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.

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 E 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. This article by no means offers a comprehensive review of the literature; rather, the analysis of a few select reports is intended to serve as a starting point for discussions about future directions for research and policy.

The complexity of the problem

In any education system, the major elements of the system that influence the teaching and learning process and educational outcomes include curriculum; instructional practices; school organization and climate; assessment and accountability; state, district, and school-level policies; and finance. The major actors in the system are teachers and their capacity to teach, students, principals, and families.

Each of these elements and actors is conceptually distinct, and each serves a different role in the education system. However, as with any complex system, each element and each actor is connected to the others in a nonlinear way (much like nodes in a web or network), and they are mutually dependent on each other. In addition, the interactions among different actors and between people and the other elements of the system are constantly changing over time, and they are determined by the individuals and their goals for the interactions. The following excerpt from a 2002 article by Jennifer O’Day on complexity, accountability, and school improvement illustrates this point:

In a school, for example, teachers interact with students, with other teachers, with administrators, with parents, and so forth. In each of these interactions, the individual actor follows his or her own goals and strategies, which differ from those of other actors to varying degrees. One teacher may seek to develop her students’ mathematical reasoning while another is more focused on keeping students safe and off the streets. These teachers’ differing goals may be manifested in somewhat different strategies in the classroom. Similarly, while one student may show up because he wants to hang out with friends and avoid the truancy officer, another has his eyes on an elite university. Again, students’ particular activities will vary according to their goals.

Those interactions also are governed by the constraints that the system imposes, such as the length and structure of the school day, state or district standards, the standardized testing schedule, and the curriculum materials and other instructional tools that are available to teachers.

Layering in the needs of disadvantaged, low-performing students and schools increases the complexity of the education process. Students’ background characteristics and conditions typically determine the schools they attend, and the neighborhood context, in turn, determines the availability of resources and the capacity of the professionals who work at the school. Indeed, English learners and students living in poverty require more intensive resources to support their learning, and many schools in poor neighborhoods lack the human and material resources to “break the nexus between student background characteristics and student achievement,” as described in the NRC report Making Money Matter. Paradoxically, the schools that need the highest-quality teachers the most—schools with high concentrations of low-income or low-achieving students—have the hardest time attracting them.

Some constraints or elements of the K-12 education system disproportionately affect disadvantaged students and thereby complicate the process of improving their educational outcomes. As one example, tracking, or the practice of sorting students into different courses or curricula based on ability, has many deleterious effects. Students in lowertracked courses often are low-income, nonwhite, or English learners. Tracking in the early grades precludes these students from taking more rigorous courses over the course of their academic careers, isolates them from their higher-achieving peers, reinforces low academic expectations, and leads many to believe that they lack academic competence. By secondary school, students in these lower tracks might disengage and eventually drop out of school. Nonwhite students also are disproportionally represented in special education and subject to discipline policies that remove them from the school or classroom, further limiting their learning opportunities.

Students’ background characteristics and conditions also influence their own education in well-documented ways (see the companion article by Alexandra Beatty for a more detailed discussion of the out-of-school factors and needs that affect K-12 behavior, achievement, and attainment). For low-income students, lack of access to quality early learning opportunities can limit the extent to which they enter kindergarten ready to learn, shaping the course of their education for years. Being hungry, chronically ill from an absence of health care, or stressed from exposure to hardship or violence can diminish concentration, engagement, and performance in school. Older students who take jobs to support their families might attend school sporadically, which affects their education and the functioning of their classes. Improving outcomes and reducing disparities for disadvantaged students is even further complicated by the ways in which students’ lives and out-of-school influences affect the functioning of the school as a whole, and these dynamics are less well understood from a research perspective.

Policy levers

Looking across the research related to the topics in the previous section and in Beatty’s article in this issue, what we know about improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students suggests that the process begins in early childhood, requires attention to psychosocial development as well as academic growth, and mitigates the effects of circumstances and conditions, such as poverty, that hinder students’ learning. Most research that is driven by policy concerns and designed to inform policy, however, does not reflect this broad view, and is therefore limited in its utility to help policymakers consider and address the problem in all its complexity.

A review of NRC consensus reports in the past 15 years that have been driven by some aspect of equity in K-12 education illustrates a striking shift in national policy priorities. In 1999 and 2000, three consensus reports on K-12 education focused explicitly on equity. In 2001, Congress authorized the No Child Left Behind Act (originally the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), which included strict accountability requirements for all students. From 2001 to mid-2012, as No Child Left Behind came to dominate the education landscape, just five NRC consensus reports were driven by the goal of equity in education. Most of the reports fall into two broad topic areas: 1) high-stakes testing and accountability and 2) special populations of students, such as dropouts, minority students, students with disabilities, and English learners, typically as they intersected with testing and accountability.

Reports on each of these topics, however deep and comprehensive, have addressed only a slice of the problem of reducing educational disparities for disadvantaged students. The focus of each report also reflects national educational policy priorities at the time when the report was commissioned. Of course, it is valuable to have a deep understanding of individual elements of the system, but homing in on one aspect in this way does not give policymakers a sense of the limitations of approaching the problem one lever at a time. If it is clear that the problem involves complex interactions among the actors and elements of the system, policymakers must grapple with those complexities. This might explain why many NRC reports caution against the search for a magic bullet and point to the need to attend to other elements of the system, even if they do not address those other elements themselves.

Notably, three older NRC reports—written before No Child Left Behind—adopted more comprehensive approaches to the challenge of promoting greater educational opportunity and improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. The committee that wrote the 1999 report Making Money Matter was charged to answer the question, “How can education finance systems be designed to ensure that all students achieve high levels of learning and that education funds are raised and used in the most efficient and effective manner possible?” In addressing its charge, the committee observed that:

Education finance is only one part of a total system of education. Many of the concerns about the financing of education reflect large issues regarding the overall education system. Hence, proposals for changing the finance system can be presented in at least two ways: (1) as a menu of options for driving the education system in desirable directions or (2) as intertwined components necessary to achieve a given vision of overall education reform.

Thus, Making Money Matter tackled broader issues such as the need for investing in the capacity of the system and professionals in the system to improve achievement, and the need for systematic inquiry into a range of more comprehensive and aggressive reforms in urban schools to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students.

Initially driven by concerns that high-school exit examinations could have the unintended effect of increasing dropout rates among students whose rates are already far higher than the average, the NRC report Understanding Dropouts (2001) examined the state of knowledge about influences on dropout behavior and the available data on dropouts and school completion. By definition, that examination probed the interaction of nonschool factors and many different aspects of the education system and their role in dropout.

In a related vein, the 2003 report Engaging Schools also had a relatively broad charge to examine what was known about promoting disadvantaged urban adolescents’ engagement and motivation (and academic achievement) in high school. That committee looked at the intersection of several different aspects of the education system (curriculum, teachers, instructional strategies, and the organization of schools) with broader research on motivation and engagement. The committee also took into account the role of family, peer culture, and community resources. Reflecting this comprehensive view of the problem, the report’s recommendations range from greater use of classroom-based assessment of students’ knowledge and skills to restructuring urban high schools to improving communication, coordination, and trust among the adults in the various settings where adolescents spend their time.

Other approaches

Moving beyond the NRC portfolio, two recent policy reports provide contrasting approaches to their recommendations for reducing disparities. The 2012 OECD report Equity and Quality in Education is a cross-national examination of the approaches governments can take to prevent school failure and reduce dropout. The report notes that

Governments can prevent school failure and reduce dropout using two parallel approaches: eliminating system level practices that hinder equity; and targeting low performing disadvantaged schools. But education policies need to be aligned with other government policies, such as housing or welfare, to ensure student success.

