Can Educators Make Choices that Bridge the Opportunity Gap?

Photo by Paul VanDerWerf,

There is less equality of opportunity in the United States than in most other advanced industrial countries. It is so, observes the economist Joseph Stiglitz, even though Americans hold an almost “universal consensus that inequality of opportunity is indefensible.” Stiglitz further contends that inequality of opportunity in the quantity and quality of education is the real culprit in the gap between the dream of America and the reality.

No one agrees more than educators that the straightest path to economic opportunity and mobility in our country is through quality schooling. Yet, accepting that educational inequality is the biggest factor contributing to inequality of opportunity in the land of opportunity is a hard pill to swallow.

President Obama has pinpointed a universal community college education as his strategic initiative to bridge the opportunity gap. What can Pre-K-12 educational leaders do to ensure that students are prepared to grasp this opportunity and thrive?

One answer is that we can confront with honesty, and address with fervor, three areas of PreK-12 education that are perennial soft spots—areas where inequities and inattention can lead to gaps in the quantity and quality of schooling—but are within our capacity to strengthen now.

First, we can provide universal pre-school and kindergarten education. If time on task matters in learning, as research suggests it does, then getting started early and seriously is critical. It is time to create stability in early education programs for all youngsters. Programs for four and five-year-olds extend learning time at a critical developmental stage and, done right, are known to contribute to high quality outcomes, such as higher rates of K-12 completion and college matriculation.

Creating stable universal early education programs may be a challenge. The rocky path to mandatory kindergarten has shown that early education programs are often considered an extra, making them vulnerable to funding cuts that lead to overcrowding, under-qualified staffing, and low expectations. Still, we know what good early education programs look like and that they get results, so why not get started?

Secondly, we can treat absenteeism and truancy with high seriousness rather than as a chronic struggle to endure. Once again, because of the importance of the amount of time spent on learning, every day out of school is a lost learning opportunity. Absenteeism is the impediment to learning most often decried by teachers. Reasons for absenteeism are myriad, and resources can be erratic, but well-implemented district policies and practices, along with family-friendly community services, will get most students to school every day. It is school and district leaders who must step up to the plate and take the first swing.

Further, because every year brings new students and parents, promoting attendance has to be a perennial priority for the local school and district. Ironically, good solutions to absenteeism may not necessarily mean just ensuring that a student is in his or her seat; however, setting that goal can be the beginning of an era of school and district accountability for developing new and better solutions for this most fundamental of its functions. So can we set a goal now of regular attendance for all students and begin work on the essential supports and services to make it happen?

Finally, we can ensure that the most demanding curriculum is accessible to all students. Insisting that students come to school every day means that every day must be one of high purpose and engaging learning. School leaders must be vigilant about the content of the curriculum and the quality of learning experiences for every student. Opportunity to succeed in college and career is buttressed by learning to succeed in challenging pre-K-12 curriculum.

Grouping practices that lock students into low skill or remedial classrooms and narrow subject matter to the three R’s often become side trips where students may never develop the skills and knowledge to move on to higher level learning and 21st-century skills.

The assignment of students and teachers to classes is not just paperwork but a powerful tool that a principal has at his fingertips to improve opportunity. Improving grouping in education so that all students succeed in the best curriculum requires not only addressing administrative policies and practices but also examining school cultural norms and politics, according to Jeanne Oakes, an advocate for equal learning opportunity for more than two decades. Can we have a discourse in every school on grouping to promote challenging learning for every student?

The advantages of starting with these three areas in order to improve opportunity are several. First of all, no educator, board member, or parent needs to be persuaded that they are areas of high impact where more can be done, or that they are within the purview and mission of the school and district. Secondly, with funding streams already budgeted for these areas, with perhaps the exception of pre-school, leaders can focus on incrementally increasing resources through redirection and additional funding.

By making opportunity for all students a matter of the practical rather than only the aspirational, we can change the discourse in education from excuses to solutions, challenging ourselves to become the educators we want to be for all of our youth.