What Does Educational Opportunity Mean?

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor of education at UCLA, has spent a good part of his life examining the meaning of educational opportunity.  In Why School? (2009 and expanded in 2014), Rose considers how students experience opportunity at school: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation.  But what is the experience of opportunity?” (Why School?, p. 14)

In a much earlier exploration, the 1989, Lives on the Boundary, part of it biographical, Rose investigates the ways educators connect with students and the role of quality literacy and remedial education: “Lives on the Boundary concerns language and human connection, literacy and culture, and it focuses on those who have trouble reading and writing in the schools and the workplace. It is a book about the abilities hidden by class and cultural barriers. And it is a book about movement: about what happens as people who have failed begin to participate in the educational system that has seemed so harsh and distant to them. We are a nation obsessed with evaluating our children, with calibrating their exact distance from some ideal benchmark… All students cringe under the scrutiny, but those most harshly affected, least successful in the completion, possess some of our greatest unperceived riches.” (Lives on the Boundary, p. xi)

In the 2012, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, Rose explores the role of  community college programs to educate adults and provide technical training: “Equal opportunity is something every conservative affirms as a core American value. Yet in no realistic sense of the word does anything like equal opportunity exist toward the bottom of the income ladder… Recent studies show that parental income has a greater effect on children’s success in America than in other developed countries… Many of the students I’ve taught at UCLA who come from well-to-do families grew up in a world of museums, music lessons, tutoring, sports programs, travel, up-to-date educational technologies, after-school and summer programs geared toward the arts or sciences.  All this is a supplement to attending good to exceptional public or private schools.  Because their parents are educated, they can provide all kinds of assistance with homework, with navigating school, with advocacy.  These parents are doing everything possible to create maximum opportunity for their kids, often with considerable anxiety and expense… (P)oor parents would do the same if they could.  But it would require quite a distortion to see young people from affluent and poor backgrounds as having equal opportunity at academic and career success.” (Back to School, p. 21)

In a new blog post just last week, Rose, who has been studying educational opportunity for an entire career, describes how a recent experience expanded his own understanding of the fragility of the lives of the students whose needs are greatest.

A friend who has endowed a small education foundation invited Rose to read letters of appreciation, sent after applicants—students at a community college—were awarded very small, one time grants of $500 to $1000: “The letters provide a view into the lives of successful students, people who are close to completing a two-year degree, or about to transfer to a university, or are finishing a nursing program and preparing to take the licensing exam. The letters convey a detailed, vivid sense of how precarious these students’ lives are. Money for the bus or gas for the car is a big thing.  People don’t get their textbooks on time because they are searching for the lowest price. Balancing school, work, and family is intensely demanding, and more often than not, it is school that suffers. (An aside: A just-published report from the College Futures Foundation reveals that among students in California two-and four-year colleges, housing and food costs—not just tuition—are increasingly becoming barriers to college completion.) Almost all of the letters reveal a web of responsibilities to other family members beyond one’s own spouse and children. The letters are graceful, and brimming with gratitude, and exude drive and determination and immense strength, but they also reveal how one mishap, one piece of bad luck, an accident, a lost job, illness—can jeopardize what these people have worked so hard to attain. The evaporation of their American Dream.”

The emergency grants Rose describes cannot compensate for the depth of overall poverty challenging these students or the explosion these days of structural inequality: “The causes and scope of this economic insecurity, of course, are way beyond what can be remedied with a small grant. A few hundred bucks will not alleviate chronic housing or food insecurity. But a quick, targeted award can help in an emergency: can repair a car needed for school and work, replace a stolen computer, pay for food or rent during a time when a breadwinner is recuperating from surgery.  Or the funds can be used for one-time expenses that are crucial for students’ careers. A number of the letter writers will use their award to pay for their nursing licensing exam, several noting that without that award, their certification would be delayed.”

