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Quality and Equality in American Education: Systemic Problems, Systemic Solutions

Jennifer A. O'Day and Marshall S. Smith

Abstract After briefly reviewing the unequal opportunities outside schools that contribute to the disparities in educational achievement, attainment, and various indicators of adult success, this chapter zeroes in on addressing inequities within K-12 education. We argue that disparities within the educational system are the product of institutional structures and cultures that both disenfranchise certain groups of students and depress quality overall. Systemic causes require systemic solutions, and we envision a three-pronged systemic remedy: a continuous improvement approach for addressing the quality of educational opportunities for underserved students as well as of the system as a whole; targeted high-leverage interventions consistent with the overall approach but focused on key transition points and needs; and stronger connections between schools and other institutions and systems affecting the development and well-being of children and youth. We then outline a change strategy that incorporates both pressure and support for improvement from three distinct but interacting sources: government and administrative policy (federal, state, and local); professional accountability and networking; and collective engagement of parental, community, and advocacy organizations. We end the chapter with a consideration of recent developments in California and the degree to which they lay the groundwork for moving an equity agenda in the state.

Keywords Opportunity • Achievement gap • Accountability • Human capital • Standards-based reform • Continuous improvement approach • Interventions • High-poverty schools • Preschool • Parental education • Segregation • Title I • No Child Left Behind • Common Core

An Unequal Present

Education is the great equalizer—or so goes the promise. Yet the chapters in this book and decades of data belie that promise. It is not that educational achievement and attainment are unimportant to mobility and future success—the data confirm that they are. It is that—despite reform attempt after reform attempt—educational achievement and attainment continue to reflect student background: parent education, access to preschool, childhood nutrition and health, individual and neighborhood poverty and segregation. This chapter is about that persistent pattern and what it might take to substantially change it.

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