The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The real problem in education: the ‘opportunity gap’


By Kevin Welner
Thirty years ago today, the National Commission on Excellence in Education presented its report, called A Nation at Risk, to Education Secretary Terrell Bell. The report’s recommendations included adopting more rigorous and measurable standards, and systemically administering standardized achievement tests “as part of a nationwide (but not Federal) system of State and local standardized tests.”
Clearly, that part of the report was acted on – with a lot of gusto.


Much has happened in the last 30 years. But let’s fast forward, past the 1989 Charlottesville Education Summit and past President Clinton’s “Goals 2000” legislation in 1994. Let’s jump right to the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001. That law, along with the current administration’s Race to the Top policies, has placed American school reform on a stark path best defined as “test-based accountability reform” – just as was called for 30 years ago in A Nation at Risk.
But few policy makers or researchers would call these last 30 years a rousing success. As one clear marker, I’m going to go out on a limb and boldly predict that the nation will fall somewhat short of the NCLB goal of bringing all children to proficiency by 2014.


But even by reasonable standards, the nation’s educational outcomes are not in much better shape than they were in 1983. Whether we’re looking at overall scores or at achievement gaps, the trend lines for NAEP, the so-called Nation’s Report Card, generally show a post-reform picture that looks pretty much like the pre-reform picture – with positive trend lines but apparent slowing after 1990. There is no way to tease those data into showing that test-based accountability reform is accomplishing its key learning goals.


We can debate whether to call this reform effort a failure or simply a limited success, but what’s clear to me and to the accomplished authors of our new book, is that we’ve squeezed all the benefits we’re going to out of our laser-like focus on measuring outcomes.


In particular, we have failed to build capacity or increase opportunities to learn.


Our intense focus on achievement gaps needs to be combined with an equally intense focus on opportunity gaps. The status quo of test-based accountability reform needs to give way to new, evidence-based approaches dedicated to building the capacity to accomplish accountability goals.


I refer to this as a movement from Gaps 1.0 to Gaps 2.0.
The old Gaps 1.0 conversation simply cannot get us to where we need to go. Children learn when they have opportunities to learn. When denied those opportunities, they fall behind, and we get the devastating achievement gaps. But when they are provided with rich opportunities to learn, they thrive, and the achievement gaps close.


As our book explains, we as a nation have tons of good research evidence about what those opportunity gaps are, how they arise, and how to close them. We are ready to move to the new “Gaps 2.0” conversation that recognizes this truth – that we actually do know how and why some students thrive while others falter. I applaud former President Bush for calling out the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” but a “no excuses” approach of increased expectations without increased supports is a recipe for continued disappointment and another generation of children who will never reach their potential.


American society has the means to provide supports for communities, for families, for students, and for teachers – to ensure that children are safe and healthy and ready to learn, that they have access to rich learning environments in schools and also in their homes and in their communities, and that they have qualified, experienced teachers.


We can build on children’s strengths, supporting them and challenging them to excel. The good news is that closing the opportunity gap doesn’t require a magical quick fix; the bad news is that to do it we need to stop grasping at those magical quick fixes. Instead, we must turn to evidence-based, best practices.


Let me end by telling you a bit about this new book. The idea was born in early October, 2008, at a meeting at Stanford University that was part of a forum to mark the 40th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission report. Recall that this report included the warning that, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” It focused attention on our failed housing, education, employment and social policies.


At this 2008 meeting, Linda, myself, Prudence Carter, and several other researchers who later wrote chapters in this book, discussed our concerns that the nation’s achievement gap focus had led policymakers to lose sight of key opportunity to learn issues – certainly including those raised in the Kerner Commission’s report. If we as a nation place obstacles in front of children related to their housing, to their parents’ employment, to social-service policies, AND to their formal education, then achievement gaps are inevitable.


So, after a few years of trying to find the time, Stanford professor Prudence Carter and I – with the support of the Ford Foundation – set out to bring together some of the top thinkers in the education community, and to produce this Closing the Opportunity Gap book.


One thing the book makes clear is that our achievement gaps arise out of our opportunity gaps, and it also makes clear that those opportunity gaps are cumulative and involve much more than formal schooling.


Last week, UNICEF released a report on child poverty in 35 developed countries. The US came in 34th, second to last – between Bulgaria and Romania, two much poorer countries overall.  23% of children in the US live in poverty. In Finland, a country at the top of educational rankings, it’s less than 4%.


It’s not hard to see how poverty is related to education.


A child without high-quality preschool, for example, faces even greater obstacles:
How could responsible policy makers avoid the reality that closing the achievement gap means seriously addressing these multiple obstacles?


Fortunately, as the new book reminds us, policy solutions are within our reach. As our children do so readily, we now need to seize an “opportunity.” We need to change the conversation and refocus the education debate on deeper, highly effective ways of doing education.


The book’s authors explain how some schools and communities are currently addressing these inequities. And they also explain how those experiences could be the foundation for critically needed change in our educational system. In addition, we have prepared a short description of some evidence-based policy recommendations, available to you all here and also posted on our NEPC website.


Importantly, our message here is not to ignore achievement gaps – quite the opposite. Nor are we calling for an end to testing or other outcome measures. But those measures have taken on an unhealthy and out-sized role. To state the obvious, tests don’t teach. But they can be part of a useful evaluative feedback loop to help schools identify and address needs.


In this way, Gaps 1.0 can bridge to Gaps 2.0 – outcome measures can be combined with smart, crucial inputs and capacity building. We’re starting to see this, with the administration’s attention to high-quality early childhood education. We’ve even noticed Secretary Duncan speaking about the importance of addressing “opportunity gaps.”
This is a small start, but it is indeed a step down a path that, if pursued with determination, will close our gaps – opportunity gaps as well as achievement gaps.


Thank you.