Education, Equity, and the Big Picture

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).

Natalie Nielsen () is a senior program officer with the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council.

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