Education Opinion

The Changing Meaning of a Continuing Challenge

By Ellen Condliffe Lagemann — January 27, 1999 11 min read
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This is a discouraging moment to be writing about access to education in the United States. In a rush to raise standards, colleges and high schools seem to be pushing students out their doors rather than bringing them in. For the first time since such statistics have been collected, the United States has fallen behind most other industrialized countries in its high school graduation rates. How could we have allowed that to happen?

The meaning of access to education has, of course, changed over time. During the early history of this country, really until the late 19th century, access to education meant little more than acquiring the right to attend a public school. For white Americans, increasing access to education had primarily to do with hiring enough teachers and building enough schools so children could go to school relatively easily. White women were generally barred from formal education after the early years, but many of them surmounted the constraints of gender through informal means. For free African-Americans in the North, schooling was available usually in segregated schools. For enslaved black Americans, however, there simply was no access to formal schooling until after the Civil War. Then, with an energy that bespoke a people’s long-suppressed hunger for education, local groups within African-American communities in the South, supplemented by aid provided by Northern Protestant missionary groups, began to establish the facilities that would begin to offer access to education to all students of color.

Eliot did not merely advocate that schools assume a selection function they had not previously fulfilled; he also worked diligently and effectively to institutionalize that view. Losing the National Education Association as an effective medium thanks to challenges mounted by women teachers, Eliot and other college presidents instead sought to advance their cause through newly created philanthropic foundations like the Rockefellers’ General Education Board and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

With Eliot as its first board chairman and Henry S. Pritchett as its president, the Carnegie Foundation became a powerful lobbyist for a pyramid-like system of educational institutions that linked schools to colleges and colleges to professional schools while also differentiating among elite and less elite institutions, the elite being those with the most and best resources. In addition, through its frequent and widely disseminated reports--the best-known having been the Flexner Report on medical education--the Carnegie Foundation helped popularize an ideology that could rationalize the kind of educational system it was helping to build. Based in ideas having to do with merit, objectivity, and professionalism, this ideology made belief in the fairness and appropriateness of sorting according to tests of academic ability and achievement a commonplace of 20th-century American life. Obviously, this was not an entirely new belief at the turn of the century. Among others, Thomas Jefferson had enunciated it a century earlier. What was new was that the meritocratic ideal was becoming institutionalized in practice. Earlier schools, colleges, and professional schools had not been articulated in a system, let alone in a hierarchical system that screened students out at every level.

By the beginning of the 20th century, then, access to education was no longer a significant issue in terms of the general availability of schooling, though many people continued to choose to go to school for only a relatively few years. Thanks to the linkage between education and selection that had developed, the questions of import having to do with access to education were increasingly ones concerning the amount and kind of education one could gain entry to. Could one win a seat in the academic as opposed to the vocational or general track in high school? If so, could one also gain access to college? To the right college? And the best professional school? Those questions were central to many of the important educational developments of the 20th century: to the establishment of the College Board and then the Educational Testing Service; to James B. Conant’s efforts in behalf of the comprehensive high school; to passage of the GI Bill and later the various education acts of Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration; and to the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education and all that would flow from it.

Because education and selection were now linked, equality of educational opportunity became an important matter for reformers, civil rights leaders, and policymakers at every level of government. If life chances were to be distributed through school accomplishment, fairness required that all children have equal access at the start of the race. For a long time, it was assumed that this merely required equal inputs into education in the form of numbers and qualifications of teachers, numbers of textbooks, laboratories, and libraries, and the like. Then, in 1966, James S. Coleman’s massive survey of equality of opportunity in the nation’s schools, which had been mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, demonstrated that equal “inputs” did not necessarily result in equal “outputs.” The testable achievement of black and white children was not equal even when their schools, which tended still to be segregated throughout most of the country, were more or less equal in resources. Undermining cherished beliefs about the power of schooling to advance equality as well as about the malleability of schooling to relatively simple reforms, the Coleman Report and the subsequent studies it stimulated changed the meaning of access to education yet again.

After the Coleman Report, access to education came increasingly to be tied to results. Equal access now required not only that one have a chance to go to school and to enter a track for which one was suited by ability, but also that one leave school having gained as much as one’s classmates regardless of race, class, sex, or physical handicap. In pursuit of this new and enlarged conception of access to education, scholars of education began to unravel the little-understood “black box” of education--what it is that actually goes on inside schools and classrooms that helps or hinders teaching and learning. The growth in knowledge during the more than 30 years since Coleman’s survey appeared has been impressive. From studies of effective schools and teacher behavior to current efforts to foster teachers’ communities and design experiments based on principles derived from cognitive science, a great deal has been learned about what is required to grant all students access to education in the post-Coleman sense of the term.

