An Urgent Need to Refocus on Equal Educational Opportunity

Last week JBHE revealed that a new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education stated that American education has been too narrowly focused on an academic, classroom-based approach. The report, Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century, called for more vocational or career education.

The report also stated that we should institute “a new social compact with America’s young people. This compact should spell out what educators, employers and governments will do to provide pathways, and how they will support young people as they navigate them.”

Leslie T. Fenwick, dean of the School of Education at Howard University, believes that rather than pursuing a new focus, American educators need to concentrate on fulfilling an earlier promise of equal educational opportunity. She told JBHE:

Charting policy and funding paths that are uninformed by history is dangerous. Repeatedly, research and media accounts overlook the fact that in the 1980s black and white high school students’ graduation rates reached some parity. During that decade about 87 percent of whites and 86 percent of blacks graduated high school. So what happened in the ensuing decades to cause the dismal drop in high school graduation rates and workforce readiness?

I believe the nation re-enacted a familiar and stark social compact with black, brown and poor youth. Here’s what that compact said/says to these youth. Nearly 60 years after the Brown decision, this country still has not mustered the will to provide you with quality PK-12 schools. By and large, if you’re poor, black, or brown you’ll be consigned to schools in states with inequitable funding formulae; classrooms with high concentrations of noncertified teachers; and buildings that are not adequate or contemporary. When you realize that you are not receiving an education in these settings, we will blame you when you opt out or drop out. Rather than fix these things, we’ll develop schemes (like charter schools, vouchers, and high stakes standardized tests) to move more money away from the schools that could better serve you and this will further delay large-scale progress.

So, what’s the moral of “developing a new social compact between society and its young people” as the HGSE report hopes to do? Deliver on the old promise of equal educational opportunity before making new promises. And, make sure that your old and new promises help those children most needing a promised fulfilled.

A graduate of the University of Virginia, Dean Fenwick holds a master’s degree from the University of Toledo and a doctorate in educational policy and leadership from Ohio State University.