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Thursday / August 17

The Need for Excellence With Equity

This three-part blog series contains excerpts from the book Guiding Teams to Excellence With Equity. In chapter 1, author John Krownapple explores “the why” behind our need for excellence with equity, Cultural Proficiency, and culturally proficient facilitators of professional learning and organizational change.

Cultural Proficiency can help us achieve the moral purpose of schools in a diverse democratic society—to  ensure excellence with equity in education (Blankstein & Noguera, 2015; Ferguson, 2007, 2015; Howard, 2015a; Lindsey, Kearney, Estrada, Terrell, & Lindsey, 2015; U.S. Department of Education, 2013). Achieving excellence alone may not be enough. For, as equity and social justice educator Gary Howard (2015b) reminds us, (1) excellence without inclusion is segregation and (2) excellence without equity is nothing more than elitism. In a democracy, excellence without equity is an oxymoron. Conversely, equity alone is not enough, because without excellence, equity could equate to mediocrity.

Considering these caveats, what does excellence with equity look like? From a Cultural Proficiency standpoint, it is a way of being. In living out excellence with equity, educators advocate for and ensure that every student receives the benefits of these assets:

  • High expectations: Access to a high-quality education, based on (1) a belief that every student will meet and exceed rigorous standards, and (2) a fundamental assumption that every educator will educate students to the highest of standards
  • Inclusion: (1) A strong sense of belonging, and (2) the educational benefits of a diverse environment and curriculum.
  • Cultural competence: The desire and ability to interact effectively with individuals across cultures and dimensions of difference.
  • Equity: Fairness; the specific supports that a student needs in order to access a high-quality education, as opposed to the same supports everyone else receives.

Why Choose Equity?

External approaches to excellence with equity have not gotten us far enough. Take our nation’s aspiration for equity in education as an example. The evidence is in (and has been in for quite some time) that we have fallen short of providing every student exactly what they need to succeed academically: we do not distribute opportunity equitably (U.S. Department of Education, 2012, 2013). This shouldn’t be news, and our current situation continues to call for urgent action. At the same time, the United States has certainly not remained apathetic or idle in response to its long-standing educational inequality.

Over the past sixty years, the United States has mandated equity in education through a series of judicial and legislative actions such as Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954), Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965; ESEA), Title IX (1972), and No Child Left Behind Act (2002; NCLB) (see table 1.1). On December 10, 2015, President Barack H. Obama expanded those efforts by signing into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). On that day President Obama stated, “With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamentally American ideal—that every child, regardless of race, income, background, the zip code where they live, deserves the chance to make of their lives what they will” (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). The ESSA contains many equity-related provisions including (for the first time) the requirement that schools prepare all students to succeed beyond PK–12 by meeting college- and career-readiness standards.

Table 1.1  Analysis of Three Acts Addressing Social Inequality
Legislation Civil Rights Act (1964) No Child Left Behind Act (2002) Every Student Succeeds Act (2015)
Spirit of Law


(moral goals)

Liberate U.S. citizens from systemic oppression (present since European colonization of North America) and discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  Guarantee equality for every U.S. citizen regardless of race (Kennedy, 1963). Bring justice and hope to all U.S. citizens and bring peace to the country (Johnson, 1964). Liberate students from failing schools by reauthorizing the  Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) to correct a system in which students from some demographic groups were more likely to succeed and other students were more likely to be left behind (Bush, 2012); increase student performance and reduce race- and class-based disproportionality in student outcomes between student demographic groups. Liberate students from failing schools by reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) to ensure teachers, schools, and states have what they need to meet the goals established in 2002 with NCLB: provide every child with an excellent teacher and high-quality education (Obama, 2015).
Letter of the Law


(technical goals)

●  Prohibit discrimination in public places.

●  Desegregate schools and other public facilities.

●  Make employment discrimination illegal


●  Disaggregate data to prevent schools from effectively hiding achievement gaps among student groups.

●  Establish state standards, test students annually, track progress, and ensure every student demographic group reaches proficiency in reading and math by 2013-2014.

●  Uphold protections for underserved students.

●  Maintain accountability expectations for low- performing schools.

●  Expands access to high-quality preschool.

●  Requires every school to teach every student to high standards.

Status toward achieving the Spirit of Law



Fifty years later, social inequality according to race still exists (Light, 2014), as evidenced by disparities between groups in:

●  median household income

●  average family wealth

●  percentage of demographic groups in poverty

●  unemployment rates

●  incarceration rates

●  housing

●  education.

Fourteen years after Congress passed NCLB, achievement gaps between student demographic groups still remain. There is no consensus that NCLB’s test-driven accountability system has led to increased growth in student performance or narrowed achievement gaps (CEP, 2015; NEA, 2015).


To be determined.