Especially impressive when one remembers that there have been drastic declines in support for research from both public and private sources, the research record of the past 30 years promises possibilities for equalizing education that are unprecedented. So does the commitment to high standards and opportunities to learn for all students that governors, business people, and education leaders have articulated in recent years. Even if that commitment is still more rhetorical than real in terms of results, it is tremendously important to have linked equity and excellence by acknowledging that all children can achieve at high levels. And yet, despite these auguries of progress, we are graduating fewer young people from high school than Finland, Norway, Poland, South Korea, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Canada, and Ireland. Why is that?

I would venture a bet that the problem is a result of at least two factors. The first has to do with the growing and changing inequality outside of schools, which some social scientists call the new inequality. This is a situation in which increasing numbers of people are unable to work their way out of poverty because the employment prospects of workers with limited education have deteriorated so severely. While the past two years have shown some improvement, the long-term trends indicate declining wages and rising levels of unemployment for workers with no more than a high school education. These problems are particularly striking among African-Americans in urban areas. There is evidence that they are caused by discrimination among employers as well as by poor educational preparation in urban schools and geographic distance between inner-city workers and jobs springing up in the suburbs. The new inequality means that poverty and hardship are the most likely future prospects facing many young people who do poorly in school. Kids are smart; many find going to school an alienating and demeaning experience. Why persist if the people around you are poor, struggling, and going nowhere? Why believe the system will work better for you? Given the circumstances in which too many Americans live, it may well be that access to education will now require interventions in the labor markets that can help young people sustain their hopes that success in school will actually have a payoff, first, in admission to college, and then, in a good, secure job that offers a chance for advancement.

The second factor I believe is relevant to sustaining progress toward equal access to education has to do with our long-standing ambivalence about education. Americans love to talk about the importance of education. Most American presidents would like to be known as an “education president.” However, in the face of such sentiments, we continue to pay our teachers miserly salaries that, in some instances, are less than those paid to sanitation workers, and we blame teachers for the crisis in our schools rather than praising them for serving on the front line. To become a teacher in the circumstances many teachers face is heroic; to remain a teacher should make one eligible for sainthood. Our ambivalence is also evident in our unwillingness to acknowledge that education no less than agriculture, highway construction, medicine, and space discovery requires significant levels of research and development. As the President’s Panel on Technology noted last spring, we are failing our schools when we spend less than 0.1 percent of every education dollar on research.

American ambivalence toward education has made it woefully difficult to actualize access in what I have called the post-Coleman sense of the term. It has undermined our capacity really to deliver on the belief that all children should be given an education sufficiently powerful to allow them to achieve parity with their peers regardless of their group or ascriptive characteristics. Whatever side one takes in the ongoing debates about whether and how money matters in education, common sense should tell you that education is starved for the resources it needs to offer all children: adequate school buildings and equipment; well-trained, -paid, and -respected teachers; support staffs with loads that make it possible for them really to help students and their parents with the myriad school and nonschool problems that confront them; administrators who have the knowledge, skill, and authority necessary to be powerful instructional and community leaders ... the list could go on endlessly.

The Coleman Report told us there was not a simple relationship between inputs and outputs in education. It did not say that resources are irrelevant. Deployed according to a constantly revised, research-based strategy for improvement that is understood and supported by parents, school staff members, and community leaders, resources can help teachers foster learning in ways that produce results. Superintendent Anthony Alvarado showed that in District 2 in New York City. Despite that, we do not give schools the resources they need to grant equal access to all children. Our ambivalence about education leads us, on the one hand, to expect too much of schools, and, on the other, to support them inadequately. Unless we can face and overcome that ambivalence and all that has fed it, including complicated attitudes about race and social class, access to education in the United States will remain unequal and will become more and more constrained relative to that available to young people elsewhere in the industrialized world.

Some would say that the problem today is not finding ways to realize a conception of access to education that has expanded and become more generous and difficult to achieve over the years. I disagree. To accept such a retreat would be myopic because we live in a world where returns to knowledge and skill in global markets require that more and more Americans, indeed all Americans, become well enough educated to go on being educated for the rest of their lives. Instead of retreat, therefore, we need to renew the determination to equalize access to education that sprang in earlier times from recognizing that in a democratic society such as ours the deficit of one is a deficit for all.

Equal access to education has been a central aspiration of this country at its greatest moments in history. Moving forward toward ever-fuller conceptions of what access means remains essential to our well-being as a society.

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Changing Meaning of a Continuing Challenge


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