Definitions:What Do We Mean by Excellence and Equity?

"An Excellent School: Relationships, Resources, Pathways"
James, GED graduate and youth activist

Americans differ in their ideas of what educational excellence means. High levels of achievement in literacy and mathematics constitute one definition of excellence. Possessing the character and knowledge to achieve excellent life outcomes is another.

But education reformers increasingly believe that in a democratic, pluralistic society, true excellence also requires equity, or a high-quality education for all students. Many communities expect schools to educate all students to understand and practice democracy and citizenship; be conversant in the dominant culture but respect and explore others; help build a thriving economy; and become productive members of families and communities. Each of these purposes of schooling implies different definitions of excellence and has different implications for equity.

Because equity and excellence in education have multiple meanings, we have asked several prominent educational scholars to outline the definitions of equity and excellence that motivate their work on improving educational opportunities for all students.

Three core essays featured in this section explore equity and excellence as complementary concepts that both need to be considered when addressing educational resources, outcomes, instructional processes, and evaluation.

Charles V. Willie(1) discusses the complementarity of equity and excellence.

Education has a dual function of enhancing individuals and strengthening communities. An important function of the community is to support and sustain people. We cannot advance the development and learning of knowledge by dealing with the individual only. We must also pay attention to collectivities such as school communities and to their organizational effects on individuals.

To help us understand interaction between students and schools, we must develop conceptual approaches that will help integrate our observations and experiences. Complementarity is the major concept that has helped me to understand this interaction. The student is a person and the school is a group. All individuals depend on groups and other collectivities for their survival. There is no evidence that individuals can grow and prosper without help from groups. And there is no evidence that groups can exist and function without the presence of individuals. Thus, the individual and the group are complementary(2) . One without the other is incomplete.

In other words, instead of sorting out and segregating individuals by race, gender, socioeconomic status, and other cultural characteristics, we, in education, should be discovering creative ways of putting together different people with different talents, intelligences, and experiences so that one can do for another what the other cannot do for his- or herself.

"The Ideal School: Resources"
Kenny, College student and youth activist

Education, therefore, should focus neither on cultivating excellence at the expense of equity nor on cultivating equity at the expense of excellence. In a well-ordered society, the goal of education is to seek both excellence and equity because they are complementary. One without the other is incomplete.

Continue reading: Core Essays

Charles V. Willie is the Charles William Eliot Professor of Education, emeritus, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
(1) Willie, Charles V. 2006. "The Real Crisis in Education: Failing to Link Excellence and Equity," Voices in Urban Education 10 (Winter, Equity after Katrina), pp. 11-19.
(2) Willie, Charles V. 1994. Theories of Human Social Action, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.