The Struggle for Equal Education: Setting a New Research Agenda
“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?