Mandates like these are laudatory in a society attempting to realize democracy by ensuring social justice through liberating itself from a tradition of perpetuating social and educational inequality. However, as with previous efforts, a tension remains between the spirit (intent) and the letter (literal interpretation) of the law because—by its very nature—a behavioral response from educators to a legislative mandate can take us only so far, and that’s not far enough.

Legislative mandates for equity in education and society have not succeeded in attaining the moral goal (the spirit of the law) set out in these judicial and legislative actions: that of liberating our students from systemic oppression. Despite the fact that legislative mandates have reached several technical goals (the letter of the law) and have caused some positive educational and social changes, they have fallen far short of delivering equitable student outcomes and of transforming the system into a system free from institutionalized inequity (figure 1.1).


Why Choose Inclusion?

In spite of its well-intentioned goals, the standards-based educational reform movement that culminated with NCLB (2002) and led to ESSA (2015) may have actually worked against our nation’s youths receiving the benefits of diverse and inclusive schools and classrooms. The movement started under President Ronald W. Reagan with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). It formed national goals and content standards under President George Herbert W. Bush in 1989 and enacted a standards-based vision under President William J. Clinton in 1994. It was then—in the 1990s—when K–12 policy context shifted in ways that accepted and emphasized separate but equal (equally accountable) schools and classrooms—what some have referred to as neo-Plessyism, drawing from a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld segregation as constitutional (table 1.2).


Before the 1990s, K–12 schools in the United States had a growing focus on multicultural education and curriculum development with an intention of teaching and learning within diverse environments. Emerging research was substantiating the value of social outcomes, group work, and pedagogy that emphasized relating across differences and—overall—ongoing and intentional engagement with diversity so that students might receive maximum educational benefits.

However, during the 1990s the K–12 educational policy context shifted away from this diversity and inclusion focus and toward a focus on equity and outputs. The mantra became educating all students to high standards and closing achievement gaps in any environment, including environments racially and socioeconomically diverse or isolated. Educational equity became about teaching every student well in any neighborhood, school, or classroom. There was no need to focus on integration and inclusion as long as the focus was on equal outputs.

While the nation narrowed its attention to the use of standardized test scores to measure progress, our public schools seemed to become less concerned about actively developing diverse and inclusive—or even integrated—schools and classrooms to influence positive educational outcomes for all. What resulted from this era of heavy-handed accountability and standardized testing is a “public education system that is simultaneously becoming increasingly diverse in terms of its student population and increasingly segregated and unequal” (Wells, Fox, & Cordova-Coba, 2016, p. 6). In 2016 U.S. schools were more racially and socioeconomically segregated than they had been in decades (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2016).

Meanwhile, as our K–12 trajectory was becoming clear in the 1990s, higher education in the United States moved in the other direction (table 1.2). Leaders of the nation’s colleges and universities worked to establish policies (such as race-conscious admissions) to help shape campuses that are often more diverse than the college students’ prior PK–12 schools. But proximity does not ensure connectivity, nor does it guarantee that students receive any of the other benefits of diversity. Campuses also have to be inclusive (figure 1.2).


Certainly our institutions of higher education have much work to do around inclusion, as evidenced by the 2015 surge of college student activism calling for such (Barnhardt & Reyes, 2016; Wong, 2015). Nevertheless, the commitment of higher education to diversity and inclusion has been strengthened over the past two decades as the result of its own research that revealed the numerous educational benefits of diversity and inclusion for all students. These benefits are not restricted to minority students, which is a common misperception (Bowman, 2010; Crisp & Turner, 2011; Engberg, 2007; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002; Haas, 1999; Ruggs & Hebl, 2012).

Benefits of diversity and inclusion include

  • Boosted self-efficacy;
  • Greater social and emotional well-being;
  • Enhanced learning outcomes;
  • Increased intercultural and cross-racial knowledge, understanding, and empathy;
  • Better preparation for employment in the global economy; and
  • Increased democratic outcomes.

In its report, How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students, The Century Foundation—a progressive public policy think tank that seeks to foster opportunity, reduce inequality, and promote security at home and abroad—concluded that the lack of maximizing educational benefits through diversity and inclusion as a defining theme within PK–12 schools and classrooms is troubling (Wells, Fox, & Cordova-Coba, 2016, p. 20). The foundation urges stakeholders to pay more attention to this issue and use it to envision a PK–12 system that develops the empathy, understanding, and cross-cultural skills requisite of a healthy and increasingly diverse democratic society.

We Need More Than Mandates and Behavior

These facts show that achieving moral goals of inclusion and equity requires more than a behavioral response from educators to a legislative mandate. It requires a moral response from educators to a “mandate of the heart” (CampbellJones, CampbellJones, & Lindsey, 2010, p. 113). For example, we must work toward equitable student outcomes because we believe it’s right and morally just to do so, not because we’ll get punished if we don’t. We must create diverse and inclusive schools because we value humanity and the well-being of students, even in the absence of an external mandate forcing us to do so. Inclusion and equity are each a moral summons.