At the system level, the OECD report suggests that the following policies could help to reduce or avoid creating disparities in educational outcomes:

  • Eliminate grade repetition
  • Eliminate early tracking
  • Make funding strategies responsive to schools’ and students’ needs
  • Provide flexible pathways for students to complete secondary education

In terms of supporting low-performing schools and students to improve, OECD’s recommended strategies include:

  • Attracting, supporting, and retaining high-quality teachers
  • Creating a school climate that is conducive to learning
  • Strengthening school leadership
  • Promoting the use of effective classroom learning strategies
  • Prioritizing links between schools and communities

These recommendations are consistent with the major elements of the K-12 education system I described in the previous section and that are commonly identified as the “usual suspects” in education policy reports and conversations. And if implemented in U.S. schools, they probably would improve the process of schooling, and perhaps even educational outcomes, for low-income students, nonwhite students, and English learners. But by how much?

The OECD recommendations address a few levers or (staying with the image of the education system as an interconnected web) nodes of the system at a time and do not fully engage with the interactions among them or with the multifaceted causes of disparities in education. To be fair, the report does acknowledge some of the interrelations among the levers, and in the excerpt above, recognizes that the causes of disparities in educational outcomes extend well beyond the education system. But breaking the recommendations into such discrete pieces could tempt policymakers to treat the recommendations as a disconnected set of menu options and might lead them to expect more progress than is reasonable from selecting one or two items from the menu. Without a richer, more fully developed conceptualization of the problem, clear linkages between the solutions and the nature and magnitude of the problem, and an exploration of the tradeoffs involved in tackling one or two levers at a time, the kind of change that is needed to make appreciable progress in reducing educational disparities will probably remain elusive.

For Each and Every Child, the 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission, offers just such a comprehensive conceptualization, together with a set of interconnected solutions that are directly related to that conceptualization. The Equity Commission’s report contains a “five-part framework of tightly interrelated recommendations to guide policymaking.” The parts are as follows:

  • Equitable school finance systems
  • Teachers, principals, and curricula that give students an opportunity to thrive
  • Early childhood education with an academic focus
  • Mitigating poverty’s effects by providing access to early childhood education and a range of support services
  • Reforming accountability and governance systems

This framework (and the report) begins to embrace the complexity of reducing educational disparities by explicitly including early childhood education and acknowledging the effects of poverty on educational behavior, achievement, and attainment. And although finance, accountability, and governance arguably represent a few individual levers or nodes of the system, the report makes a compelling case for the ways in which they affect all educational decisions. Moreover, the tightly interrelated nature of the recommendations— linking, for example, suspensions and expulsions that remove disadvantaged students from the learning process to the lack of funding and disparities in high-quality teachers who can provide supports for them to catch up or stay on track academically—lends credence to the commission’s call for more coherent and coordinated policy action at the federal, state, and district levels. Perhaps the Equity Commission’s report will inspire policymakers to approach this challenge of improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students in the more comprehensive and integrated way that it deserves.

A downside to the comprehensive nature of For Each and Every Child is that, on the surface, the commission could be accused of playing it safe by being so comprehensive and including such a wide range of solutions. In fact, reforming governance and accountability structures in the U.S. education system or expanding the reach of schools to mitigate the effects of poverty are anything but safe! Still, faced with such an array of potential, and potentially doable, actions, policymakers could benefit from guidance to avoid a linear, lever-by-lever approach or treating the report’s recommendations as a to-do list rather than the long-term interconnected agenda that it is.

A comprehensive view

As I have mentioned, robust bodies of research, including numerous synthesis reports by various NRC committees, exist on most of the elements and actors of the education system as they relate to reducing disparities for disadvantaged students. The commonly identified levers—funding, standards and accountability, teachers and school leaders, instructional practices, school climate, policy—are undoubtedly important to learning in their own right and as interconnected parts of the system. However, as a nation, our approach to moving these levers to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students has been ineffective. Moving forward, how can we avoid policy recommendations that read like laundry lists of potentially disconnected strategies that are not commensurate with the complexity of reducing educational disparities and improving outcomes?

