• by Laurie Posner, M.P.A. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2016 •

The New Year’s issue of Foreign Affairs is dedicated to a discussion of national and worldwide inequality. As editor Gideon Rose puts it, over the last 30 to 40 years “real incomes and wealth have stagnated for the vast majority of Americans, even as they have skyrocketed for those at the top,” (Rose, 2016).

Economist Francois Bourguignon points out that over the last two decades, while inequality among nations has fallen, within some of the world’s largest economies, inequity rose. This has been the case in the United States, where inequality increased 5 percentage points over the period on the Gini co-efficient, an international measure of inequality.

The observations echo a recent Standard & Poor’s report, which finds that income inequality has been rising significantly in recent decades and “can harm [the nation’s] sustained economic growth” (2014).

S&P’s analyses point to educational inequities and gaps as major culprits: the United States is not graduating enough students who are prepared to access and succeed in college, and educational opportunity is increasingly stratified by earnings. Stratification in schooling increasingly impacts lifetime earnings as jobs that require post-secondary education now often pay more than twice those that require a high school diploma.

This is not a small problem, impacting just a few students. Already, for the first time in half a century, a majority of children attending U.S. public schools come from low-income families, according to the latest research by the Southern Education Foundation (2015). And although it may be tempting to look for solely individual causes of and solutions to educational disparities (witness the growing affection for “grit” literature as an example), by failing to spot structural inequities, we miss a major opportunity to change course.

Across the educational continuum, structural inequities are baked into public education systems – at every level and at the intersection of policy and practice.

A Shaky Start: Structural Inequity in Early Education

Beginning in the early grades, most states insufficiently or inequitably invest in early education and quality care programs for children, ages birth to 8.  Only 30 percent of children overall, and 20 percent of children from low-income families in the United States, are on track to read proficiently by fourth grade, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress data.

While the benefits of high quality early learning opportunities are well-known, a recent national analysis by New America (Bornfreund, et al., 2015) finds that only five states are “walking,” that is “making solid strides toward comprehensive Birth-3rd policy.” The majority of states are “toddling” (“making progress in some areas, not others”) or “crawling” (“at the early stages, with limited progress”).

Investing in early education is an important marker of progress. The New America assessment finds that many states have not yet established a stable, sufficient, equitable source of preK funding through state K-12 formulae; have enacted a flat or regressive approach to the distribution of early education funding; or have relied on local monies, widening divides between and among low- and high-poverty school districts.

K-12 Inequities: Course Offering Gaps that Impact College Readiness

According to the latest research from ACT, just 26 percent of ACT-tested 2015 graduates who express interest in STEM are considered “well prepared for the types of first-year college courses required for a college STEM-related major.”

While STEM fields are likely to see sustained and globally-competitive occupational growth, this research finds that as a nation we are falling far short of college-readiness benchmarks in STEM. Of course, it is harder to succeed where there are no course offerings. And such is the case for a large number of students. Examining course offerings and college and career readiness datasets, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (March, 2014) found the following:

  • Nationwide, only 50 percent of high schools offer calculus, and only 63 percent offer physics courses.
  • 10 percent to 25 percent of high schools in the country do not offer more than one of the core courses in the typical sequence of high school math and science education (i.e., Algebra I and II, geometry, biology, chemistry).
  • Fewer than half of American Indian and Native Alaskan high school students have access to the full complement of high school math and science courses (Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics).
  • One in four high schools serving the highest percentage of Black students and Latino students do not offer Algebra II; of these schools, one in three does not offer chemistry.

Technology gaps and disparities in facilities access also can impact learning opportunities. While an estimated 70 percent of teachers now assign homework that calls for high-speed Internet access, about a third of U.S. households lack access. About 21 million students attend schools that do not meet minimum bandwidth standards for digital learning. Students of color who also are low-income students are more likely than their more affluent peers to attend schools with poorer building conditions, more temporary and portable buildings, and older buildings with less well-maintained heat, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (OCR, 2014).

Cutting Corners in College Access

At the college level, funding policies have edged out large numbers of otherwise qualified, low-income students. Forty-eight states are investing less in public colleges and universities than they did before the Great Recession while student tuition has risen 25 percent to 30 percent since the 2007-08 school year (Leachman, et al., 2016).

