What will it take to create a system of schools that prepare all children to thrive and succeed in this century? This question is at the heart of the U.S. Department of Education’s very recent report, For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence. Directed by Congress in 2010, the department called together a distinguished 27- member commission to recommend polices to overcome the “staggering” achievement gap between wealthy and poor children.
For Each and Every Child highlights five major policy areas: equitable school finance, improved teachers, leaders and curricula, expanding high-quality early education, mitigating poverty’s effects, and greater accountability. Taken together this bundle of policies constitutes the commission’s program for greater educational equity.
While these proposals are not strikingly original, they are laudable. I fear, however, they will be discussed, filed and forgotten: five years from now America’s underserved children will still attend schools unfit for learning. Sadly, I have history on my side: when it comes to educating poor children our national record is dismal dating back to the 19th century.
We have a bad habit ─talking the talk but not walking the walk when it comes to solving the problem of unequal educational opportunities. The fact that the commission’s proposals do not include cost estimates suggests we may be admiring the problem instead of fixing it. We are in our policy comfort zone. Perhaps it’s time for a reality check.
Here is the tough-love news: unequal educational opportunities are baked into the system. In a perverse way the system is eerily effective: it reproduces inequalities like clockwork. Educational inequalities are not an unfortunate by-product of an otherwise fair system, they are utterly predictable. Horace Mann’s “Great Equalizer” has become the “Great Unequalizer.”
In last week’s New York Times, Columbia University Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz emphasized what is increasingly well-known ─ economic mobility is lower in the United States than most of European countries and in all of Scandinavia. He stated, “Unless current trends in education are reversed, the situation is likely to get even worse. In some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity: government support for many state schools has been steadily gutted over the last decades ─and especially the last few years.”
To create a fair, dynamic system of schools we need a Big Think, not a rehash of ideas that have been kicking around policy shops for over thirty years. By a Big Think I mean at least four things:
- Let’s start with the real needs of disadvantaged children today;
- Let’s have the courage to honestly examine what we mean by equity in an age of innovation and opportunity;
- Let’s embrace change and create schools of purpose, energy, community and creativity for all children; and
- Let’s walk the walk and fund excellence for all children.
None of these things, however, will bend history toward justice if we are not willing to unpack the system as it currently operates. Reducing structural inequalities requires structural changes–including rethinking the nature of the classroom, the nature of learning, and the organization of schooling. The Department of Education is to be congratulated for taking an important step down the steep and stony road of educational equity. We need to expand this conversation and find the political will to turn fine words into real actions.
Photo Credit: GWU