Partisan political discourse—the language of campaigning and advocating for policy—is trapped in the power and allure of cliche and cultural myths. Even those leaders we might designate as the best or right type of leaders are trapped in a disturbing truism about the power of their messages: “more often than not, the less sophisticated story remains entrenched—the unschooled mind triumphs,” Howard Gardner explains.

Gardner has identified that the five-year-old mind, bound by a proclivity for either-or thinking and limited to simplistic truths, is essentially the public mind that leaders must speak to in order to succeed—to be elected, for example, and then to have policy implemented.

Gardner’s analysis of leadership explains why political leaders in the U.S. prefer and succeed by invoking a message claiming that Americans currently live in a meritocracy (a claim refuted by the rising inequity in the U.S.) instead of speaking to the need for America to continue working toward the possibility of a meritocracy.

In education, as in society, holding individuals accountable for their actions is a powerful paradigm within a meritocracy. If all is equitable, then human choices and behaviors are more easily assigned in a causational way to individuals. Political and public discourse as well as social and education policy work within an accountability paradigm based on the assumption that the U.S. is a meritocracy.

And therein lies fundamental errors in claims about equity in the U.S.: Accountability without meritocracy is not only flawed but a mechanism for entrenching inequity.

Education reform, then, must reject the accountability paradigm, and then embrace an equity paradigm as a reform strategy seeking the possibility of achieving a meritocracy.

Equity-based Reform

Education reform is trapped by the same problems identified by Gardner in his examination of leadership: Simplistic claims about education and schools as well as the concurrent simplistic calls for reform are all more powerful in the five-year-old mind than nuanced and evidence-based claims and potential reforms.

“No Excuses” Reform claims and solutions, then, resonate within the meritocracy/accountability norm, a norm that is hollow but powerful. Instead, Social Context Reform offers claims and solutions for education reform that acknowledge America has yet to attain a meritocracy because we have yet to insure either social or educational equity.

Here, then, are some of the foundational reforms needed to shift away from an accountability paradigm and toward an equity paradigm for reform:

• Universal health and eye care for all people 25 and under.

• Policy to insure food security for all people 25 and under.

• Universal child care for all families in the U.S.

• Policy to support and reform workers’ rights in the U.S. This policy must address wages, health care, retirement, and due process. Currently, workers have dramatically reduced leverage against employers because too many basic human rights are linked entirely to their work status. To be a worker should be a subset of being a human, not the other way around.

• Reform the power and role of the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) away from issuing mandates and toward functioning as a mechanism of oversite, specifically in terms of equity. Form regional USDOE sites that monitor equitable school funding, for example, based on the unique cost of living standards within each region.

• Eliminate all high-stakes accountability mandates (standards-based reform) from schools and implement mechanisms of transparency whereby schools are guaranteed autonomy but required to make all practices and outcomes transparent to the public.

• Eliminate high-stakes testing and tracking in schools, policies that are reflections of and perpetuate inequity.

• Identify and reform teacher assignment by addressing the historical and inequitable assigning of teachers that allow experienced and accomplished teachers to serve privileged students while inexperienced and struggling teachers are assigned to students who suffer under the weight of inequity in their home lives.

Social and educational reform built in the pursuit of equity—and not distorted by meritocracy/accountability paradigms—is genuine reform that confronts enduring cultural myths and acknowledges that no single social institution (including public schools) can succeed without understanding the powerful influence of inequity in the life of any single person.

The irony, of course, is that Gardner admits that the unschooled mind is resistent to the exact schooling needed for any sort of real social reform.

But we must remind ourselves that women’s right and civil rights did not appear on the back of claims that gender and racial equity already existed. Equity comes only when we acknowledge where it does not yet exist.

America is not yet a meritocracy, and our schools reflect and perpetuate that regrettable reality. This admission is the first step to equity-based reform that can succeed where our accountability culture is failing us.