A strong supporter of public education will move into the White House on January 20. President Elect Joe Biden has promised to close the Opportunity Gap by investing in public school improvement and pledging to support reform of healthcare and other conditions that worsen economic inequality. There is an important difference between Biden’s saying that we as a society have failed our children by neglecting to pay for educational opportunity and more than two decades of education policy—under Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump—that blamed public school educators for failing our children.
Closing the Opportunity Gap is a more ambitious and far more expensive goal than merely blaming and punishing public school teachers for what policymakers have, for decades, called the achievement gap. The Opportunity Gap is defined by the complex web of structural economic and racial inequality in America, not by the failure of teachers to raise test scores quickly. Framing the educational goal as “closing the achievement gap” brought us No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish policies and the Race to the Top which merely punished the schools at the bottom—the schools without adequate property taxing capacity and that serve the poorest children.
President Elect Biden’s focus is funding equity in the public schools themselves instead of creating escapes for a few children out of so-called “failing” schools. For four years we have been listening to Betsy DeVos promote vouchers and every kind of privatized school choice for parents. Before that, we had Arne Duncan promoting charterizing public schools, closing low scoring public schools as a turnaround plan, and evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores.
DeVos sought to privatize; Duncan sought to punish. Biden says he wants to help the public schools improve.
The Schott Foundation for Public Education launched an Opportunity to Learn Campaign to demand that we talk about closing Opportunity Gaps instead of framing public education policy around forcing schools to narrow test score achievement gaps: “The achievement gap between White students and Black and Latino students correlates to the OPPORTUNITY GAP—disparity in access to quality schools and the resources needed for academic success, such as early childhood education, highly prepared and effective teachers, college preparatory curricula, and equitable instructional resources. For the past two decades, our nation’s leaders have focused on “output” standards and testing to close the achievement gaps that separate different student groups. This only looks at one side of the equation for success. It is essential to hold public officials accountable for “input” standards, assuring that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to the resources they need to have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. If we close the opportunity gap, we can close the achievement gap.”
The research for changing our public education strategy is decades long and very clear. Here are two examples:
In 2016, the National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley explained that school reform must address enormous disparities in opportunity among our children: “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society. No Child Left Behind had the explicit purpose of all children achieving high standards and thereby closing the achievement gap by 2014. It did not come close. Noting the widening academic achievement gap between rich and poor, (Stanford University’s) Sean Reardon found the gap ‘roughly 20 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.’ The irony is that the very problem the law was supposed to fix became worse…. The income achievement gap, which is closely tied to the racial gap, is attributable to income inequality, the increased difficulty of social mobility, the bifurcation of wages and the economy, and a narrowing of school purposes driven by test taking. Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities…. Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board.”
A year later, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard testing expert, Daniel Koretz explained why standardized test-based school accountability poses unreasonable expectations because schools cannot, quickly and without support, increase their capacity to overcome widespread inequality: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)
In the years when No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were closing so-called “failing” schools or charterizing them or firing their principals or teachers, public economic support for public schools diminished. In 2008, the Great Recession reduced states’ investment in public education as tax revenues collapsed. Even after the recession ended, Tea Party-dominated state legislatures cut taxes further in many states. Finally in 2018 and 2019, the nation’s public school teachers rose up in Red4Ed strikes to show us how Opportunity Gaps had left public schools destitute. Teachers exposed: class sizes of 40 students in Los Angeles; schools everywhere without enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses; Chicago schools shutting down school libraries and laying off certified librarians; Oklahoma teachers with paltry salaries quitting and moving across the border to Texas; and teachers paid so little in Oakland that they were unable to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment within driving distance from their school.
President Elect Joe Biden proposes to address the Educational Opportunity Gap with federal investment: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”
His plan would triple Title I funding; fully fund 40 percent of mandated IDEA special education services within a decade; incentivize greater investment by state governments by requiring states without adequate and equitable school funding to match a share of federal funding; provide high quality pre-Kindergarten for impoverished three- and four-year olds; increase the number of counselors, school psychologists, and school nurses; and increase the number of full-service Community Schools to serve 300,000 additional families.
If Republicans continue to dominate the U.S. Senate and Mitch McConnell continues as Senate President, President Biden will struggle to accomplish his Opportunity to Learn agenda. Advocates for America’s children and for strong public schools must stop framing education policy around closing the achievement gap. We must demand instead that Congress join with the President to overcome the Opportunity Gap by investing in the nation’s public schools and in other programs to address child poverty.
Will we, as citizens, create the political will to force Congress and the state legislatures to raise the necessary tax revenue?