Is America Ready to Talk About Equity in Education?

chatanoogaclassroomFor more than a decade, the debate around student achievement has been limited by the narrow parameters of  No Child Left Behind, almost completely shutting out any real discussion about the deep economic inequalities that hold back millions of students across the country. For all the talk about the achievement gap, lawmakers haven’t spent near enough time addressing the “opportunity gap.”

Maybe the climate is changing. In February, the Equity and Excellence Commission, a group of experts, economists and civil-rights leaders appointed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, issued a report called “For Each and Every Child”that outlined a policy framework that could begin to turn socioeconomic disparities around and give low-income students a chance at academic success.

“States and local districts will, as always, share the primary authority for delivering education, but the federal government must take more seriously its profoundly important responsibility to assist and encourage states and districts, and, if necessary, ameliorate resulting inequities,” the report stated. “We must avoid a future that continues to consign millions of poor children to inadequate schools lacking the great teachers and principals they need. We hope to kindle a sense of urgency that is both passionate and compassionate, keeping our eyes on the prize, instead of distracting ourselves in searches for villains and celebrations of heroes.”

The Commission recommended more equitable school financing systems, measures to ensure effective teachers and curriculum, and access to high quality early childhood education. The Commission called on the federal government to help relieve inequalities in partnership with states and local districts.

“We know that education creates opportunity and helps to ensure a level playing field for students who might be attending schools that are not equipped with the most up-to-date tools and resources,” NEA President and commission member Dennis Van Roekel said upon the release of the report. “The real challenge for our education system is in lifting up all districts so all students attend well-staffed and well-resourced schools.”

A more immediate challenge, however, is to keep these issues in the spotlight and move equality strategies forward. Last week, Van Roekel joined Stanford professor and fellow commission member Linda Darling-Hammond, Joe Bishop of the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and teacher Renee Moore for a webinar sponsored by the Center for Teaching Quality and the NEA to discuss how to translate the commission’s findings into real and sustainable action.

“It’s not right that the richest, most powerful nation on earth is not dealing with the issues that are affecting this country’s youth,” Van Roekel said. “We’re on the cusp of a movement to address education opportunity gaps. These gaps are real. It depends on your zip code. It depends on the socioeconomic status of parents. It’s wrong and we need to build addressing this issue into everything we do.”

Bishop compared the potential impact of “For Each and Every Child” to “A Nation at Risk,” the hugely influential 1983 report that warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in America’s schools. Although the focus is clearly different, the Commission report also serves as a national call-to-action, one that can succeed if educators are playing more substantive and active roles, Bishop said.

“The education reform movement has been focusing on the wrong drivers. Educators cannot be the just the passengers anymore. They are the valued experts.”

The task Bishop said is for teachers and other stakeholders to bridge the gap between education policy and classroom practice and be advocates for the “opportunity infrastructure.”

“We’ve been talking a lot about standards and that’s great. But what we need to continue to push is that without the learning conditions, without the health, social and emotional supports for students, those standards are going to be very difficult to reach. This is even more important as the Common Core is rolled out,” Bishop said.

“It’s a good moment for practitioners to speak up now about equity,” commented Linda Darling Hammond of Stanford University. Darling-Hammond expressed optimism that the national dialogue surrounding public education has turned away from the “search for villains, the finger pointing, the naming and shaming.”

She also argued that the education establishment had taken a bit of “a bad rap” in not caring about equity issues and not willing to make the intense changes that are needed to push achievement and equity forward. Still, Darling-Hammond conceded that profession could do  a better job of communicating that this is now a top priority and be much more engaged in the policy discourse.

Renee Moore is a teacher in a corner of the Mississippi Delta that she calls “the poorest part of the poorest state in the nation.”  She commended the Equity Commission for getting the truth out about inequality and worsening poverty, which Moore said was a crucial first step in “moving the needle” on equity issues.  Moore also called on all education stakeholders to knock down the false notion that poverty is inconsequential to education.  “Poverty is not an ‘excuse,’ it is a debilitating and degrading condition to which millions of America’s children have been needlessly condemned,” Moore said.

“If we believe that education is the way out of poverty, then we need to stop making the schools that serve the poorer children the most impoverished schools. These schools should be by design well-resourced, well-staffed and be able to do what we know poor children need.”

Moore also urged that all stakeholders – teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders – encourage coalition-building and resource sharing and work to transform their schools into community hubs.

“Schools can provide safe places for students and their families, where many services can be coordinated to reach those that need them – for example, extended hours for enrichment, not just remediation, health screenings for families,” Moore explained. “Schools can bring people together so they see what’s needed and know what to tell their policymakers to do.”

Moore also cautioned that schools need to look beyond improving the skill sets of teachers who work in high-poverty areas. Although there are specific tools and resources these dedicated educators have to use, Moore echoed Joe Bishop’s call need to focus on the “opportunity infrastructure.”

“The ‘close the door and teach’ mentality hasn’t helped us. Individual teachers do great work, but the structure around us needs retooling.  The focus has to be on redesigning our schools, building coalitions, and putting teachers in positions of leadership. That’ll get us there faster than spreading best practices around for individual teachers, as important as that may be.”

Read “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence”