Equity of Opportunity

Equity of Opportunity

Student in the classroom reading a book

"We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else."

— President Obama, 2nd inaugural address

America is not yet the country it strives to be—a place where all who are willing to work hard can get ahead, join a thriving middle class, and lead fulfilling lives. Our country derives much of its strength from its core value as a land of opportunity. But, today, economic mobility is actually greater in a number of other countries. Despite this challenge, we know how to work toward the solution: access to a world-class education can help to ensure that all people in this country with dreams and determination can reach their potential and succeed.

Yet, far too many students, especially in underserved groups and communities, lack robust access to the core elements of a quality education. That includes free, quality preschool; high, challenging standards and engaging teaching and leadership in a safe, supportive, and well-resourced school; and an affordable, high-quality college degree.

The challenge

The challenge of ensuring educational equity is formidable. Our country’s international competitors are improving faster than we are educationally, and many are having greater success in closing achievement gaps—which remain stubbornly wide in the United States. Structural barriers, including inequitable funding systems, impede our progress. While one might expect schools in low-income communities to receive extra resources, the reverse is often true; a Department of Education study found that 45 percent of high-poverty schools received state and local funds below what was typical for other schools in their district.

We also know that traditionally underserved students, including minorities and low-income students, attend and complete college at far lower rates than their peers. These students are suspended, expelled, and drop out at higher rates, and are less likely to have access to strong teachers and challenging curricula. As just one striking example, a recent study of the Advanced Placement exam in computer science found that in 11 states, no African-American students took the exam; in eight states, no Hispanic students participated.

Recognizing these disparitiesthe Obama Administration is profoundly committed to equity in education. That commitment underlies nearly every significant activity for the U.S. Department of Education. We’re motivated in this work because we recognize the power of education to transform lives.

A focus on educational equity

Over the last six-and-a-half years, the Obama Administration has fought to improve outcomes for underserved students through its major education initiatives by supporting states in their efforts to ensure quality teaching in every classroom; raise standards for all students; build systems to improve instruction; and significantly improve low-performing schools.

These aims also underlie foundational programs, such as those funded through Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as competitive funds developed by this Administration, including Race to the TopPromise Neighborhoods, and Investing in Innovation.

ESEA flexibility has improved on past policies under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, by giving states the ability to more accurately target the schools most in need of improvement through meaningful and locally tailored interventions. Additionally, the President's Ladders of Opportunity and Promise Zones initiatives aim to make rapid, positive change in communities of concentrated poverty.

Funds that support low-income and disabled students (including Pell Grants, which help families to afford college) make up about three-quarters of the funds that the Department distributes. Many of the Department's core activities, such as the enforcement of civil rights laws and regulations, also directly aim to improve equity. In this effort, the Administration has benefited from the guidance of the Equity and Excellence Commission and the work of the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which seeks to ensure better outcomes for all young people—particularly young men and boys of color.

The Departments of Education and Justice, last year, released a first-ever package of guidance and resource materials intended to ensure greater equity in schools by helping districts and educators to address the overuse of exclusionary discipline and disproportionate discipline rates for students of color and students with disabilities. The White House recently supported this effort by hosting teams of superintendents, principals, and teachers from across the country at groundbreaking conference to advance the national conversation on positive school climates.

Thanks, in part, to these efforts, America’s students are making important progress.

Progress for students

  • Our high school graduation rate is the highest ever, at 81 percent.
  • Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, graduation rates for:
    • Native American students increased by nearly five percentage points;
    • Hispanic students increased by over four percentage points;
    • Black students increased by nearly four percentage points;
    • English learners increased by just over four percentage points;
    • Low-income learners increased by over three percentage points;
    • Students with disabilities increased by nearly three percentage points;
    • Asian students increased by nearly two percentage points; and
    • White students increased by over two percentage points.
  • Our high school dropout rate is at a historic low, following steady decreases. The greatest progress has been among minorities.
  • Students’ test scores are one way to measure progress—and they’re going up—especially on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.
    • In 2013, our nation’s elementary and middle school students earned the highest math and reading scores in history.
    • Some of the greatest gains have been in states that raised their hands for the Race to the Top and stayed most committed to change efforts, especially Tennessee and D.C.
  • College continues to be the best investment people can make in their futures. College enrollment for black and Hispanic students is up by more than a million since 2008.

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