Although simultaneously addressing all of the factors that influence educational achievement is undoubtedly difficult, and perhaps even infeasible, focusing on just a few policy levers or on just one youth-serving sector constrains the options available to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students. And while the education system cannot be expected to solve broader economic and societal problems that influence educational outcomes, strategic policies might support schools and districts in taking more deliberate steps to identify and mitigate their effects to the extent possible in the course of educating students.

Policymakers need clearer guidance from research to make these decisions, particularly about the limits of one-dimensional approaches that do not address the interconnectedness of the elements and actors in the system. Instead of asking which aspects of the system offer the highest-leverage points for improvement, a more productive line of questioning might be, “How much progress are we likely to make by focusing on just one or two elements of the system? If we did focus only on one lever, how long it would realistically take to realize the desired goals? And at what point would it become necessary to begin grappling with improvements to other elements of the system?” To provide an example, a current policy focus is on evaluating teachers’ effectiveness. The questions above become: How much progress will we make in improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students by focusing only on teachers’ effectiveness (and, as is often the case, on policies to remove the lowest-performing teachers)? If we did focus only on evaluating teachers’ effectiveness, how long would it take to reduce achievement gaps and improve outcomes for disadvantaged students to the desired levels? And at what point will it become necessary to begin grappling with improvements to other elements of the system that influence teachers’ performance, such as their training and professional development, the organization and climate of their schools, the high turnover among their principals, or the nonacademic needs of the students they teach?

As I have discussed, a few examples of policy research exist that might encourage this kind of thinking. Specifically, in this article I focused on three NRC reports between 1999 and 2003 that undertook relatively comprehensive examinations of reducing disparities and improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students. In different ways, each of these reports reflected the complexity of that challenge. The far more recent report For Each and Every Child by the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission offers an excellent framework for considering multiple aspects of the education system and how they relate to each other. It also addresses the complexity of reducing disparities in educational outcomes by looking beyond the confines of the K-12 education system for influences on achievement, and at reasonable actions for the school system to mitigate those effects. That report also should be commended for calling attention to the long-term nature of implementing such an ambitious agenda.

On the whole, though, policy research contributes to, or at least does not seriously challenge, the one-lever-at-a-time approach. Despite what we know about improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students, very few individual reports on this topic span the years of early childhood through early adulthood, consider multiple (much less all) elements of the system at once, consider ways to leverage successful interventions from all of the sectors responsible for aspects of young people’s well-being, or involve rethinking the education system in ways that integrate these multiple dimensions to improve achievement and related educational outcomes for disadvantaged students. Yet, given our nation’s dismal track record in educating disadvantaged students, this broader vision of what it means to effectively educate students is exactly what is needed.

To identify directions for future research and policy, I return again to the vision of the education system as a web of interconnected nodes. Although the field has a relatively solid understanding of most of the individual nodes in their own right, research is still needed on certain aspects of individual nodes and on the role of the individual nodes in the larger web, particularly as they relate to reducing educational disparities. Research is also needed on the threads between different nodes, to understand which nodes are more strongly connected to each other, to the teaching and learning process, and to student outcomes. Finally, research is sorely needed on the web as a whole, either through new studies of the education system or by looking across existing bodies of research on different elements of the system. Enhancing the policy understanding in these ways might be a promising start toward the broader vision and ambitious education policies that our most disadvantaged students deserve to help them thrive in the education system and beyond.

Recommended Reading

  • For Each and Every Child (U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission, 2013).
  • Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools (OECD, 2012).
  • Whither Opportunity? Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, Eds. (Russell Sage Foundation, 2011).
  • Engaging Schools (Washington, DC: National Research Council, 2003).
  • Making Money Matter (Washington, DC: National Research Council, 1999).
Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected].

Cite this Article

Nielsen, Natalie. “Education, Equity, and the Big Picture.” Issues in Science and Technology 29, no. 3 (Spring 2013).

Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring 2013