I grew up in northern Montana, and interested in Montana’s giant, end-of-September snowstorm this past week, I happened to look at my own hometown newspaper, the Havre Daily News.  Once on the newspaper’s website, I kept reading and discovered an obituary describing the life of the very kind of student Rose has written about. This student, Norma Jean King — He Mani Wi, “Mountain Walks”– lived all her life in Hays, Montana, in the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “Norma was a proud cultural member of the Little Shell Metis Tribe and embraced her husband’s Assiniboine culture also.” This woman epitomizes determination as well as the impact on the broader community of someone who, in very isolated and what might have been limited circumstances, pursued an education.  After her high school graduation in 1963, Norma Jean King, “worked as a clerk for Kerns store until 1969, when she began working as an aide at the old Hays School. It was there where she decided to extend her passion in education, so Norma worked and went to college all at the same time. She enrolled in the first-of-its-kind in the area ‘distance learning’ program called Urban Rural out of the College of Great Falls. The satellite classes were based at the old Hays School Campus in a trailer. In 1975, Norma graduated from College of Great Falls with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She applied at the Hays School and immediately started working as a teacher as she began her long career in education… In 1988, Norma earned her master’s degree in education administration from MSU (Montana State University) in Bozeman. Norma received many certificates in education and moved from teaching at the elementary level to the junior high and high school levels, eventually working her way up to principal, also in those three levels. She attained working at the highest level as superintendent.”

There is no evidence that Norma Jean King needed the kind of emergency financial help Mike Rose describes in his recent blog, but her life is a reminder that education can be a very complicated balancing act for people who do not come from backgrounds where parents can provide ample enrichment and funding. Her life exemplifies the significance of education not only for her but also for the many students she taught and the schools she led during her long and very important career in Hays, Montana.

New Brief Examines Injustice in U.S. Public Education Fifty Years After the Kerner Commission Report

Fifty years ago, on March 1, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released what has come to be known as the Kerner Commission Report (named for the Commission’s chair, Otto Kerner, then governor of Illinois), which concluded that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”  This week, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the release of that report, the Milton Eisenhower Foundation published a new book-length report, Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report.  The new book is a multi-disciplinary assessment, to be accompanied by a series of academic conferences, beginning this week at the University of California at Berkeley, and—specifically on the report’s conclusions about public education—at George Washington University.

We can read about the new report’s findings about public education—from the chapter written by Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond—in a short brief released this week by the Learning Policy Institute. Darling-Hammond begins: “Without major social changes, the (Kerner) Commission warned, the U.S. faced a ‘system of apartheid’ in its major cities. Today, 50 years after the report was issued, that prediction characterizes most of our large urban areas, where intensifying segregation and concentrated poverty have collided with disparities in school funding to reinforce educational inequality. While racial achievement gaps in education have remained stubbornly large, segregation has been increasing steadily, creating a growing number of apartheid schools that serve almost exclusively students of color from low-income families. These schools are often severely under-resourced, and they struggle to close academic gaps while underwriting the additional costs of addressing the effects of poverty-hunger, homelessness, and other traumas experienced by children and families in low income communities.”

Most of us construct our understanding of the world as we observe our own particular communities.  If one doesn’t live in one of America’s big cities, it might be possible to have missed the following trends:

  • “U.S. childhood poverty rates have grown by more than 50% since the 1970s and are now by far the highest among OECD nations, reaching 22% in the latest published statistics.”
  • “In most major American cities, a majority of African American and Latino students attend public schools where at least 75% of students are from low-income families… For example, in Chicago and New York City, more than 95% of both Black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools….”
  • “Today, about half as many Black students attend majority White schools (just over 20%) as did so in 1988, when about 44% did so.”
  • “In most states, the wealthiest (school) districts spend at least two to three times what the poorest districts can spend per pupil…. Furthermore, the wealthiest states spend about three times what the poorer states spend.”

Certainly public policy has failed to address these trends.  Since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January of 2002, our society has tested all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and then imposed sanctions on the schools unable quickly to raise test scores. The idea was to press teachers to expect more and work harder. The consequence has instead been a rush to blame the schools and teachers where scores remain low and to punish the lowest-scoring five percent of schools with mandated turnarounds—fire the teachers and principal or close the school, or turn it over to a charter school manager.

