What is educational equity, whereby all students have equal access to opportunities for a high-quality education? What does it look like when it’s successful, and what does it take to achieve it? These questions have been driving our work at the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program for the past several years, and even more so for the last 18 months, as the result of a shift in the federal role in public education and concerns from the state leaders with whom we work.
For most of the last half-century, the role of the federal government has been to protect “the education of disadvantaged children,” as articulated in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The bipartisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, in 2015, maintains several components of earlier versions of the ESEA, but it also gives more flexibility and responsibility to state leaders to define accountability and determine the interventions and supports for underperforming schools.
Just as our federal education laws have changed and evolved, so too have our nation’s demographics. It is significant that the federal role is downsized just as economic inequality is at its highest and mobility from poverty is at its lowest since the ESEA was enacted.
In 1960, 85.7 percent of public school students were white. Today, according to estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of public school students are students of color. More than half of public school students also qualify for subsidized meals because of low family income. In 2014, 20 percent of school-age children were in families living in poverty, and children of color are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be poor. By any objective measure, inside and outside schools, public education has not served these students adequately or equitably.
These challenges have an effect on students’ academics. The 2015 average reading scores of black and Latino U.S. students on the Program for International Student Assessment fall below the U.S. average and are comparable with some developing countries. And in 2013, students from high-income families were eight times more likely to have a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than their peers from low-income families, according to a 2015 report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.
Much has changed even since the passage of ESSA. The last year brought not only a new president and a new U.S. secretary of education, but also a documented increase in racial tension and hate crimes, several high-profile police shootings, and a number of state legislative bodies that have or are considering “bathroom bills” affecting transgender individuals’ ability to use the bathroom that matches their identity.
And the stubborn persistence of disparities in student opportunities and outcomes remains.
As our federal education laws have changed and evolved, so too have our nation’s demographics."
What would true education equity look like? One thing is certain: State leaders would need to play a key role. Even before ESSA was enacted, states had primary authority for education as enshrined in each state’s constitution. As the federal role recedes, this generation of state education leaders will write a crucial chapter, with profound implications for equity and broader implications for our country and society. They will redefine state education policy, as federal rules become less prescriptive and federal political cover shrinks.
Defining a clear state role in educational equity is not a small task. To do this, we must get past talking about and around equity and address it directly. This is among the first recommendations in our recent report, “Leading for Equity,” which was published in partnership with the Council of Chief State School Officers, or CCSSO, in February. To develop this report, which identifies 10 priority areas and 68 discrete actions state leaders can take to address inequity, we interviewed dozens of education leaders at the school, community, district, state, and national levels, who represent broad demographic and political diversity.
We asked school leaders to define and describe equity and inequity in their own terms. There was no one answer. Equity is weighted student-funding formulas; students having the social capital to have someone review their college applications; and students having school access to recreational facilities and health care. Equity is having people of color represented in political office and in the leadership of education reform organizations.
Inequity, education leaders told us, is reflected in the presence of inexperienced or ineffective teachers or a revolving door of substitutes in the classrooms of low-income students and students of color. Inequity is kids of color not having access to rigorous, relevant, and culturally sustaining curricula or advanced courses. We heard about dangerous schools and dilapidated facilities, computers, books, and gym equipment. Many described a patent unfairness inside our public institutions which they defined as immoral, demeaning of our democratic values, and ultimately undermining of our shared economic prosperity and growth.
There was also disagreement. We heard from some leaders who thought a focus on students of color and low-income students was detrimental to the universal mission of public education. We heard support for charters, choice, and vouchers; and we heard concern that those policies can drain resources from traditional public schools.
And then we asked for ideas about how to upend inequity. To facilitate these discussions, we used a common definition of equity, used by the National Equity Project: “Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential.” We agree: Equity is about giving every student what they need, not giving every student the same.
In thinking about this work, it is also important to acknowledge that our schools and administrative offices are full of committed and hard-working leaders giving it everything they’ve got. We need them to continue that. We also need to support them.
We are excited to have been a part of these conversations so far and look forward to continuing the dialogue, so that together we can make sure that every student truly succeeds in education and in life. We hope to encourage a larger conversation—one that includes more voices. It’s true that ESSA provides opportunities for us to try new approaches to getting equity right, but it is not enough. We all must do more.
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Yes, Schools Have an Equity Problem. What Should We Do About It?