Education inequity is holding back American potential


Every day, teachers perform the heroic work of educating children. In the process, they make dozens of quick judgments about their students. Of course, teachers are no different from the rest of us — we all do this.

Unfortunately, research shows these snap judgments are often influenced by stereotypes and unconscious biases, which can have a lasting impact on how students see themselves and their ability to learn. And the inequity fostered not only stifles individual student success, it stunts the growth of a workforce in which the majority of jobs require post-secondary education.

Research shows that many teachers believe less in the academic abilities of, or are more likely to believe their classes are too difficult for, black and Latino students, than for white students. Unconscious bias can lead to socioeconomic, gender and racial gaps in educational outcomes — disparities that follow students into the workplace with inequality in pay, promotions and employment opportunities.


We know how important expectations are to student success and changing demographics make the stakes higher now than ever. Today, more than half of public school students are students of color, and this population is expected to continue growing. The same is true for low-income students.

Yet, in addition to concerns over lower expectations, the U.S. public school system provides fewer resources to these students, including less funding, fewer enrichment activities and unequal access to high quality teachers. The result is dramatic but not surprising: college graduation rates are 24 and 17 percent higher for white students than for their black and Hispanic peers, and the richest kids complete four years of college at almost four times the rate of the poorest.

As Robert Putnam so compellingly points out in his recent book “Our Kids,” our public education system that historically helped level the playing field for all students, is now actually contributing to the expansion of the income gap.

Changing industries and new technologies have squeezed out many of the mid-skill, mid-income jobs that built our middle class. Since the 1970s, most income-levels have flattened or fallen. The only households to reap big gains are the ones headed by high-earning college graduates, widening the income divide in the country to its highest level in more than 80 years.

Efforts to advance equity in education have generally focused on inputs — money, teachers, materials — and outputs — test scores, graduation rates, college access. But the challenges students of color and low-income students face go beyond these factors; challenges that disconnect, rather than connect, them to school, including lower expectations and harsh disciplinary approaches.

These factors can inhibit academic success as well as prevent students from acquiring the broader set of skills demanded by the new economy, such as self-discipline, initiative, resilience, creativity and collaborative problem-solving.

That’s where social, emotional and academic development (SEAD) comes in. In addition to building academic knowledge, a SEAD approach focuses on developing the skills students need in order to set goals, process information, manage behavior and build positive relationships.

Compelling research shows a link between social-emotional learning and improved outcomes for all students. Not only have programs emphasizing social-emotional learning been shown to improve test scores by as much as 11 percentile points, but SEAD also plays a vital role in helping young people develop the interpersonal and emotional skills they need to succeed later in life.

Beyond improving individual outcomes, it’s also a smart investment: There’s a positive return on investment for society, averaging $11 in long-term benefits over a range of outcomes for every $1 invested.

A model in which a majority of students in public schools don’t have the skills, resources or opportunities to succeed is not sustainable if America wants to grow its workforce domestically or compete with other countries globally. At home, there will be an increased demand in the coming decades for skilled workers in industries like health care for jobs that require at least some post-secondary training. Abroad, the U.S. has slipped in rankings on global competitive measures such as reading, math and science literacy.

Students need to feel safe and connected to their peers and the adults in their schools in order to believe that they have a real shot at success in school and life. As The Aspen Institute’s new brief highlights, resource allocation is part of the solution, but achieving equity also means affirming each student’s value, no matter the color of their skin or how much money their parents make.

This isn’t a liberal or conservative issue, but one central to America’s commitment to the equal chance. That’s why, as a Republican and Democrat, we agree that to effect real change, educators and lawmakers alike must tackle the racial and income inequity that hinders individual student success and undermines the economic strength of our broader society.


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