• by Bradley Scott, MA. • IDRA Newsletter • September 1998 • Dr. Bradley Scott

It was actually supposed to be quite an uneventful return from Washington, D.C. I boarded the airplane after having attended one of the June round table discussions held by the U.S. Department of Education on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The discussions are being held around the country to give people an opportunity to address issues and make recommendations to the department for possible adjustments in the law that the department should present to Congress as it considers the reauthorization in 1999. I had been invited to participate because I direct one of the 10 regional desegregation assistance centers. There were about 24 of us in the group, not counting Department of Education staff.

The meeting was still very much on my mind as I sat there on the plane, occasionally watching as other people were finding their seats. A mother and her child struggled down the aisle. She was carrying entirely too much stuff to make her task easy. Five of us came to her aide while her son proceeded to explain to her why they were having such a difficult time with so much under tow. To my great fortune, they settled in directly behind me.

Actually, it was quite entertaining to listen to their conversation. It included a brief discussion of the sights they had seen and the historical places they had visited during their trip to the nation’s capital. The mother patiently reviewed the experience with her son. She reminded him of the wonderful things they had done, the historic places they had visited and the memorable experiences they had encountered. I was thrilled just listening.

Their conversation fell silent as the little fellow (he appeared to be no more than five or six) looked around. He tried a few of the buttons and other gadgets available near his seat. Then he peered to his left, right, front and back.

Having completed the inspection of his surroundings, he turned toward his mother and asked, “How fast do you think this airplane will go?”

She answered, “Oh, pretty fast, I think. It has to get us and our luggage off the ground and all the way back home.”

“Yes, I’ll bet it will go really fast – probably faster than a Plymouth,” he reflected.

“Do you think it will go that fast?” his mom asked in incredulous disbelief.

“Oh yes, I’m sure it might. We’ll see.”

The captain asked the attendants to be seated for take off, and we began our trek down the runway – faster and faster until we left the ground.

“Oh yes, I’m sure we’re going faster than a Plymouth, and look, the houses look like little model houses!” he exclaimed.

The airplane kept climbing, kept reaching for higher and higher parts of the sky.

“Look, Mom, now the houses look like little doll houses, and the cars and trucks look like little ants and mice! And I was right! This plane is going faster than a Plymouth.”

“It certainly is, honey. I’m so proud of you for figuring that out.”

It was either a bolt of lightning or an incredible insight that hit me all at once. I stopped listening (eavesdropping) and began to review what had just happened. In less than 10 minutes, this little fellow had reviewed a wonderful cultural and historical encounter in the nation’s capital, created a hypothesis about the speed of the airplane which he was also able to test, conducted some comparisons as he examined houses, cars and trucks from various points of view, and carried on a discussion (or several of them) with a host of adults who were sitting around him.

What an incredible opportunity he was having to expand his learning. It was more than rudimentary. It was advanced, higher order thinking, and he was being challenged and encouraged to do it.

I thought to myself that I wished those people who were around that discussion table in the Washington, DC, office could have been on the plane with me. If they had been, maybe the discussion on the reconsideration of the opportunity to learn standards would have unfolded very differently. Had they been there with me, they would have seen immediately what many of us have known and understood all along.

Some students come from experiences where they are presented with wonderful opportunities to learn. In their homes, in their schools, and in every other facet of their existences, they are presented with and involved in experiences that support their learning and achievement of high standards. The little fellow on the plane was one of these children.

Conversely, there are many more students who come from experiences that present them with little that assists their learning in schools and achieving high standards. If we do not create similar experiences and opportunities for academic enrichment and support but yet hold them to the same standards of excellence and achievement, we will fail those students.

All students should be held to the same high standards. We should not equivocate on that point. All students must be held to the same high standards. Similarly, all students must be given an opportunity to achieve high standards.

We have had this discussion before. The last time it occurred on a national level was in the early 1990s before the passage of the Improving America’s Schools Act, which reauthorized the ESEA and set into motion the current push for high standards and student outcomes.

The discussion surfaced in Congress and in other circles such as a network of educational advocates, the National Coalition of Educational Equity Advocates (NCEEA).

The NCEEA produced a publication called Educate America: A Call for Equity in School Reform in which it outlined what should be included in the “Opportunity to Learn Standards.” For them, these standards had to recognize and take into account not only educational content and outcomes in schools, but also the educational input and structural processes as well. The NCEEA articulated a philosophical view of educational equity that embraced what should have been the goal of school reform under the legislation that was being proposed and considered in Congress at the time:

The advocates recognize a responsibility to provide schools with access to knowledge, training, technical assistance, consulting and other forms of support necessary to develop local and state capacity. To define and achieve these standards, it will be necessary to develop comprehensive federal human resource programs within the Department of Education and to find avenues for collaboration among federal, state and local education systems in a coordinated effort to meet the varied needs of children [learners] at their local schools (NCEEA, 1994).

The NCEEA also proposed three standards for consideration by Congress and state and local leadership.

  • Resource Standards to assure that all schools have sufficient resources to deliver high-level curriculum content and to achieve high-levels of outcomes for all students.
  • Curriculum Delivery Standards to assure high levels of curriculum delivery to all students.
  • Outcome and Capacity Building Standards to assure that all schools have the continued capacity to deliver quality education and are evaluated by their delivery of quality educational opportunities to all students.

NCEEA noted that to achieve the high standards, several strategies would need to be conceptualized and implemented regarding

  • equitable school management processes;
  • culturally relevant, coherent, adaptive learning environments;
  • inclusive community support and involvement; and
  • equity, not equality, in school finance.

In 1993, Congress was not prepared to support the Opportunity to Learn Standards. Maybe the idea was too new for some legislators. Maybe it was too overwhelming. Maybe some thought that implementing the standards would be too costly. Whatever the reason, the language was dismissed from the legislation and the discussion.

It seems to me, however, that we now have a history in school reform, ESEA reauthorization, high standards and information that has been collected since 1994 with the implementation of the reauthorized ESEA. I saw evidence that some of the people around the discussion table in Washington understood that it is ridiculous to talk about all students achieving at high levels if we are not also willing to implement Opportunity to Learn Standards.

There were big-city and inner-city superintendents and those from poor and rural school districts who understood that concept. There were representatives from minority advocacy organizations who understood that. There were representatives at the round table discussions speaking to the needs of poor children, linguistically different and immigrant children – all of whom seemed to understand that. There were equity and desegregation assistance center directors who understood that.

Still, there were more people around the table who just could not go so far to say that all students should be held to high standards and that the language regarding Opportunity to Learn Standards must also become a part of the reauthorization legislation of the ESEA in 1999.

We have a year to correct the “oversight” regarding the Opportunity to Learn Standards. We have a year to help decision makers at the local, state and national levels understand that simply saying all learners should achieve high academic outcomes means nothing if there are not equitable inputs and structural processes in place to create equitable opportunities to learn. I hope decision makers “get it” this time around.

Our airplane landed in Atlanta. As we were filing out, I turned to the mother and said that she must have been really proud of her child; he was quite a little wonder. I thanked them both.

“For what?” she queried.

“Oh, just for providing me with an opportunity to learn that planes really do go faster than Plymouths.”


National Coalition of Education Equity Advocates. Educate America: A Call for Equity in School Reform (Chevy Chase, Maryland: The Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, 1994).

Bradley Scott, MA, is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. He directs the IDRA Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative for Equity. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]