Access, Outcomes, and Educational Opportunity

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It is one of America's great triumphs, the 20th-century enrollment of vast numbers of children, adolescents, and, increasingly, adults in schools for ever-increasing periods of time. Yet access has also been a moving target: Near-universal attendance has been paralleled by failures and changing expectations, so that frustration with the outcomes of schooling has often dominated the public mood.

In the 19th century, the goal of access was to place schools in proximity to children and to enroll as many as possible. At the turn of the century, that goal was supplemented by a focus on providing a range of curricular choices, especially vocational options to retain students in school, justified as a means of converting access into equality of educational opportunity. Between the New Deal and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, access as educational opportunity was connected to the removal of legally enforced racial and, to a lesser extent, economic barriers to schooling. With the Great Society and its aftermath, access and educational opportunity were again redefined to include egalitarian educational outcomes.

Secondary education, too, was beginning a period of spectacular growth. Nineteenth-century high schools were small and unstandardized, sometimes little more than grades added on to a local elementary school. With most children leaving school by age 13, the high school was of little importance. Between 1900 and 1930, however, high school enrollment of 14- to 17-year-olds went from about 10 percent to more than 50 percent of the age group, as changes in the labor market reduced economic opportunities for young teenagers and colleges began to require high school graduation as a condition of admission. Growth in enrollment itself had a snowballing effect. With a peer-group adolescent culture flourishing within the school buildings, high school became the place to be a teenager.

In the early 20th century, the historic commitment to access in terms of attendance became intertwined with an emergent notion of equality of educational opportunity based on a differentiated curriculum and vocational preparation. Students would choose among a variety of course offerings designed to prepare students for their different economic and social roles. Partially the product of assumptions about the different learning capacities of racial groups--at the beginning of the century, European ethnic groups, as well as African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, were still considered members of different races--the differentiated curriculum was especially designed to reduce the male-teenage dropout problem and to prevent young people from entering dead-end jobs.

This early version of equality of educational opportunity assumed that courses attached to vocational outcomes provided the most compelling reasons for staying in school and that achieving those outcomes was secondary education's primary mission. That view was pointedly reinforced in 1917 when Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act, the first major federal legislation funding secondary schooling, to support vocational education. In the mid-1920s, the Muncie, Ind., school board president articulated what had become the new given of American education: "For a long time all boys were trained to be president. Then for a while we trained them all to be professional men. Now we are training boys to get jobs." With growing enrollments of females in high school commercial courses such as typing and stenography, he should have added girls to the mix.

The 1930s Depression reaffirmed the importance of staying in school, both as a defensive measure in a world of high unemployment and as an opportunity to enter college. The federal government's economic policies reinforced the notion that attendance was primary. The New Deal's work-relief programs gave money to states to hire teachers and pay for school repairs and construction, extended Smith-Hughes vocational education funding, added literacy and vocational training to the Civilian Conservation Corps' conservation camps, and created the National Youth Administration to provide part-time work for students who stayed in high school and college. The government also supported preschool and adult-literacy programs that taught 1.5 million people.

Albeit reluctantly, and with little sense that it would lead to a permanent federal investment in education, the New Deal reshaped the relationship between access and opportunity. Equality of educational opportunity had earlier been defined in terms of allowing each student the opportunity to choose among a variety of curricular options. During the 1930s, federal policy made explicit the view that unemployment and poverty and the inequalities of class and race powerfully shaped access to equality of educational opportunity. A presumptive view had emerged that gave the federal government some responsibility for overcoming those restrictions on access to schools.

What had been a halting and uncertain commitment to expanding educational access in the 1930s emerged as a powerful federal responsibility in the decades after World War II. It initially came from a surprising source, the overwhelming response of veterans to the GI Bill, which provided federal aid to servicemen (and a few women) to attend school and college. Proposals for federal money given directly for elementary and secondary education regularly surfaced during the late 1940s and 1950s. In the wake of the Soviet Union's launching of its sputnik in 1957, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 overcame the traditional fears of federal financing to give categorical grants to support science, mathematics, and foreign-language study; school construction and equipment; and low-cost loans for future teachers. But the significant redefining of access in terms of opportunity occurred as a result of America's civil rights revolution.

