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Ronald Ferguson, Director of the Achievement Gap Initiative and Lecturer at Harvard University, proposes that parents must be part of a broader movement for excellence with equity.

Agreement is spreading in the U.S. that our future vitality as a nation hinges on our success over the next few decades at raising achievement levels for all groups while narrowing achievement gaps between groups—in other words, achieving excellence with equity. In order to achieve our intellectual potential as a nation, we need both formal and informal reforms that target teaching, youth peer cultures, out-of-school time supports, and other influences that shape what children know, can do, and come to value. We need a social movement for excellence with equity, in which parenting for high achievement is an important component.

From infancy on, parent–child interaction practices affect cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. Parents also cultivate supports outside the home and try to protect their children from associated dangers. Because children do not arrive with instruction manuals, parents draw largely on personal experience—including the ways in which they themselves were parented—to guide their decisions. In this manner, parenting practices may pass from generation to generation, reflecting the threats and opportunities to which past generations adapted in their efforts to survive and prosper. Racial and social class identities and opportunity structures have, over generations, presented families with different options, which, in turn, have lead systematically to racial and social class differences in parenting, as parents have endeavored to prepare their offspring for expected threats and opportunities.

As threats and opportunity structures have changed across the generations, so also have the most effective modes of parenting. However, in the face of these changes, there are impediments to effective adaptation. Some parents lack well-informed sources of ideas about what to do differently. Some also lack support from employers, extended family members, school officials, purveyors of popular culture, and people in a host of other roles that affect what is really feasible for parents to do for their children.

Related Resource

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

Several months ago, I met with about a dozen business and school system leaders who are concerned about the impact of achievement levels and gaps on their region’s quality of life, race relations, and the future availability of skilled labor. I began the discussion by posing the following question: “What would we do if we were really serious about raising achievement and closing gaps?” A business leader in the group responded, “We are serious, so what should we do?” My response was something like the following:

If we were serious, we would mobilize a social movement for excellence with equity. It would engage all segments of the community. Inside that movement, there would be strategies, policies, programs, and projects that that pushed us to reorder our individual and collective priorities in the interests of young people from birth through early adulthood. Parents, teachers, youth workers, and other community members would embrace one another as allies. There would be efforts to supply clear, coherent guidance to people in every role—including parents—to help them perform as effectively as possible, informed by the best available ideas and evidence. People who struggled in their roles would be given extra supports; people who shirked their responsibilities would be pressured to improve. Progress in the design, implementation, and evaluation of community-level initiatives would be monitored and reported in ways geared to foster both supports and pressures for the work to get done expeditiously. Celebration would be common as a way of recognizing and rewarding progress, but it would be balanced by efforts to identify and implement ways of continuing to improve and holding one another accountable.

In my recent book, Toward Excellence With Equity: An Emerging Vision for Closing the Achievement Gap, I advocate just such a vision. I argue that this vision will become more plausible as regions develop sophisticated “excellence with equity engines.” Engines will be well-funded private sector organizations whose purpose is to “push and pull” their regions to stay focused over the next several decades on achieving excellence with equity. With regard to parenting in particular, they will provide employers, schools, and other organizations with tools and incentives to support parents more effectively. In addition, they will instigate the formation of new social and institutional structures through which parents can meet and learn from both experts and other parents.

Those of us who embrace the vision have a responsibility to develop more detailed and persuasive arguments to help build these engines. Without engines in a movement for excellence with equity, I fail to understand how we can succeed at a level that is worthy of our nation and our children.

Ronald F. Ferguson, Ph.D.
Lecturer in Public Policy & Senior Research Associate
Wiener Center for Social Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Faculty Co-Chair & Director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Tel: 617-495-1104

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