Darling-Hammond traces a mass of factors showing that as a society we identified the wrong problem, satisfied ourselves with blaming somebody, and ignored our responsibility collectively to confront primary social injustices that are the real cause of achievement gaps.  What we accomplished instead was discrediting public education and undermining support for teachers.

Darling-Hammond believes our problem is that we have stopped trying to do anything about racial and economic segregation: “In a study of the effects of court-ordered desegregation on students born between 1945 and 1970, economist Rucker Johnson found that graduation rates climbed by 2 percentage points for every year a Black student attended an integrated school… The difference was tied to the fact that schools under court supervision benefit from higher per-pupil spending and smaller student-teacher ratios… During the 1960s and ’70s, many communities took on efforts like these.  As a result, there was a noticeable reduction in educational inequality in the decade after the original Kerner report…. (S)ubstantial gains were made in equalizing both educational inputs and outcomes. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 targeted resources to communities with the most need, recognizing that where a child grows up should not determine where he or she ends up… However, the gains from the Great Society programs were pushed back during the Reagan administration, when most targeted federal programs supporting investments in college access and K-12 schools in urban and poor rural areas were reduced or eliminated, and federal aid to schools was cut from 12% to 6% of a shrinking total…By 1991, stark differences had reemerged between segregated urban schools and their suburban counterparts, which generally spent twice as much on education.”

About our current era, Darling-Hammond is very clear: “Despite a single-minded focus on raising achievement and closing gaps during the No Child left Behind era (from 2002 until 2015), many states focused on testing without investing in the resources needed to achieve higher standards.”  One investment that is affected by school funding is in the credentials of the teachers, explains Darling-Hammond: “In combination, teachers’ qualifications can have substantial effects. One large research study demonstrates: (S)tudents’ achievement growth was significantly higher if they were taught by a teacher who was certified in his or her teaching field, fully prepared upon entry (rather than entering through the state’s alternative… route), had higher scores on the teacher licensing test, graduated from a competitive college, (and) had taught for more than 2 years, or was Nationally Board Certified.”

Darling-Hammond concludes that to support our most vulnerable children and their schools, we will need radically to rethink our foundational values: “To survive and prosper, our society must finally renounce its obstinate commitment to educational inequality and embrace full and ambitious opportunities to learn for all our children. Although education is a state responsibility, federal policy is also needed to ensure that every child has access to adequate school resources, facilities, and quality teachers.”

Reduce Poverty and Ensure Equity: The Key to Education Reform Is Not the Common Core

Last week three prominent education and civil rights leaders confronted what has appeared to be a civil rights establishment defense of annual standardized testing as the necessary centerpiece of a reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act.  John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Pedro Noguera of New York University, and Judith Browne Dianis, director of Advancement Project—a national racial justice organization, published an op-ed in The Hill in which they declared: “In recent weeks, a few national civil rights organizations including the National Council of La Raza, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens and National Urban League have vocally opposed efforts to highlight the dangers of high stakes testing by students and parents opting out of annual assessments.  United under the banner of the Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, these groups are urging parents to comply with annual testing requirements.  We strongly disagree with their position.”

Jackson, Noguera, and Browne Dianis call Congress to focus the reauthorization of the federal education law on eliminating the opportunity gaps that federal policy in education was originally designed to address: “We now know students cannot be tested out of poverty….”  “We should all remember that NCLB (No Child Left Behind) was originally enacted in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty.  The measure was designed to compensate for disadvantages in learning opportunities between low-income and middle-class children.  While it was never adequately funded, ESEA was envisioned as an ‘anti-poverty’ bill.”  “Schools serving poor children and children of color remain under-funded and have been labeled ‘failing’ while little has been done at the local, state or federal level to effectively intervene and provide support.  In the face of clear evidence that children of color are more likely to be subjected to over-testing and a narrowing of curriculum in the name of test preparation, it is perplexing that D.C. based civil rights groups are promoting annual tests.”