When it comes to morality, policy and legislation in and of themselves are limited. In the best of all possible worlds (Voltaire, 1759/2000), we would do what is morally right without the pressure of the law; but in the world we live in, legal constraints and demands can function to push us toward better behavior. Still, if we do what’s right simply because of the fear attached to not following the law, that’s a problem. Fear of sanction or punishment is a negative motivation that results in minimal compliance, at best. Once minimal compliance is met and the fear is removed, motivation ceases (Deming, 2000).

We will surely continue to allow exclusive or segregated—or at best integrated (figure 1.2)—schools and classrooms unless we educators value the why behind inclusion. We’ll continue to fall short of our equity aspirations (figure 1.1) unless we stop reacting mindlessly to the technical aspects of equity mandates. Instead, we need to choose to move their spirit forward (Lindsey, 2011). Mandates clearly serve to protect us from our worst selves, but they do not bring about our better selves. And to fulfill the promise of democracy through our schools, we need to work on becoming our better selves, and becoming our better selves is a personal journey.


Barnhardt, Cassie L. & Reyes, Kimberly A. (2016, March 2). Embracing Student Activism. Higher Education Today. Retrieved from:

Blankstein, Alan M. & Noguera, Pedro. (2015). Excellence Through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Bowman, Nicholas A. (2010, March). College diversity experiences and cognitive development: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research. 80(1). 4-33.

CampbellJones, Franklin; CampbellJones, Brenda; and Lindsey, Randall B. (2010). The cultural proficiency journey: moving beyond ethical barriers to profound school change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2011). Cognitive adaptation to the experience of social and cultural diversity. Psychological Bulletin, 137(2), 242–266.

Deming. (2000). Out of the Crisis (Reprint Ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Engberg, M. E. (2007). Educating the workforce for the 21st century: A cross-disciplinary analysis of the impact of the undergraduate experience on students’ development of a pluralistic orientation. Research in Higher Education, 48(3), 283–317.

Ferguson, R. F. (2007). Toward excellence with equity: An emerging vision for closing the achievement gap. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Ferguson, Ron. (2015, Jan. 26). Getting to Excellence with Equity: Ferguson Talks about Opportunity, Achievement, and Raising the Bar for All Students. Retrieved from:

Gurin, P., Dey, E. L., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 330–366.

Haas, M. (1999, March 22). Research shows diverse environment has educational benefits. The University Record, University of Michigan.

Howard, Gary. (2015a). We Can’t Lead Where We Won’t Go: An Educator’s Guide to Equity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Howard, G. (2015b). Deep equity. [Workshop]. Westlake Village, CA, January 9, 2015.

Lindsey, Randall B. (2011). The best of corwin. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Lindsey, Delores B., Kearney, Karen M., Estrada, Delia, Terrell, Raymond D., and Lindsey, Randall B. (2015). A culturally proficient response to the common core: ensuring equity through professional learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform: a report to the nation and the secretary of the United States Department of Education. Washington, DC: The Commission.

Ruggs, E., & Hebl, M. (2012) Diversity, inclusion, and cultural awareness for classroom and outreach education. In B. Bogue & E. Cady (Eds.), Apply Research to Practice (ARP) resources. CulturalAwareness_Overview.pdf

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2012) Helping to Ensure Equal Access to Education: Report to the President and Secretary of Education, Under Section 203(b)(1) of the Department of Education Organization Act, FY 2009 –12. Washington, D.C.

U.S. Department of Education. (2013) For Each and Every Child—A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence. Washington, D.C.

U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Every student succeeds act. Retrieved from:

U.S. Government Accountability Office (2016, April 21). Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination. Retrieved from:

Voltaire. (1759). Candide. Retrieved from:

Wells, A. S., Fox, L. & Cordova-Cobo, D. (2016, February 9). How racially diverse schools and classrooms can benefit all students. Washington, DC: The Century Foundation.

Written by

John Krownapple specializes in facilitating professional learning and organizational development focused on social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Since 2007 he has led the development and implementation of one of the first and most comprehensive Cultural Proficiency programs in the United States. John continues to administer this program for the Howard County Public School System (Maryland) in his role of coordinator for Cultural Proficiency, where he has guided movement toward inclusion and equity for a variety of teams and groups: organizational leaders, staff members, partners, government officials, students, and families. In his book Guiding Teams to Excellence with Equity: Culturally Proficient Facilitation, he offers professional development leaders knowledge, skills, and dispositions for facilitating Cultural Proficiency in their organizations. As an educator for two decades, John has served as a district office administrator, professional development facilitator, curriculum specialist, and elementary teacher. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and McDaniel College.


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  • This is a profound article…Thank you

    • Thank you! What do you find most helpful? -john

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