With the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that "the segregation of children in the public schools solely on the basis of race" was unconstitutional, access to schooling took on a new and significantly more controversial meaning. The court's view was that racial discrimination in the form of state-imposed segregation prevented access to equality of educational opportunity. In suggesting that access be evaluated in terms of outcomes--how going to segregated schools affected children--Brown opened the door to a further redefinition of the nexus between access and educational opportunity. In the wake of subsequent judicial decisions, social-science research (James S. Coleman, Equality of Educational Opportunity, 1966; the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Racial Isolation in the Public Schools, 1967), and the federal education legislation of the 1960s and early 1970s, the removal of racial, linguistic, and physical and mental discrimination as the basis of expanded access was supplemented by a new focus on measuring outcomes among different groups as the test of whether improved access led to genuine educational opportunity.

By the last decade of the century, the goals of access had become enormously complex, for they encompassed multiple meanings, were assumed to be insufficiently achieved, and were constantly undergoing revision. Simply to acknowledge how often Americans found themselves frustrated with their own successes and how quickly they changed expectations is to recognize why educational access was so controversial.

As the new century begins, the multiple definitions of access have both reinforced the controversies and, for many, made them irrelevant. The controversies stem from the connection of access to equality of educational opportunity; the irrelevance, from the relatively new focus on academic standards and the expectation that academic outcomes for all students be elevated.

The controversy over the relationship between access and equity is manifest in the strident debate over affirmative action. Although primarily centered on admission to college, affirmative action is being tested at selective public schools like Boston Latin and other magnet schools. At issue is whether awarding special status to minorities in the competition for educational places is legal or appropriate. More broadly, the debate raises questions about any measures designed to improve opportunities for groups predefined as "in need." The outcome of the contest over affirmative action remains unclear. But the debate itself reveals how contentious efforts to facilitate access as a means of enhancing equity have become.

The debate over access may itself be archaic, for the real dilemma lies in the educational system's failure to bring all students to high levels of literacy. No phenomenon has been more influential in shifting the focus from access to academic standards and outcomes than the globalization of the world's economic system. Initially flagged in the overwrought but widely publicized A Nation at Risk, which explicitly tied global economic competition to educational competition, international comparisons have repeatedly found U.S. students' academic achievements painfully inadequate. Despite disagreements over how poorly Americans perform in comparison with students in other countries, whether we are 4th, 12th, or 22nd, such comparisons have become the basis of national, state, and local efforts to create standards of achievement for all. The disagreements over the tests' methodologies and samples are less important than the now-widespread view that academic achievement is the best measure of an educational system's efficacy.

This shift to academic outcomes seems like an abrupt about-face in the historic commitment to access. It is both new and continuous. The predominant emphasis on measures of student academic achievement is new and seems likely to be the defining issue of the first decades of the new century. International comparisons will become more refined and more permanent. But there is also an ironic continuity, for the intertwining of access and equity over the past quarter-century included attention to outcomes, measured in terms of the narrowing of academic achievement differences among groups.

The turn-of-the-century commitment to educational access in terms of universal attendance and high graduation rates was redefined during the course of the century, first, to include removing barriers to attendance and graduation, and second, to seek outcomes that were more equitable at the end of schooling than when the students first started. At a time when egalitarian rhetoric has cooled considerably, it remains to be seen whether the connection between access and equity will retain its place in the ideology and practice of American education, or whether the stress on creating academic standards and measuring achievement outcomes will place that historic commitment in jeopardy.

Vol. 18, Issue 20, Pages 46, 48-49

Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as Access, Outcomes, and Educational Opportunity
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