In his commentary for the Education Opportunity Network last week, Jeff Bryant proclaims the same theme in, Dumb Arguments About the Common Core Distract from What Matters Most.  Bryant writes: “While it’s refreshing to see K-12 education become a prominent issue in the very early stages of the 2016 election campaigns, it’s unfortunate to see support for the Common Core—the contentious new standards adopted by most states—become the focus of the debate… For sure, inequity is a problem—if not the problem—in American schools.  Inequities related to students’ race, ability levels, English language proficiency, and income characterize nearly every aspect of the outputs and inputs of the system.  The achievement gap between white students and their black and brown peers has been at the center of education policy discussion for years.  Students with learning disabilities experience a similar gap when compared with their mainstream peers.  Racial discrimination also plagues school discipline policies resulting in black and brown students disproportionally being targeted for punishments, expulsions, and push-out into a school to prison pipeline.  And many states discriminate against students on the basis of income by giving richer school districts more money than poorer ones.”

Suggesting that Democrats running for office should focus on other educational issues instead of the Common Core, Bryant writes: “If Democrats want to present real arguments for education equity, they should propose what the federal government should do about the 23 states who give richer school districts more money than poorer ones.  They should call for measures to ensure the federal government fulfills its original promise to fund 40 percent of special education services (it has historically provided only 18.5 percent or less).  They should explain how a federal administration rededicated to equity would intervene in the twin crises of black males and females being pushed out of education into the criminal justice system. They should propose plans for federal support of community schools that can provide the range of education, health, counseling, and cultural services needed in communities traumatized by poverty.”

I urge you to read both articles carefully (here and here) and circulate them.

Public Schools: The Victims, Not the Cause, of Massive Inequality

A couple of years ago Paul Reville, then Massachusetts Education Secretary declared: “Some want to make the absurd argument that the reason low-income youngsters do poorly is that, mysteriously, all the incompetency in our education systems has coincidentally aggregated around low income students.  In this view, all we need to do is scrub the system of incompetency and all will be well…”

This is the idea, widely held, that it is all the teachers’ fault.  Extending this idea tells us that our problem is tenure or bad colleges of education training teachers badly.

Such ideas, foolish as they may sound to those of us who know something about inequality of educational opportunity, seem appealing because the problem can be fixed by merely firing our way into a better future.

We struggle to grasp and connect the web of issues that converge to drive inequality for children.  And if we can grasp the scope of the problem, it seems overwhelming.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz helps us this morning in The Wrong Lesson from Detroit’s Bankruptcy.  Stiglitz has a wonderful way of translating the real life implications of economic policy.  And he understands quality public schools as part of the common good that strong economies are supposed to support.

Stiglitz grew up in Gary, Indiana, and this morning he writes about the role of manufacturing in mid-western cities:  “Cities like Detroit and Gary thrived on that industry, not just in terms of the wealth that it produced but also in terms of strong communities, healthy tax bases and good infrastructure.  From the stable foundation of Gary’s excellent public schools, influenced by the ideas of the progressive reformer John Dewey, I went on to Amherst College and then to M.I.T. for graduate school.”  He continues: “Today, fewer than 8 percent of American workers are employed in manufacturing, and many Rust Belt cities are skeletons.”

The rest of this morning’s article connects the dots, summarized as, “underinvestment in infrastructure and public services, geographic isolation that has marginalized poor and African-American communities in the Rust Belt, intergenerational poverty that has stymied equality of opportunity and the privileging of moneyed interests (like those of corporate executives and financial services companies) over those of workers.”

The rest of the article explains thoroughly how these factors intersect and what we must start to change.  “Detroit’s bankruptcy,” Stiglitz writes, “is a reminder of how divided our society has become and how much has to be done to heal the wounds.”

One of those things we’ll have to do is figure out a way to support and improve the public schools in places like Detroit instead of closing and privatizing  the schools that struggle and punishing the teachers and children based on high-stakes tests.  The children and their teachers are the victims, not the cause, of the structural inequality Stiglitz describes this morning.