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BRIDGING THE “OPPORTUNITY GAP”: Two New Reports Assess the Educational and Economic Inequalities Between Communities

To succeed in college and a career, students need access to high-quality teachers, challenging curriculum, and safe and supportive learning environments. But too often, the opportunity to access such valuable education resources falls beyond the reach of students of color and those from low-income families simply because of where they live. Two new reports attempt to quantify this growing “opportunity gap,” illuminating the disparities that exist in the quality of education and public resources between communities.

In the first report, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) examines the school systems of fifty cities to determine how urban public school systems compare on various indicators of school performance. The report, Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities, focuses specifically on city school systems with the largest student enrollments that cross multiple school types, including traditional public schools and charter schools.

“[C]ivic and education leaders need to start viewing public education as a citywide concern, just as they do related issues like public health, economic development, and public safety,” the report notes. “As urban public education becomes more diverse and complex … city leaders need a handle on how all public schools are doing if they want to mobilize political action to address cross-cutting challenges that affect families and schools, from uneven school quality to unequal access to high-performing schools.”

Measuring Up finds wide variations in the academic performance of city school systems and in the students attending top-performing schools. Less than one-third of cities made gains in either students’ math or reading proficiency, relative to their state’s performance, during the most recent three years of available data; only eight cities made proficiency gains in both subject areas. Additionally, among city schools that ranked in the bottom 5 percent of their state based on students’ math and reading proficiency rates, 40 percent of those schools remained in the bottom for three consecutive years, the report says. Furthermore, in most cities, students of color and those from low-income families were more likely to attend the lowest-performing schools. For instance, Latino students were nearly seven times more likely than white students to attend elementary or middle schools with low math performance in Los Angeles and four times more likely to attend such schools in Phoenix. Meanwhile, in Newark (NJ), only 6 percent of African American students attended an elementary or middle school with top math scores, compared to 85 percent of white students, the report says.

Students’ preparation for college and a career also varied widely across urban school systems. Although the national high school graduation rate for the Class of 2013 reached 81 percent, the high school graduation rates for the fifty cities covered a much broader range. In 2013, 90 percent of students graduated from high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Santa Ana, California, compared to less than 50 percent in Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, in twenty-nine of the fifty cities, fewer than 10 percent of high school students enrolled in advanced math classes, while in thirty cities, fewer than 15 percent of high school students took the SAT or ACT, the report notes. Although participation of students of color generally lagged behind participation of white students on both indicators, a few cities showed promising results. In Newark, Philadelphia, Memphis, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington, DC, African American high school students enrolled in advanced math classes at higher rates than white students, the report notes. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Columbus (OH), Nashville, Baltimore, and Minneapolis, Latino high schoolers took advanced math at higher rates than their white peers.

However, across all fifty cities, achievement gaps persisted between students from low-income families and their affluent peers, although some cities had smaller gaps than others. In Santa Ana, students from low-income families lagged behind their peers by less than 5 percentage points in both math and reading performance, the report says. In Denver, meanwhile, proficiency rates for students from low-income families were 30 and 40 percentage points lower in math and reading, respectively, than those rates of other students. (The report notes that the researchers encountered problems with missing data for several cities and could calculate the achievements gaps for only thirty-seven of the fifty cities featured in the complete report.)

“[W]e should acknowledge and address the systemic reasons that academic segregation occurs so blatantly in our urban public schools,” the report says. “[O]ur city school system leaders need to aggressively hunt for and be open to new solutions, and respond quickly and meaningfully to shifting demographics and other challenges.”

The second report, 2015 Opportunity Index: Summary of Findings for States and Counties, from Opportunity Nation and Measure of America, focuses on the economic, educational, and civic conditions that promote or inhibit the upward mobility of individuals within their local communities and states. This annual report examines sixteen state-level indicators—including unemployment and poverty rates, the on-time high school graduation rate, and percentage of young people not in school or working—to develop an “opportunity index” for each state, 2,673 counties, and the nation as a whole. The overall composite score attempts to quantify the level of “opportunity” for economic mobility different communities offer their residents.

“Opportunity can be defined in many ways, but typically the term encompasses the range of circumstances that open doors to economic mobility and human progress,” according to the report. “In a free society, some inequality is unavoidable. But inequality without the chance for mobility is economically inefficient and unjust.”

Since 2011, overall opportunity has increased by nearly 9 percent in the United States, the report says. But despite this general improvement, wide opportunity gaps still exist in the nation. Income inequality has increased 3.4 percent as the median household income has declined by 4.2 percent and the poverty rate has increased 10.5 percent. And even though the percentage of disconnected youth has declined by 4.8 percent, there still are 5.5 million young adults ages 16–24 years who are neither working nor in school, according to the report.

At the state level, meanwhile, opportunity improved in all fifty states and the District of Columbia in 2015 and Vermont had the top state score for the second year in a row. On the education dimension specifically, which measures preschool enrollment rates, high school graduation rates, and rates of college completion, New Jersey earned the highest score overall. By contrast, Nevada had the lowest education score, despite showing the greatest improvement in its on-time high school graduation rate, which increased 14.4 percentage points in the past five years. Iowa, meanwhile, had the overall highest high school graduation rate at 89.7 percent.

Measuring Up is available at http://www.crpe.org/publications/measuring-educational-improvement-and-opportunity-50-cities and 2015 Opportunity Index is available at http://opportunityindex.org/app/uploads/2015/10/2015-Opportunity-Index-Report.pdf.

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