April 15, 2015

Growing up in a small South Dakota town with sparse financial means (my mother was left in significant debt after my father died), for me, equality-of-opportunity in education was not a major problem.

My friends and I believed that if you “worked hard” and applied yourself, all possibilities were open to us.

Well, that’s not as true in the American twenty-first century! Without doubt, money matters much more today. Securing an equal opportunity-to-succeed with limited financial resources is far more difficult than it was seven decades ago when I was growing up.

Historically, the central focus for “equal opportunity” in America has always been its public school education. And here, unfortunately, we are failing disastrously.

As way of overview I’ll quote from an OpEd piece in the NEW YORK TIMES, “The Great Divide: Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth” by Joseph E. Stiglitz:

“Perhaps a hundred years ago, America might have rightly claimed to have been the land of opportunity, or at least a land where there was more opportunity than elsewhere. But not for at least a quarter of a century. Horatio Alger-style rags-to-riches stories were not a deliberate hoax, but given how they’ve lulled us into a sense of complacency, they might as well have been. . . .

. . . After World War II, Europe made a major effort to democratize its education systems. We did, too . . .

But then we changed, in several ways. While racial segregation decreased, economic segregation increased. After 1980, the poor grew poorer, the middle stagnated, and the top did better and better. Disparities widened between those living in poor localities and those living in rich suburbs — or rich enough to send their kids to private schools. A result was a widening gap in educational performance — the achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40 percent larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier, the Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon found.”

This equal opportunity in education myth shows up in some unexpected places, too. One was pointed out in a Jay Mathews blog in THE WASHINGTON POST, “Congress says ‘no’ to kids seeking a challenge” a couple of years ago:

“It is easier to interfere with instruction when no one is looking, as happened in December when Congress sharply reduced funds to pay Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test fees for low-income students. . . .

We have plenty of data showing that taking an $87 three-hour AP test is one of the most cost-effective ways to prepare for college. . . . students with passing scores on AP do better in college than students who don’t take the test. . . .

AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (International Baccalaureate) were both designed for students from affluent families and demanding high schools. But in the past 30 years, teachers have discovered the power of the courses and exams to change the lives of poor children. Last year, according to the College Board, 375,439 low-income students took 615,315 AP exams — 23 percent of the total taken.

. . . the potential for low-income students to succeed when given enough time and encouragement to learn has been obvious. But Congress cut the subsidies anyway because the victims were too young and powerless to complain.

. . . for now, many disadvantaged students are being told they can’t take a test that will help them do well in college unless they can find the money.”

And while I am well aware that — sometimes — financial help is available for highschoolers who want to participate in the plethora of expensive after-school enrichment activities offered, many cannot afford to participate. The result, once again, affirms the skewing of equal opportunity in the direction of the economically advantaged.

We must never forget that education and opportunities-for-learning are the bedrock of both freedom and democracy. Balancing a budget on the backs of the poor will never prove to be a responsible (nor a democratic) solution. America needs to be better than that!

More on Monday – – –

— Bill Walton, co-Founder ITC Learning
www.itclearning.com/blog/ (Mondays & Wednesdays)