We are in a critical time in education, perhaps now more than ever before, as we reflect on the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision and the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act. In many areas of our educational system, inequities have widened and not narrowed. As we think about opportunities for children to learn in school, we have to consider the structural barriers that prevent students from maximizing their learning potential in schools. The problem of inequitable access to quality learning opportunities is compounded by many factors in high-needs schools and communities, yet we find similar structural barriers in well-resourced communities as they play out for varying demographics of students (e.g., race/ethnicity, social class, religion, etc.). It is important for educational leaders from the school board to the community to consider how they can most effectively advocate for and implement policies and procedures that support equal access to opportunities for learning for all children.
As the Schott Foundation states, research indicates that students' performance outcomes are higher and more equitable when they have access to early childhood education, highly effective teachers, college preparatory curriculum, and equitable instructional resources. Let's consider these individually to better understand how your school district can better plan for students to have equitable opportunities to learn.
Early Childhood Education. Research indicates that the achievement gap begins prior to students entering kindergarten. The unequal access to quality preschool programming, or any preschool for that matter, should be examined by all school district leaders. In my children's school district, until a few years ago there was no access to public preschool. All of the childcare programs in our city were fee-based. As a parent of relative privilege, my husband and I were able to pay for quality tuition-based Montessori preschool education for our three girls; yet I often wondered how many families in our city did not have the resources to provide such training for their preschoolers. While a state-funded program was eventually initiated in the city, it was only available to a few families who met the income criteria. How is such programming going to narrow or close the starting gap between children who attended a quality preschool program and those who did not? What strategies was the school board considering in consultation with central office personnel and other administrators in the district? If children don't have access to quality preschool we know a gap exists as soon as they enter kindergarten. The type of early exposure that children have to literacy and math is often a significant indicator of the type of trajectory they will pursue in school. District leaders need to assess access to preschool programming in their districts, the type of programming available, and how information gets filtered to families to make the best decision for their child.
Highly Effective Teachers. While it is great to have access to quality preschool programming, if the teacher is ineffective in creating a strong classroom culture and nurturing the whole development of students at that stage and beyond, young people will continue to stray off the good path and be sorted into academic "tracks" that do not allow them to envision themselves as something greater than what that track affords. Even worse, they may fall through the cracks entirely. Research indicates that when students have highly effective teachers, we see evidence of positive relationship-building between teachers and students, effective home-school relationships, and high academic performance of students – these and other characteristics that allow for maximizing opportunities to learn. School district leaders have to determine if they have accurate materials and procedures for assessing teacher effectiveness and be clear with teachers about what defines instructional effectiveness. If teacher evaluation is unclear for what defines effectiveness, there can be a breakdown in staff unity and trust between administrators and teachers.
College Preparatory Curriculum. Take a pulse on your school or district. What does your data tell you about what college preparatory courses are currently being offered and to whom? Where are the curricular gaps (along content areas)? Where are the access gaps? Answers that identify deficits for either of the latter two questions present themselves as areas in need of improvement so that a college preparatory curriculum is available and a diversity of students has access to that curriculum. School leaders have to ask themselves, if the material is not available how do we get our hands on it? Secondly, if we notice there are certain subgroups of students that are negatively affected by our policies and procedures for enrolling in college preparatory curriculum, how do we revisit those so that they are more inclusive in nature?
Equitable Instructional Resources. Perhaps one of the linchpins in the entire wheel is adequate instructional resources. A school can have the most effective teachers, offer college preparatory curriculum, and even have narrowed their kindergarten achievement gap; yet if teachers and support staff are not equipped with the necessary instructional resources to fully educate youth, the youth are being done a disservice. School leaders have to identify innovative ways to ensure that two elementary schools within a five-mile radius of one another, even though they have distinctly different sets of characteristics, have equal and equitable access to instructional resources based on their unique needs.
Opportunities to learn for young people are opportunities to explore, innovate, and develop. If schools are unable to provide each child equal access to quality early childhood education, effective teachers, college preparatory curriculum, and equitable instructional resources we will continue to exacerbate gaps in achievement and life outcomes.
The next time you sit down with staff to engage a conversation around school improvement, education reform, or strategic planning, be sure to allot time for discussing the ramifications of not being asset-focused in how you provide the four pieces that research have indicated are necessary for equitable opportunities to learn.