We have yet to realize Horace Mann’s celebrated call to make education the “great equalizer” and the “balancing wheel of society.” Instead, disadvantaged students are failing in Denver’s public schools at alarming and disproportionate rates, the result of a long and subtle string of deficits and onslaughts in their lives. The outcome is devastating: first as a growing and overwhelming achievement gap, the ultimate legacy of which, is a disenfranchised and indifferent underclass relegated to a cycle of generational poverty. Those families are then caught in gridlock, attempting, in addition to the obstacles of simply living with out means, to navigate an education system in flux, that churns through reform initiatives, teachers, and schools.
How we choose to frame an issue is as important as the arguments we make about it, and the failure to provide equitable educational opportunity is most often framed through the achievement gap narrative. The “achievement” narrative is specific to the public school system and focuses on outcomes of test scores and yearly progress, making comparisons between student populations. Additionally, that specific narrative paints the public schools as responsible for failing to educate all students to the same standard as Caucasian, middle class students. The conclusion is that changes in schools, teacher unions, curriculum design, and testing will result in achievement parity.
While the achievement gap exists, that narrative oversimplifies the complexity of providing equitable educational opportunities to a socially and economically diverse population. Students’ learning experiences and educational outcomes are equally rooted in the myriad of factors outside the influence of schools and teachers. Given the complex nature of school-based learning, a more thorough and complete framework for understanding educational equity is the opportunity gap, a framework that acknowledges the inputs – health and nutritional care, housing, additional academic support, summertime learning, parent support, safety, etc. - that contribute to differences in educational outcomes.
Opportunity and achievement, though powerfully connected, are not the same. The opportunity gap framework focuses on the impact of compounded inequalities in access to key educational resources that support learning at school and at home. Those structural inequalities limit, in a real way, the educational prospects of economically disadvantaged students. These children are unable to close the very real achievement gap precisely because they do not have equitable access to resources and opportunities that directly influence their educational potential.
Schools can make a difference in the lives of all children; however, given the current understanding regarding the correlation between access to out-of-school resources and educational success, it is unlikely that schools can singlehandedly erase the damage done inequity. Schools, support programs, communities and families must work in concert, leverage local resources, and create comprehensive resource networks to provide opportunities so all children realize their educational potential.