The Struggle for Equal Education: Setting a New Research Agenda

By Peter W. Cookson Jr, Director, The Equity Project at AIR, Mar 04, 2015

“Our education system, legally desegregated more than a half century ago, is ever more segregated by wealth and income, and often again by race,” noted The Equity and Excellence Commission in its 2013 report titled For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence.

To address this ongoing challenge, The Equity Project at AIR brought together some of country’s top educational researchers at a Research Roundtable in spring 2014 to forge an educational research agenda based on principles of equity. Our goal at this Research Roundtable was not to rehash previous lines of research but to address the fundamental challenges facing public schools educating the nation’s students from low-income and minority families.

We approached our work with a sense of urgency. As the quote from The Equity and Excellence Commission suggests, rising inequality and the inability of our school system as a whole to provide equal education is creating a near-perfect research and policy “storm,” which affects the lives of millions of children and young people. This storm is not a passing cloudburst. Instead, it’s a weather system that could easily change the social and economic landscape for years to come.

According to a January 2015 report from the Southern Education Foundation, more than half of American public school students come from poor families. The reality behind this statistic is sobering: Many children growing up in poverty are hungry, lack adequate medical attention, and attend schools that are ill-equipped to prepare them for success.

The work of the Research Roundtable resulted in numerous research priorities. These priorities ranged from finding new ways to measure civic engagement to studying exemplary districts based on models of equity and access to opportunity. Within this abundance of research ideas, we arrived at six key priorities needed to open the door to opportunity for all:

  • Find ways to promote diversity while upholding common high standards.
  • Promote public understanding of the clear evidence that education dramatically improves the life prospects of the poor, near poor, and the working poor.
  • Get the word out that student engagement and opportunities to learn are the right of all students.
  • Frankly acknowledge the power of social structure when proposing new avenues for equity research.
  • Make it clear to all that the social “safety net” is not about charity; it is about building an educational system and a strong economy that provide opportunities for everyone.
  • Emphasize the research showing that college-going high school cultures raise the aspirations of low-income and minority students. Ensure that this research becomes an empirical basis for educational policy making.

In January 2015, The Equity Project published Opening the Doors to Opportunity for All, a collection of essays by nine of the Research Roundtable participants: James A. Banks, A. Wade Boykin, Diana Elliott, David Grusky, Katherine Marshall, Hugh Mehan, Jeannie Oakes, Sheryl Petty, and Lois Weis. Taken as a whole, these essays-inspire, inform, and form a call to action.

In 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson appointed an 11-member commission to investigate the causes of the race riots in the United States. The most famous passage of the 1968 report written by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was a dire warning: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one—separate and unequal.” Although much progress has been made since then, little has changed for those Americans living in urban neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. They are still separate and unequal. And so are the schools their children attend.

In the current words of the The Equity and Excellence Commission, “These vestiges of segregation, discrimination and inequality are unfinished business for our nation.”

It is time to finish this unfinished business.


Now, it’s your turn. We want to hear your thoughts:

  • What can schools, districts, and states do to promote educational equity for all students―especially those from low-income and minority families?
  • How can the lessons learned from research be applied to create practical strategies for improving educational equity?



Let's remember that "student engagement and opportunities to learn are the right of all students" also includes ALL students who are gifted and talented, advanced learners, whatever today's buzzword classification is. While the majority of measures like the several times-proposed proposed TALENT Act and research by the often unfunded or underfunded Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program are focused on serving students traditionally underrepresented, as long as there is not a national mandate for services or funding for serving ALL gifted/talented similar to IDEA for disabilities, the access or implementation for programs of acceleration (not enrichment) for advanced learners is predominately dependent on economics- whether you can afford to live in a high real estate value community or not. In most LEAs even White/Caucasian students, male or female, have zero or limited "enrichment" opportunities (let alone acceleration) and spend all their school days waiting for the other students to "catch up" and enduring multiple cycles of repetition, kill and drill or long-mastered skills. "Guided Reading" limited to a maximum reading level for that grade, and no implementation of "pre-testing" and options for compacting curriculum when a mastery of 85% or even as much as 100% is already shown, is a waste of students ability, not to mention educational financial resources.

When I was a part of AIR (several decades back) I tried to introduce the "education researchers" to what we were (and are) doing at Sudbury Valley School ( At that time, there wasn't much interest. Perhaps times have changed the interests of the education research community; time has not changed the philosophy and practice at Sudbury Valley School.

Research based reading instruction that can save a student's reading life is paramount for students with dyslexia and yet it is not treated as such by institutions of teacher training in that there is little if any real substantial time spent on this specific learning disability. This is evidenced in the widespread misconceptions that surround dyslexia even among educators and administrators. This is evidenced in that many educators are unable to define dyslexia.This matters in that students with dyslexia can't been seen or identified if their teachers can not even define this disability that will impact an estimated ten to fifteen percent of all learners. This matters because students need to be seen in order to be identified in order to receive the support they need to learn to read. They need to be seen in order to receive the systematic, structured, sequential, comprehensive, multi-sensory phonics-based approach that is the proven science-based remediation for dyslexia. Equity in education starts when science findings find their way into every classroom. The absence of curriculum and training at a college level can't be treated as optional in that it is estimated that every teacher will have between 3 and 4 students with a learning disability in his or her classroom (based on a class size of 27) and dyslexia accounts for approximately 85% of those numbers. Equity means that every college of teacher training is attuned to the research that can help their teaching graduates identify and teach learners with reading problems. Equity needs to be based in current science and brain imaging that shows that learners with dyslexia can't break the reading code in the absence of a research based reading approach that requires teacher training! Some miscellaneous teacher training that may or may not filter into a student's classroom doesn't translate to equity in education. The current chasm that exists between the reading research community and colleges of teacher training demands that legislation is enacted to ensure equal education and access to research based curriculum so that all students can learn to read.

The statistic relating to the percentage of students with a learning disability in the comment, How Colleges of Teacher Training can Bring Equality to Education, should have read that it is estimated that every teacher will have between 1 and 3 students in his or her classroom (class size 20) with a learning disability. Dyslexia affects 5-15% of all children and adults in the United States.

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