We must attack opportunity gaps at their root causes

Opportunity gaps are caused by policy decisions that affect kids both inside and outside of school.
Opportunity gaps are caused by policy decisions that affect kids both inside and outside of school.

Education policy briefs can be dense reading for casual readers, but the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder has a mission of making peer-reviewed research accessible to both academics and the general public. Their newest infographic is a good example. Titled “Lifting All Children Up,” it shows the current state of opportunity gaps in America and offers two possible directions for addressing them.

According to Kevin Welner, the professor of educational policy and law who heads NEPC, opportunity gaps are caused by policy decisions that affect children both inside and outside of school. Policies inside schools that create gaps include tracking students, narrowing the curriculum, and enforcing punitive rather than restorative discipline policies. Hiring practices that lead to quick teacher turnover or privatization that strips public districts of resources also widen the gap.

Probably the most ubiquitous harmful policy is using local income and real estate values for base funding of public schools. As someone who works in a poor rural district close to wealthy suburban ones, I see how the funding disparities limit the opportunities for my students. For example, with more resources, we could hire enough faculty so that our classes wouldn’t be overcrowded. We could buy more computers so that our many students without Internet access at home could do their online research here at school.

Larger structural inequalities outside of school are the bigger causes of opportunity gaps. These include concentrated poverty and the issues of housing, safety, access to health care and food security.

One way to counteract these larger forces is with “school-centric reforms” such as high quality Pre-K and wraparound services like the dental van that comes to my school a couple of times of year. Recruiting experienced teachers and limiting class size can help, as can increasing early intervention for students who struggle with math and reading.

“This ‘school-centric’ approach calls on us to make the sort of serious and sustained investment in school resources that has never been attempted in the United States, particularly for the benefit of communities of concentrated poverty,” Welner writes in the Washington Post.

He notes, however, that even where school districts make a concerted effort to institute such reforms, they are rarely successful enough to overcome the larger systemic burdens students face outside of school.

Currently, addressing those systemic issues is hardly on the radar. Doing so would require putting in motion policies that insure a living wage, genuinely diverse communities, affordable housing, accessible educational resources, and nutrition and health care access. More than that, it would require a shift in how we perceive support for the poor – recognizing that helping them live better lives improves the health and safety of the community as a whole.

Attacking the root causes of opportunity gaps at the source is what Welner calls “the more sensible, efficient, and humane approach…it is wrongheaded to weigh our children down with obstacle after obstacle and then turn to our schools to overcome those burdens.”

Despite the challenges, Welner ends on an optimistic note.

“The overall opportunity gap is the result of a compilation – the cumulative effect of many separate gaps. When the time comes that we make a serious, sustained effort to close those gaps, we’ll lift all children up. We’ll see children succeeding at new levels, as high as their opportunities can take them.”

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: