Equity in Education

Overview

Equity in Education

Education is said to be the great equalizer. The modern U.S. school system was created in the 19th century with the intention of educating the masses — not just the privileged or religious elite. A public role for higher education, and systems for broadening access to it, was carved out over time, too — through the creation of land-grant colleges during and after the Civil War, the passage of the G.I. Bill after World War II, and the establishment of community colleges in the 1960s.

Education is said to be the great equalizer. The modern U.S. school system was created in the 19th century with the intention of educating the masses — not just the privileged or religious elite. A public role for higher education, and systems for broadening access to it, was carved out over time, too — through the creation of land-grant colleges during and after the Civil War, the passage of the G.I. Bill after World War II, and the establishment of community colleges in the 1960s.

Playing Field Remains Staggered

In theory, education promotes mobility by equipping all students with the knowledge, skills and competencies needed for gainful employment and civic engagement. But U.S. schools and colleges have, throughout history, done little to level the playing field, in some cases actually exacerbating inequality. The country struggles with stubborn gaps in educational attainment by income and by race. Just 11 percent of students from the lowest-income families secure a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with 58 percent of students from the highest-income families. Among white Americans age 25 or older, 44 percent have earned an associate’s degree or higher, compared with 29 percent and 21 percent of their Black and Latinx counterparts, respectively.

Notably, the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee children a right to an education; the authority for public schooling falls to the states. And state constitutions vary significantly in their K-12 and postsecondary provisions, with only some specifying funding levels and stipulating the provision of special education, for example. 

Inequality Remains a Challenge

Widespread and growing inequality is perhaps the biggest challenge facing U.S. education. Among the myriad disparities that exist within and across the education system: tracking; limited support for and discrimination against diverse learning needs; biases in discipline practices; varied academic approaches (e.g., standards and curricula); preferential admissions to certain students (e.g., legacies and athletes); and the role of standardized tests in admissions (including testing requirements; Advanced Placement participation and passage rates; and the correlation between higher incomes and higher scores). 

Reporting on uneven educational access, quality and outcomes is critical because it helps to explain some of the country’s gravest economic and social challenges. Many of the factors contributing to educational inequality are actionable, underscoring the need for both investigative and solutions-oriented reporting on the topic. The complexity and far-reaching implications of equity in education, however, make it an especially difficult topic to cover. Reporters risk oversimplifying or altogether disregarding the underlying forces behind inequality, such as racism and poverty, and, in turn, misidentifying its solutions. 

The following modules will help you explore resources and historical insights to help you effectively cover the systemic causes and effects of educational inequality. 

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7 Questions to Ask About Equity in Education

  • How many kindergartners in my district/state attended high-quality early-childhood education programs? How does my district/state measure kindergarten readiness and how do the results vary among different demographic groups?
  • What does the funding look like for schools in my area serving low-income and minority students? How does that compare to affluent and/or predominately white schools? How do individual schools compare to the district average?
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Misleading Conflation of Equity and Critical Race Theory

A more recent movement against school equity programs has conflated equity with critical race theory, a movement that started with legal scholars in the late 1970s.

While panic over critical race theory emerged in 2020, disputes in school board meetings turned particularly tense in the spring and summer of 2021, as lawmakers in dozens of states proposed legislation attempting to ban teaching on critical race theory

Latest News

Colleyville, Texas Principal Put on Leave Amid Critical Race Theory Debate

Last summer, protest after protest made waves across the nation. It was no different in Texas, and Whitfield, who had weeks earlier been named the first Black principal at Colleyville Heritage High School, couldn’t just sit back. He said he felt like he had a platform that other Black Americans didn’t have and he wouldn’t let that go to waste.

At 4:30 a.m., he wrote a letter to the school community declaring that systemic racism is “alive and well” and that they needed to work together to achieve “conciliation for our nation.”

Latest News

State Finds Half Of Bridgeport Schools Don’t Have Enough Special Education Teachers; We Found Other Districts With The Same Issue

Staff shortages have perplexed high-poverty districts throughout Connecticut for years. That’s because districts like Bridgeport struggle to keep their teachers from leaving for suburban districts, where the pay is often higher and class sizes smaller.

Almost a month into this school year, Bridgeport still has 16 special education teaching positions it needs to fill. Statewide, between 95 and 250 teaching positions go unfilled each year. Most are in high-poverty districts.

Latest News

Big Ideas for Education’s Urgent Challenges

Welcome to the start of a new school year and the 2021 edition of our Big Ideas report.

While returning children to school buildings safely and making the year as normal as possible is driving you and your work, we understand how much more complex your job has become.

The cover of this year’s report and the 10 essays inside reflect this complicated moment and the constellation of emotions we know you’re experiencing: hope, excitement, grief, urgency, trepidation, and determination.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Covering School Board Meetings? Tips to Tackle the COVID-19, Critical Race Theory Culture Wars
Attending hyper politicized school board meetings in this day and age requires much preparation.

Division over COVID-19 and racial justice is playing out in school board meetings across the country, turning typically sleepy gatherings into politicized and, at times, volatile events.

When meetings turn contentious, reporters need to take care to avoid amplifying misinformation, and provide context on key issues and the board’s authority.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Covering Critical Race Theory: Resources and Tips to Debunk Misinformation
How reporters can arm themselves with knowledge to prevent the spread of intentional and unintentional incorrect information.

This story was updated on Sept. 23, 2021. 

After a more than 40-year-old graduate-level, academic research framework became the center of a national culture war that began last year, misinformation and disinformation infiltrated the public sphere, and internet searches increased.

In 2019, Nexis listed a total of 635 news articles mentioning “critical race theory.” Today, the phrase is cited in more than 5,000 pieces a month. And the vast majority of those stories focus on how history and race are taught in schools.

Key Coverage

The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools

Harvey Ellington was 7 the first time someone told him the state of Mississippi considered Holmes County Consolidated School District a failing district. Holmes had earned a D or an F almost every year since then, and Ellington felt hollowed out with embarrassment every time someone rattled off the ranking. Technically, the grade measured how well, or how poorly, Ellington and his classmates performed on the state’s standardized tests, but he knew it could have applied to any number of assessments.

Latest News

Education Department Investigating Mask Mandate Bans in Five States

The Education Department on Monday announced investigations into five states that have imposed policies prohibiting schools from imposing mask mandates.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said Monday it sent letters to the chief state school officers of Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennesse and Utah informing them of the investigation into whether the policies discriminate against students with disabilities and health vulnerabilities who face a heightened risk of COVID-19 infection.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

With Schools Reopening Full-Time, What Pandemic-Driven Changes Will Last?
Get 7 story ideas to help you cover K-12 and higher education shifts that may have staying power.

Despite the many hardships the pandemic caused, the COVID-19 disruption also sparked – or in some cases accelerated – changes to K-12 and higher education that leaders say should stick.

The speakers pointed to the power of flexibility, the need to focus energy and resources that will serve the “whole student,” and how increased outreach and new communication strategies with students and families could be transformative during a plenary at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar. 

Race, Racism and Career Pathways
Multimedia

Race, Racism and Career Pathways

What are the links between segregation among and within educational institutions and in the job market? Are “certificates” turning into second-class educational credentials?

Journalists learned about data on segregation at college campuses as well as efforts to break down racial barriers during a December 11 session at the Education Writers Association’s “Pathways to Good Jobs: Higher Ed’s Changing Role in Upward Mobility” seminar. 

Are ‘Merit’-based Education Admissions Practices Racist?
Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Are ‘Merit’-based Education Admissions Practices Racist?
Experts outline problems with - and efforts to improve - use of SAT scores, affirmative action, school lotteries.

It is one of the thorniest topics in education: What criteria should be used to fairly determine which students are admitted to America’s “elite” public schools, colleges and universities? 

Many top schools have faced criticism in recent decades for not reflecting the nation’s racial and socioeconomic diversity.

How Can We Widen the Pathway to the Middle Class?
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How Can We Widen the Pathway to the Middle Class?
Webinar offers background on "middle skills" research and training programs.

One of the most important goals of America’s education system is to launch citizens into “middle class” jobs that pay enough to provide economic security. But the number of those jobs have been shrinking, and the skills needed to land the remaining middle class jobs are changing faster than many traditional educational or training programs have been able to match.