Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Opportunity Gap: Schools and Equity

The news organization ProPublica is a well known nonprofit newsroom that produces investigatory journalism in the public interest.  They were the first online news source to win a Pulitzer in 2010.  One piece in particular that I would like to craft a conversation around today is their web tool entitled, The Opportunity Gap: Is Your State Providing Equal Access to Education? 

Decades after Brown v. Board, education in our country is still tied to geography.  America’s de facto education policy is simple:  If you want good public schools for your kids you move to a zip code which has good schools.  We are allowing a market-based laissez-faire system to determine if, and to the degree, our children will have access to a quality education.  Rather than being institutions of greater social and economic mobility, schools often serve as engines of the status quo.  Students who live in poor neighborhoods and attend under-resourced schools are less likely to be successful than their counterparts located in higher income communities.  This gets to the heart of the difference between the achievement gap and the opportunity gap in America.  The achievement gap puts the focus squarely on the child and their ability to achieve, whereas the opportunity gap places the focus on the contextual social, economic, and political forces that create pathways for that child to achieve.  A focus on the opportunity gap, leads to the question:  Are states providing fair and equitable access toward a quality education for all kids?

To address this question, ProPublica provides a database to access data on the opportunity gap specifically.  It then provides equal opportunity indicators such as Inexperienced Teachers, Number of AP Courses, Students who get free/reduced lunch, Students who take at least one AP course, Students who take advanced math, and compares this data with both the School District and the State.  Further, there is a breakdown of racial demographics by school, district, and state.  

I looked up my high school, Ballard High in Louisville, Kentucky.  I found, to my expectation, that Ballard had less inexperienced teachers than either the comparable district or the state in Kentucky and more AP courses offered.  A significantly lower percentage of students at Ballard received free/reduced lunch than either at the district or the state.  

ProPublica also looks at how states compare at providing high poverty and wealthier schools equal access to AP classes, chemistry, physics, advanced math, and gifted/talent classes.  States like Maryland and Kansas did poorly at achieving equitable distribution of these opportunities whereas states such as Minnesota, and Delaware did well.  

What are the takeaways for policymakers from this tool?  Well, one is for simply creating awareness.  Our schools are, essentially, a reflection of our society; a society that remains inequitable and segregated by socio-economic status.  Many policymakers know this already and, in turn, argue and attempt to craft policies toward the amelioration of the status quo, however there is a vast and growing body of research in this realm and better connecting policy to this research is critical.  For instance, for a number of years now, Maryland has been lauded for having the nation’s best public school system.  However, in examining the ProPublica database, we see that while a great public school system, the spoils of that quality is distributed relatively unequally compared to other states.  This brings up questions of how states wish to see their resources allocated and how important an equitable allocation of resources is for citizens and policymakers.

Secondly, this website changes the language and framing of the debate from “achievement gap” rhetoric to an opportunity gap.  Our educational leaders are awash in language of “leave no children behind” and the usage of metrics and ever-increasing reams of data to measure “accountability” through a variety of standardized tests.  In turn, the achievement gap has become part of our daily lexicon.  Words shape how we view the world.  Words shape how we confront challenges in our lives and our society.  In short, words matter because words lead to real action, policy shifts, and results that may benefit children and their families.  Shifting from an achievement to an opportunity framing aids in confronting the root causes of these issues rather than putting the focus on an individual child’s achievement.  If we as a society care about all our children, we should care about the pathways these kids have for opportunities rather than a more narrow definition of “achievement” based on quantitative testing.  Data tools such as ProPublica’s database now makes it easier for states to create policies around the opportunity gap and benchmark themselves against other states.  This is public interest journalism at its highest and best use.



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