Connecting the Dots: Inequality and Education and the Need for Community

As we Race to the Top and offer states "flexibility" on NCLB, evidence continues to mount that our efforts to improve educational outcomes are focused on the wrong problem. Rather than making public education the Great Equalizer that it was among people now ages 55-64, who still lead the world in high school completion and college enrollment, we now use it to compound large socioeconomic inequities. In fact, the U.S. is now the least economically mobile country in the developed world; it's harder to move out of poverty here (though easier to slide into it) than in any competitor nation. Education policies that reverse this trend, then, and that alleviate the impacts of inequality, are critical to closing the opportunity gaps that are at the root of achievement gaps.

Last year, Russell Sage issued a 550-page tome, Whither Opportunity?, in which leading education scholars offered rigorous, data-based evidence that education policies biased toward the rich are exacerbating our growing income and wealth gaps, making the American Dream ever more elusive. It should have been hard to ignore that massive body of evidence that current "reforms" cannot fix what ails our education system. But it wasn't.

Congressmen Mike Honda's and Chaka Fattah's 2011 Equity and Excellence Commission, which was established in US DOE Office of Civil Rights, issued its report, "For Each and Every Child," in February 2013. The Commission was charged with informing the Department regarding disparities in opportunities and how to address them. It focused in particular on the long-neglected issues of school funding equity and state school finance systems. The report's core recommendations fill holes in standards-based policies: school finance reform, preschool, and comprehensive student supports, as well as more effective means of ensuring quality teachers in struggling schools and of ensuring strong, holistic accountability.

"This report comes out in the context of growing concentrated student poverty in districts across the country." -- ELC David Sciarra, June 19, 2013 webinar.

On the heels of the Equity Commission, the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education published an April 2013 comprehensive assessment of the lack of progress attained by a decade of narrow reforms in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Market-oriented Education Reforms' Rhetoric Trumps Reality brought to light the near-total lack of achievement gains in the three urban districts that led the way in using test scores to make high-stakes decisions about teachers and entire schools. Relative to other high-poverty heavily minority urban districts, these three also made less progress toward closing race- and income-based achievement gaps. The report explores, as well, systemic and community damage, such as loss of neighborhood hubs due to school closures, and resource deprivation for the highest-risk students and their teachers and schools as charter schools were put in their place instead. Finally, it points to the irony that, while more holistic initiatives with real potential to raise achievement and narrow gaps were also implemented in each of the three cities, lack of attention to them has made their scaling up and replication less likely than that of strategies that do harm.

The latest institution to chime in is the Council on Foreign Relations, which released the newest report in its Renewing America Scorecard series this month. CFR echoes the findings of the Equity Report Commission, BBA, and others: "The real scourge of the U.S. education system--and its greatest competitive weakness--is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student's academic career," writes Rebecca Strauss, associate director for CFR's Renewing America publications.

The report uses data at each point in the education trajectory -- from preschool through college dropout -- to make a strong case that the U.S. is not so much falling behind as pulling apart. In the earliest years, we put ourselves at a disadvantage by enrolling only 69 percent of U.S. children in preschool, compared to a rate of 81 percent among our allies. And this does not account for the reality that, because the American preschool system is heavily private, that 69 percent represents only about half of low-income children versus nearly all high-income youngsters, nor the difference in average quality between the two groups' options. And while we can get more students to college, lack of preparation, support, and resources raises our drop-out rate substantially. In the K-12 years between, funding and other inequities keep low-income and minority children far behind.

A problem that extends far beyond schools requires remedies that also reach much further. Districts that recognize this are partnering with a range of community institutions -- community-based organizations, local government, and health and youth development agencies -- to provide opportunities and supports that meet schools' and students' specific needs. These partners enhance students' school readiness, keep them physically and mentally healthy, and thus, in school and focused, and connect them with mentors. They strengthen student engagement and make learning more meaningful by linking schools with business, higher education and arts and cultural institutions. Moreover, a strategy developed based on community input, and that employs community resources, is inherently more likely to succeed and be sustained than one perceived as a foreign intervention. Indeed, evidence shows that these strategies -- in a growing number of places like Syracuse, Cincinnati, and Multnomah County (Portland) Oregon -- are having a real impact. When the whole community focuses on supporting the whole child and the whole school, amazing things can happen.