoke appear to be deliberately designed to harden the inequality of opportunity that learners show up with. Such policies and practices deny students the freedom to maximize their talents and strengths.
Failing to respond to the obvious differences in interests and talents that young people bring to school, educators provide a politically correct yet destructive "sameness of opportunity" that is meant to prepare each student for work and life in a future workplace and society that few understand. The current fixation on STEM programs for "all" is one example of such wrong-headed prescriptions, as is the requirement that every student take algebra as a pathway to college and career success.
To state the obvious: There is no one path to success and no one best way to prepare for it! Given this, schools can prepare all students for success by providing very different learning opportunities for each child based on the interests and assets he brings to school. Schools need to discover these assets, see the potential for unequaled or outsized accomplishments, and create a decidedly unequal program for each learner.
Consider that many inequalities (for example, dyslexia) are often neither deficits nor barriers to outsized accomplishments. In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink, observed:
One remarkable recent study found that self-made millionaires are four times more likely than the rest of the population to be dyslexic. Why? Dyslexics struggle with the L-Directed [Left-Brain] Thinking and the linear, sequential, alphabetic reasoning at its core. But as with a blind person who develops a more acute sense of hearing, a dyslexic's difficulties in one area lead him to acquire outsized ability in others. As Sally Shaywitz, a Yale neuroscientist and specialist in dyslexia, writes, "Dyslexics think differently. They are intuitive and excel at problem-solving, seeing the big picture, and simplifying. ... They are poor rote reciters, but inspired visionaries.
When you get down to the individual learner level, it's all about creating inequalities based on assets -- talents and interests -- oftentimes already under development and with potential for more. Blossoming inequality! A teacher's dream! An opportunity to engender aspiration and deep engagement!
How might we design schools that help each learner find his niche and stance in the world and develop and strengthen each student's potential for unequaled accomplishment? Consider these for starters:
• Pay attention to the whole child - their interests, talents, previous experiences, challenges, and family and community connections.
• Work with and from students' strengths. By doing so, over time, the weaknesses get addressed or are so diminished when compared to strengths that they become insignificant.
• Provide multiple ways for learners to show what they know and can do.
• Expand learning opportunities by recognizing and nurturing talents that young people have that are typically not recognized or supported in traditional schools.
• Abandon the harmful notion that every student must graduate high school with the exact same knowledge and skills.
• Diminish attention to remediation as the central feature of a student's experience; focus on strengths.
There are schools that do all of this and more to help each and every learner excel. In Camden, Providence, Sacramento, Nashville, and Oakland, I have seen high schools that provide a decidedly unequal, one-student-at-a-time learning program that produces a very diverse set of successful graduates. Such schools celebrate differences, nurture outliers, and encourage diversity. Such an approach can work for each and every student because it is focused on each and every student.
Our country desperately needs differently talented and accomplished young people to successfully address the challenges they will face in their lives as well as those we face as a society and community. Schools can make a real contribution to this goal by providing decidedly unequal learning opportunities for their students, customized differences that will make a difference for all of us.