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Opportunity for All

Five policy levers for short- and long-term progress on access and equity in education
Natural-wood figures on left, with several colored-wood figures on the right, suggesting exclusion

At no point have the traditional structures of the education system — from the kindergarten classroom to the SAT — been so primed for renovation. This week, systems leaders from across the United States gathered virtually at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to share ideas and research on how to use this current moment to rethink education — particularly in terms of equitable attainment.

“We have this moment to re-envision what we’re doing with our young people and begin to pivot in directions that make it possible for a much more significant percentage of our young people to be successful, to really lean into the notion of all means all, no child left behind, and every student succeeds,” said Paul Reville, director of the Education Redesign Lab, which sponsored the gathering — the fall convening of the lab's By All Means initiative.

The convening paid close attention to the ways in which inequity has historically manifested in schools. Keynote speaker Susan Dynarksi, professor of public policy, education, and economics at the University of Michigan, focused on understanding and reducing inequality in higher education access.

“Insofar as kids are separated from school, which in the best of circumstances, helps to equalize, we’re throwing them back to the inequality they grew up with, so it's going to intensify all of the gaps." — Susan Dynarski

Her research over the years has found that not only have disparities in academic achievement, as measured by standardized test scores, increased over the years, but also that a college degree is still largely inaccessible to low-income students. 

Dynarski, who will join the faculty at HGSE next July, said that the pandemic and the recession will worsen already stark gaps in achievement between high- and low-income students. “We know that those gaps come from differences in parental resources, differences in parental environments, differences in income, in access to health, and that those gaps are large,” she said. “Insofar as kids are separated from school, which in the best of circumstances, helps to equalize, we’re throwing them back to the inequality they grew up with, so it's going to intensify all of the gaps."

She noted a few key policy measures and considerations that leaders at all levels can employ to fight against worsening economic inequity in education.

As we emerge from COVID:
  • Stagger school openings. The youngest students who cannot work independently are impacted the most by remote learning. It makes sense to send K–3 students back to school first and high schoolers last.
  • Keep college campuses closed. College students are fully capable of learning independently and online. Additionally, their travel across state lines can contribute to the spread of the virus.
Longer term:
  • Simplify the financial aid process. There is strong evidence that complexity in the student aid system undermines its ability to support low-income students. Use tax data to qualify students for aid and get rid of the application.
  • Strengthen public colleges, as this is where a majority of low income, non-white, first-generation, and immigrant students find their entry point into higher education. Making them tuition-free is not enough. Institutional capacity must be funded to allow them to educate students effectively. 
  • Administer the SAT/ACT as an assessment during school hours for free. The SAT/ACT are a logistical barrier for disadvantaged students because taking them relies on the initiative of teachers and family members to get students to the testing center. 

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