The Equity and Excellence Commission Report
In 2012, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appointed The Equity and Excellence Commission to consider recommendations for promoting educational equity. The commission's report, "For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence," released in February 2013, is a landmark document that identifies an urgent national problem and points the way forward, much like A Nation at Risk did exactly 30 years ago this month. If adopted and implemented fully, the commission's recommendations could go a long way toward reversing a "rising tide" of inequality and ensuring an equitable education for every child in the United States.
One of the most important contributions of the commission's report is its stark and bold documentation of the huge inequities that exist in U.S. education in the early 21st century. (See Figure 2) As the commission notes, gaps in achievement between White students, on the one hand, and African-American and Hispanic students, on the other, are wide and pervasive. In mathematics, the average African-American eighth grader performs at the 19th percentile of White students, and the average Hispanic student is at the 26th percentile. If African-American and Hispanic students performed at the level White students perform on international assessments, the U.S. ranking would rise from below the average for developed nations to "a respectable position," comparable to Australia and Germany.17
What is the cause of these disparities? The commission report is blunt: the U.S. education system, it states, "is ever more segregated by wealth and income, and often again by race." It continues:
Ten million students in America's poorest communities—and millions more African American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, American Indian, and Alaska Native students who are not poor—are having their lives unjustly and irredeemably blighted by a system that consigns them to the lowest-performing teachers, the most run-down facilities, and academic expectations and opportunities considerably lower than what we expect of other students. These vestiges of segregation, discrimination, and inequality are unfinished business for our nation.18
These inequities are unique in the world, the commission notes. "We are an outlier," it states, in how many children grow up in poverty—22 percent, far more than most industrialized countries. The U.S. is also unusual in its concentration of poverty, which isolates poor children in resource-starved schools. And, as other international research shows, the U.S. is unusual in the extent to which it concentrates resources on schools that serve relatively affluent families; according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. is one of only four industrialized nations (along with Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey) in which spending on teachers is higher in schools serving socioeconomically advantaged students than in schools serving socioeconomically disadvantaged students.19 As an OECD report concluded, "The financing of schools in the United States, which is dependent on local taxation and thus closely related to housing costs, may contribute to concentrations of disadvantaged pupils in poorly resourced schools."20
The Equity and Excellence Commission's report lays out a five-part agenda to address these inequities and take care of unfinished business once and for all.
- First, it proposes some bold and overdue steps to improve school finance and efficiency. These include documenting and reporting the resources necessary to provide meaningful educational opportunity for all students; implementing school finance systems that provide equitable and sufficient funding for all students; targeting significant new federal funding to schools with high concentrations of low-income students; ensuring equitable distribution of federal funds; and reassessing the enforcement of school finance equity, among other steps.
- Second, the commission recommends steps for states and the federal government to strengthen teaching and leadership for all students, and to ensure that all students have access to high-quality curriculum and learning opportunities. These steps include: ensuring that all teachers have the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the needs of all students; taking necessary measures to distribute highly effective teachers equitably; devising graduation requirements to ensure that all students have access to rigorous courses; supporting the development of innovative technologies to provide specialized courses for all students; and enforcing civil rights laws to prevent the exclusion of students from challenging courses because of race, language, or disability.
- Third, the commission recommends ensuring access to high-quality early childhood education. As the commission notes, achievement and opportunity gaps begin well before students enter kindergarten, and ample research shows that high-quality early childhood educational experiences can narrow those gaps significantly. The commission proposes a bold program to ensure that, within 10 years, all low-income children, in all states, have access to resources for high-quality early learning.
- Fourth, the commission suggests steps to meet the needs of students in high-poverty communities. These include efforts to strengthen parent engagement and education, to work with communities to meet children's health needs, to initiate and strengthen efforts to expand learning time for students, and to dedicate resources and efforts toward at-risk student populations.
- Finally, the commission proposes measures to improve governance and accountability to improve equity and excellence. These include federal efforts to give states and districts incentives to promote racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, state efforts to intervene in chronically failing districts, and efforts at all levels to overhaul accountability systems to promote equity and excellence.