Education, Equity and the Big Picture: The Nation Needs to Take a More Comprehensive Approach to Improving Educational Outcomes for Low-Income and Minority Students and English Learners

By Nielsen, Natalie | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Education, Equity and the Big Picture: The Nation Needs to Take a More Comprehensive Approach to Improving Educational Outcomes for Low-Income and Minority Students and English Learners


Nielsen, Natalie, Issues in Science and Technology


Education has long been recognized as important to individual well-being and the nation's economic growth. Yet, despite significant public and private investment, disparities in educational opportunities, behavior, attainment, and achievement exist among different student populations. For example, from early childhood through postsecondary education, English learners, low-income, and some racial and ethnic minority students generally have less access to quality learning opportunities, materials, and teachers than their peers. Students from these disadvantaged groups also fare less well on a variety of outcomes. In addition to well-documented gaps in K-12 achievement and graduation rates, these students are more likely to be absent or truant, have disciplinary problems in school, encounter the justice system, and engage in risky behaviors, and less likely to attend and graduate from college. As demographics continue to shift in the United States, the imperative for the K-12 education system to address these disparities and better prepare students to thrive in adulthood is greater than ever before.

Recent policy developments are renewing attention to this imperative and providing an opportunity to address it. The Common Core state standards in mathematics and English language arts will increase academic expectations for all students. In a similar vein, realizing President Obama's goal of producing 8 million more college graduates by 2020 will mean that a more diverse range of students needs to leave high school prepared for the future.

The available evidence suggests that meeting these goals will require appreciable changes in the approaches school systems take to educate students from low-income families, nonwhite students, and English learners. Making these changes will not be easy, for two major reasons. First, anyone who has spent appreciable time in schools, particularly low-performing schools or those with high concentrations of students in poverty, can attest to the complexity of the educational enterprise. Second, education policies and policy research often belie those known complexities, typically emphasizing one or two levers that are perceived as being the most influential at any given time. Without a greater willingness to grapple with more aspects of the system simultaneously when crafting policies and policy research, progress in reducing educational disparities will continue to be incremental, at best.

In this article I explore the mismatch between the complexity of reducing educational disparities and improving outcomes for disadvantaged students, and the comparatively narrower focus of policy research on those topics (and, by extension, the vision of the policymakers who compel that research). Because the work of the National Research Council (NRC) happens in response to requests from government agencies and other organizations concerned with education policy, the NRC's portfolio can be used as a lens for reflecting how policymakers view the problem and possible solutions. To inform this article, I examined NRC consensus studies from 1999 to the present that were explicitly focused on or motivated by some aspect of equity in K-12 education. I also examined two recent influential reports on the topic of educational disparities. The first is Equity and Quality in Education, a comparative report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on some of the policy levers that can be used to reduce system-wide inequities and help to overcome school failure. The second report, For Each and Every Child, was issued by the U.S. Department of Education's Equity and Excellence Commission in February 2013. That report addresses the disparities in meaningful educational opportunities that give rise to achievement gaps and makes recommendations about the ways in which federal policies could address such disparities.

By highlighting the divergence between the problem and the typical approaches to identifying solutions, this article underscores the need for policymakers and policy research to adopt a broader conceptualization of the problem to identify a wider range of possible solutions for improving outcomes. …

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