School & District Management Opinion

School Boards Must Prioritize Student Equity

By Edwin C. Darden — May 24, 2011 4 min read
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The American dream of upward mobility is projected as tantalizingly within reach—the reward for hard work that children in poverty should strive to achieve.

But as a society that reveres success, we should worry about dangling false hopes before students in high-poverty schools. Unless a high-quality education is available to prepare their minds for 21st-century challenges and negate the effects of being poor, the grand vision of a good life is, in reality, just a mirage.

Throughout the United States, school districts that contain a mix of middle-class and high-poverty neighborhoods demonstrate an “opportunity gap” in which wealthier kids possess better resources that lead to better academic outcomes. In many cases, not only are teachers better credentialed, more experienced, and more talented, but children in middle-class areas receive a stronger, more challenging curriculum and learn in buildings that are in far better condition than those of their poorer peers.

School boards are uniquely positioned to reverse this trend, and they should exercise that power to ensure that kids have a realistic shot at the American Dream.

The clear vision of equality in public education is the core promise of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision 57 years ago this month. Yet for decades, America’s public schools have been plagued by an unspoken competition of sorts between the “haves” and “have-nots”—a festering, largely unaddressed problem of unequal distribution of resources among schools within the same district.

The transforming impact of excellent public schools is proven. Yet, the sad irony is that learning-related resources necessary for high academic performance are often tilted toward middle-class and affluent schools.

The sad irony is that learning-related resources necessary for high academic performance are often tilted toward middle-class and affluent schools."

If that statement is not shocking, it should be. Students who typically possess greater opportunities are given more. By contrast, those who have less get fewer academic and curricular resources and worse-kept school buildings. Inexplicably, students in the same school district—and often only a short distance apart—have vastly differing chances of acquiring the knowledge and skills they will need for success.

This is where school boards, which hold a singular authority in determining how educational resources are distributed, can play a vital role. School board members approve staff, determine priorities on renovations and new construction, adopt and locate pilot academic programs, decide long-term strategic plans, and more.

Board members are obligated to be fair to all students, and budget shortages are no excuse for anything less. Regardless of how much or how little money a district has, equity can and should be a central value in resource decisionmaking. Otherwise, inequity becomes a repeating pattern.

Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote in November 2010 about teachers deemed “highly effective” on evaluations in the District of Columbia. He noted that the most affluent ward in the city has four times more high-scoring instructors than the poorest area of the nation’s capital. In January 2011, Turque focused on Washington’s Ballou Senior High School, where 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. He observed that the school library’s entire collection consists of 1,185 books, or about one for each student, whereas, in a typical high school library, the ratio is 11 books for every one student.

Also in January, the nonprofit Appleseed (where I work) released a report titled “The Same Starting Line: Erasing the Opportunity Gap Between Poor and Middle-Class Children.” It noted that middle-class students commonly receive a higher proportion of “soft” learning-related education resources, such as properly credentialed teachers with several years of experience; state-of-the-art science and learning laboratories; extensive library book collections; safe, well-maintained learning environments; or advanced curricula. The study also included a tool that allows a school district, parent group, or community organization to conduct a resource-equity self-assessment.

The solutions are both simple and difficult. A stride toward greater equity requires both a resolve and the courage to rebuff powerful interests. After all, parents in middle-class neighborhoods tend to lobby for their desires and are more likely to vote in elections. That activism, coupled with human nature’s tendency to follow past practices, means resource distribution gets stuck in a rut.

Instead, school boards must judge important resource decisions based in part on their impact on impoverished students. That could mean drawing up an equity policy—provided that it goes beyond mere comforting words to outline specific actions and mandate strict accountability for compliance. While some districts point proudly to their “equity policies” or “equity task force,” these paper tigers too seldom result in actual reforms.

As the professional baseball season ramps up, the players have a right to expect one thing: a level playing field. No opponent would tolerate conditions where only one dugout had padded seats and luxurious showers, where infield divots were smoothed only for the home team, and where the umpire whispered the pitch to the best home-field hitters. Fans would soon demand that Major League Baseball—the objective governors of the sport—change the rules to ensure fairness.

Likewise, a similar din should arise in education. Children in poverty should not be forced to run farther, faster, and with ankle weights to reach the same first base. Hence, school boards—the objective citizen-servants who govern public schools—should align policies and practices purposefully.

If that change can actually happen, then schools will indeed be the stadium for big dreams—a place where anybody can hit an educational homerun.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2011 edition of Education Week as School Boards Must Prioritize Student Equity


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