Why We Must Address Inequities (How can we not?)

By Steve Fleischman
August 2014

Like many educators, I try to take time in the summer to reflect and recharge. For many of you, a new school year is about to begin—or already has. For others, the summer break will last just a few more weeks. I know that when I taught, this was when I asked myself, “How can I do better by my students this year?” It’s a tough question, because great teachers are only one of the many things children and youth need to succeed in life.

I have just returned from my own effort to recharge as the new school year begins. Last week, I attended a two-day retreat sponsored by Knowledge Alliance, a membership group of organizations like Education Northwest that provides advocacy and support for evidence-informed educational improvement. The focus of our meeting was a day-long discussion with Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, respected education economists, who have issued a call to action to improve learning outcomes for America’s students.

Their book, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education uses strong evidence and solid reasoning to identify critical elements that promote education system success and to propose comprehensive solutions to get us there. I cite the full title of the book because it makes an important point: For education to improve in our country, we must address the crisis caused by inequality on the societal level. This point is a welcome one for educators, who often feel burdened by the sense that society calls on them to overcome all of the challenges that are created by income inequality.

What I like about the book is its tone, the urgency it places on addressing inequality as one of the root causes of educational failure, and the evenhanded way it seeks solutions. You won’t find the posturing or finger pointing in this slim book of just 144 pages.

Solutions to the inequality crisis must come from every layer of society, and while schools should not take the blame for factors beyond their control, we must all stay committed to doing better. As an organization dedicated to serving education, we’ve heard about—and even tried—many solutions similar to those highlighted in the book. We have made progress—but not enough—for the betterment of our schools.

Educators work in difficult times and conditions, where their efforts often go underappreciated. However, as a new school year begins, we must remember that rejection and hopelessness is unacceptable when the stakes for children and youth are so high.

So, let’s finish our summer break and recommit to the success of our students. Like Duncan and Murnane, I believe we can make a difference, by advocating for practices and programs backed by evidence, and by working to address the inequities students encounter in their lives. We can’t do everything, but we can do something.

And, we must do better. As one of my colleagues at the retreat asked at the end of our meeting, “How can we not?”