According to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, enrollment in the nation’s most selective universities is deeply stratified, “Students from families in the bottom economic quartile comprise only 3 percent of enrollment in the most competitive schools, while those from the top economic quartile comprise 72 percent” (Giancola & Kahlenberg, 2016).

A Framework for Action: #AllMeansAll

Addressing inequitable policies and practices requires a framework for identifying the key elements that must be in place to secure a quality education for all children. IDRA and our partners apply IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework, an empirically-based change model, focused on comprehensive strategies for securing educational opportunity for students of all backgrounds (Robledo & Goodman, 2010).

Anchored in this framework, we are working with state, regional, and local school, community, and family leaders and policymakers to assure that public education meets state and civil rights mandates to serve diverse students well. As examples, IDRA is:

  • Helping states, school districts and parishes in the South and Southwest to assess course offerings, teaching quality, and curriculum policy and to take steps to assure that students of all backgrounds have access to the full range of courses and learning experiences that prepare them to access, enroll in and succeed in college.
  • Affirming the need to retain and uphold key civil rights protections in federal law, for example through the reauthorization of ESEA (for more on this, see IDRA’s statement on the Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015)
  • Working with school districts and community and family leaders and across sectors to develop and test transformations in leadership, school governance, and holistic, place-based strategies that secure high quality learning opportunities for all.
  • Producing analyses and expert testimony (actionable knowledge) on the status of funding equity and the relationship between sufficient, equitable funding and efficient school systems. IDRA’s analyses in Texas, have informed one of the largest such cases in state history (Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition vs. Michael Williams, et al., 2013).
  • Spurring the development of new state-by-state analyses and independent national research on school finance mechanisms, solutions and implications through the IDRA José A. Cárdenas School Finance Fellows Program.

 IDRA Quality Schools Action Framework

Beating the Odds

While Foreign Affairs described the new state of inequality, America’s Powerball drawing surged in the New Year to a dizzying $1.5 billion in January. It was estimated to be the grandest lottery payout in the history of the world. But with the great payout comes an ominous reminder: there is too much gambling at the center of the way we invest in our nation’s schools. And it is not paying off.

To assure equal educational opportunity for all, it is time to adopt policies and practices that live up to the American promise: no matter the circumstances of one’s birth, there is an opportunity to strive, thrive and succeed. We address structural inequity when we assure that educational systems reflect principles of sound policymaking and school governance, equitable and appropriate funding, and valuing youth in word and deed. No child should lack the basics required for success.


Bornfreund, L., & S. Cook, A. Lieberman. From Crawling to Walking: Ranking States on Birth-3rd Grade Policies that Support Strong Readers (Washington, D.C.: New America, November 2015).

de Souza Briggs, X. “At Davos, let’s not have yesterday’s conversation about inequality,” Equals Change Blog (January 20, 2016).

Giancola, J., & R.D. Kahlenberg. True Merit – Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities (Lansdowne, Va.: Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, January 2016)

IDRA. The New Every Student Succeeds Act – Progress and Promise or Retreat and Surrender (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, December 15, 2015).

Leachman, M., & N. Albares, K. Masterson, M. Wallace. Most States Have Cut School Funding, and Some Continue Cutting (Austin, Texas: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, January 25, 2016).

Lhamon, C.E. Dear Colleague Letter: Resource Comparability (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, October 1, 2014

Myers, J. “Lottery won’t be a big win for California schools; never has, never will,” Los Angeles Times (January 13, 2016).

Rose, G. “Inequality: What Causes It Why it Matters What Can be Done,” Foreign Affairs (January-February 2016) Vol. 95, No. 1.

S&P Capital IQ. “How Increasing Income Inequality is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth, and Possible Ways to Change the Tide” (Standard & Poor’s Financial Services, August 5, 2014).

Southern Education Foundation. A New Majority Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools (Atlanta, G.: Southern Education Foundation, January 2015).

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: College and Career Readiness, Issue Brief No. 3 (March 2014).

Laurie Posner, MPA, is a senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at laurie.posner@idra.org.

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2016 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.]