The Gap in America's Education System

Yesterday, the Equity and Excellence Commission – an advisory committee chartered by Congress – issued a series of recommendations to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The memo outlined federal policies that could help close the achievement gap and ensure all students across the country had an equal and fair shot at a quality education.

The report makes a powerful declaration regarding the state of America’s schools, saying:

“Our system does not distribute opportunity equitably. Our leaders decry but tolerate disparities in student outcomes that are not only unfair, but socially and economically dangerous. Our nation’s stated commitments to academic excellence are often eloquent but, without more, an insufficient response to challenges at home and globally. The data the commission reviewed make clear that officials, administrators and constituents at all levels of government must attack our education failings as a moral and economic imperative.”

The Commission outlined a series of reforms to mitigate the injustices in our education system, including a more equitable distribution of funds, improved curriculum to prepare students for the 21st Century economy, access to early childhood education and a well-rounded delivery of support services for students from a variety of backgrounds.

But perhaps the recommendation that offers the largest shift in the education space, and more broadly, public programs overall, is a call for greater accountability and governance models that focus attention on performance and reward meaningful action over political rhetoric. Without tools to measure success and investments in leadership at the top of school systems and at the front of classrooms, the other efforts made by this Commission, and future committees, will be made in vain.

The report outlines the potential impact of a system that prioritizes performance and rewards effective teachers for their hard work, noting that:

“…if pay were more aligned with both effectiveness and experience, it would be quite possible to see overall salaries of teachers raised significantly from current levels—reflecting their enormous impact on students, on the incomes of students and on economic growth.”

The findings also highlight a major inequity triggered by a system that gives little consideration to the community environments educators work in and the impact they have on their students. This discovery was highlighted in a StudentsFirstNY report released last month that examined the distribution of teacher quality across NYC and found that students in schools with high poverty or percentages of minority students were more likely to have teachers rated “Unsatisfactory.”

The Commission recognized that this injustice exists across the country, and recommended that policy makers:

“Take all necessary measures to distribute highly effective teachers so that each student can get the help he or she needs to succeed. These measures should include pay incentives, targeted professional development and better working conditions and support in schools with the most need..."

The Commission estimated that these efforts could raise average starting pay for teacher to $65,000, from today’s $37,000, and top salaries to $150,000, and suggested that these policies:

“…would lift the percentage of new teachers in high-poverty schools coming from the top third of their academic cohort from 14 percent today to 68 percent and would cost (at current teacher/student ratios) an estimated $30 billion a year, or about 5 percent of current K-12 spending."

For these policies, and others included in the report, to have meaningful value, leaders must first get the measurement and accountability pieces right, and then make smart investments to encourage the best and brightest to teach in our toughest schools. We need reforms to help recruit, reward and retain great educators, and give them the support they need and deserve when they elect to serve students from challenging backgrounds.

For too long, children in low-income communities have been cheated by a bureaucracy and special interests that say poverty is simply too hard to overcome in the classroom. This is unacceptable. Great teachers and innovative schools across the country are proving this to be untrue, and making real strides in closing the achievement gap.

But the gap that continues in America is between the policies that we know are making a difference and the political will to implement them, between the public education system we currently have and the one our students desperately need. It’s time that policy makers at the federal, state and local levels step up to the challenge and pass reforms to help all of our students reach their full potential.

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