New Report Urges Education Secretary To Take Inequality ‘More Seriously’

February 20, 2013

Raising the alarm that “America has lost its place as a global leader in educational attainment,” a report issued today by an independent commission chartered by Congress to advise the U.S. Department of Education concludes that the “federal government must take more seriously its profoundly important responsibility” to address inequality in the nation’s K-12 public schools.

The Report,“For Each and Every Child: A Strategy For Education Equity And Excellence,” maintains that instead of taking steps to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged students, “the current American system exacerbates the problem by giving these children less of everything that makes a difference in education.”

Members of the Equity and Excellence Commission – a diverse group that includes prominent academics, economists, government officials, labor leaders, and advocates – argue, “While some young Americans – most of them white and affluent – are getting a truly world-class education, those who attend schools in high poverty neighborhoods are getting an education that more closely approximates school in developing nations.”

The Report says there has been “good progress” on some issues – in adopting new standards, turning attention to lowest-performing schools, and enforcing federal civil rights laws. But the Report repeatedly finds fault at the federal level, stating, “federal concern has not produced acceptable results in student outcomes,” calling supports for states and districts “inadequate,” and finding that sanctions imposed on states and districts for inequities have been “ineffective.”

The Commission urges the country to “speed up” efforts to address “the toll taken by concentrated poverty” and “the deep inequities between schools and between students”– an effort that “may require a stronger federal role.”

Consequences of Inequality

Like other reports that have been critical of America’s system of education, this one raises the alarm that “far too many U.S. students – the future labor force – are no longer competitive with students across the developed world.”

Citing data of how U.S. students perform on assessments compared to how their peers in other countries perform, the Commission proclaims that problems with America’s inequitable education system “will lead to a decline in living standards for millions of our children and the loss of trillions of dollars of economic growth.”

In particular, the report notes, “If Hispanic and African American student performance grew to be comparable to white performance and remained there over the next 80 years, the historical evidence indicates that the impact would be staggering – adding some $50 trillion (in present value terms) to our economy.”

The Commission concludes, “We take the extraordinary diversity… that should be our strategic advantage in the international economy and squander it.”

Causes of Inequality

Unlike other reports that blame American students’ under-performance solely on teaching performance or inadequate standards, this report clearly places blame more so on the nation’s high rate of poverty and inequity of funding to schools serving students living in poverty.

The Commission brands the U.S. an “outlier nation” due to its high poverty rate for school age children – “twice the OECD average and nearly four times that of leading countries such as Finland” – and how American society tends to “concentrate” poor children, “isolating them in certain schools – often resource-starved schools – which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

The Report devotes considerable attention to the nation’s school financing system that too often, according to the authors, allocates the least amount of public funding to schools that need it the most.

The Report admonishes, “Local finance and governance systems [that] continue to allow for, and in many ways encourage, inequitable and inadequate funding systems.” And the authors call on the federal government to

  • “Direct states” to change finance systems so they “provide a meaningful opportunity for all students.”
  • Target “new federal funds to schools with high-concentrations of low-income students.”
  • Provide states with incentives to “reduce the number of schools with high concentrations of poverty.”
  • “Consider expanding its authority to address longstanding and persistent issues of inequity in school finance.”
  • “Ensure that its dollars are not used to perpetuate or exacerbate inequities.”
  • Amend Title I which “endorses the local practice of often providing lesser amounts of state and local funds per pupil to Title I than non-Title I schools.”

In addition to financial reforms, the Commission believes that problems with educating impoverished children should be addressed by expanding access to early childhood education. Echoing a recent proposal by the Obama administration to expand pre-K education to all three and four year olds, the Report calls for a “joint state-federal” effort to “ensure that, within 10 years, all low-income children, in all states, have access to new resources for high-quality early learning.”

Other recommendations from the Report for addressing poverty include better parent engagement, health programs, extended learning time for struggling and “at risk” students, and drop-out and alternative programs to ensure students graduate high school.

Current “Reforms” Have Not Addressed Inequality

While devoting considerable attention to poverty and school financing as sources of education inequality, the Equity Commission does not ignore other factors that influence school outcomes, such as teacher preparation and evaluation, quality instruction, and accountability measures that demand schools adhere to standards.

Those measures have been popular to push in recent reports, and they have been cornerstones of the “reforms” pushed by the Education Department’s Race to the Top, NCLB Waivers, and other policies.

But the Commission provides a counter narrative to this trend, stating, “For more than 40 years, federal, state and local governments have implemented various initiatives in an attempt to redress these problems. These initiatives have not addressed the fundamental sources of inequities and so have not generated the educational gains desired.”

What’s needed for “the next stage of our journey,” the Commission contends, “is far more widespread and equitable opportunities for students throughout the nation.”

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America's Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, serving numerous nonprofits and progressive organizations and causes including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, ASCD, National...