How do we tackle the broken promise of equal opportunity in education?
By James H. Lytle on Sep 5, 2014 10:43 AM
A few weeks ago, I wrote a commentary piece in which I argued that the School District and its supporters should focus attention on how to provide quality schooling with available resources and not concentrate solely on additional funding. The article generated many critical responses. Readers contended that I had given up on the fight for adequate funding for District students and was willing to settle for less than what students need – in terms of nurses, counselors and libraries, for example.
I regret that I was unclear. I absolutely do not think that District schools should passively accept less. My intent had been to suggest a strategy for providing quality education given the current circumstances and political climate. But that message clearly got overwhelmed by some of the recommendations I made.
This experience prompted me to think further about what parents, advocates, students, their teachers, and the community want and how politicians could respond.
So, here, I attempt to provide background for the long-running efforts to improve Philadelphia public schools and suggest options for action.
The situation in Philadelphia reflects a national policy debate that centers on the differences between equal opportunity and equal outcomes. Equal opportunity has generally been taken to mean that students in poor communities have access to schools with the same – if not more – resources as students in wealthier communities.
That concept is the premise of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Title I of that act provides supplemental funding for schools with high concentrations of students from low-income families. In addition, some state courts have bolstered the “opportunity” side. In New Jersey, the state’s Supreme Court, in its Abbott decision, provided the state’s urban districts with funding equal to its wealthy districts.
The No Child Left Behind legislation, enacted in 2001, reauthorized and updated ESEA. It shifted federal policy from an emphasis on equal opportunity to an emphasis on equal outcomes. Race to the Top has reinforced that strategy. NCLB emphasizes student achievement as determined by test scores and rewards schools whose students meet performance standards, while punishing schools that do not (by closing them, converting them to charter schools, or dismissing their faculties). Some failing schools may be given “improvement grants” to help them meet standards, but in the main, low-performing schools are expected to improve with the resources they already have.
Much of what has happened in Philadelphia schools during the last 12 years has been driven by NCLB. Yet there is no evidence to date, either in Philadelphia or nationally, that either the original ESEA or NCLB has leveled the playing field and produced either equal opportunity or equal outcomes for disadvantaged students. In requiring districts to show progress not just for all students, but for ethnic and other sub-groups, NCLB did, appropriately, draw attention to students whose performance has historically been linked to race, poverty, special needs, and language spoken at home.
Meanwhile, equity issues have moved to the center of American politics as reflected by widespread concern about income inequality and stagnation, college student debt, mortgage foreclosures, unemployment, an increased minimum wage, immigration reform, and other related issues.
At the same time, many of the factors that predict educational outcomes as they relate to educational opportunity have been identified. These include access to quality child-care and pre-school programs, summer and afterschool activities, highly qualified teachers working in good schools, curriculum standards, parents with college educations, and family income.
Until 1975, U.S. schools did a reasonable job at providing equal opportunity, but from that point on, family income has become an increasingly powerful predictor of everything from access to quality pre-school to college admissions and completion, and to post-college employment. Because of the advantages that wealth provides, education in the United States contributes to inequality instead of helping to remedy it.
All these considerations are at play in the despair that parents feel as they see Philadelphia public schools collapse. They want their children to be happy, successful adults, but they wonder, with good reason, whether District schools can serve their children in ways that will make that likely. Charter schools have provided an option, but they don’t begin to have the resources of Lower Merion or independent schools like Penn Charter. A Pennsylvania school funding formula is being sought as a solution, but the likelihood is extremely low that even stable school funding will bring equal opportunity and overcome the many disadvantages that urban (and rural) children face.
In my view, more money alone is not a sufficient answer, because more money will still not provide the range of opportunities and supports that many Philadelphia children need. A good strategy regardless of the funding situation is to use the city’s extraordinary higher education, medical, and cultural resources to supplement the schooling provided by District and charter schools.
As an illustration, when I was a Philadelphia principal and also as Trenton schools superintendent, I worked constantly to overcome the ”opportunity to learn” disadvantages our students faced by drawing on every additional resource we could identify. That led to partnerships with the University of Pennsylvania, Merrill Lynch, the Educational Testing Service, the New Jersey Treasury Department, the city’s Recreation Department, and a host of others who provided courses, internships, mentors, tutoring, afterschool and summer programs, and whatever other supports they could – all at no cost.
That is why I and others are pressing our elected officials, and business, higher education, religious and civic leaders to commit to improving conditions for Philadelphia public school students by using whatever resources they can muster. That is not to suggest that community resources should be considered as substitutes for adequate funding, but rather as necessary additions as we strive for both equal opportunity and equal outcomes.
To put it differently, Philadelphia cannot be a “world-class” city or an attractive place to live and do business if it chooses not to invest in its children in every way that it can.
I am acutely conscious that increasing investment in children’s health, education, and welfare will be a continuing struggle, both locally and nationally. Congress has been unwilling to address the income gap. The governor, mayor, state legislators, and City Council have basically been locked in political conflict, rather than joining forces to take responsibility and act on parent and community concern for quality Philadelphia schools. The evidence, both locally and nationally, is that the American promise of equal opportunity has been broken.
We, the people, have forgotten our collective commitment “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
That does not mean that Philadelphians should accept our situation. Collectively, we need to show what is possible when, in the interest of the general welfare, an entire community commits to educating all its children well.
James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.