Equity of Opportunity
"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
Equity in education is vital because equality of opportunity is a core American value. Young people in this country—regardless of wealth, home language, zip code, gender, sexual orientation, race or disability—must have the chance to learn and achieve. Education must provide a path to a thriving middle class for all who are willing to work hard. Our national identity and our economic strength depend on it.
Yet, today, far too many students, especially in underserved groups and communities, lack robust access to the core elements of a quality education. That includes high-quality preschool, strong teaching, rigorous course offerings, high standards, robust enrichment, safe environments, and affordable higher education.
And the challenge of equity is formidable. America's international competitors are improving faster than we are educationally, and many are having significantly greater success in closing achievement gaps—which remain stubbornly wide in the United States. Structural barriers, including inequitable funding systems, impede progress for vulnerable students. The signs of the problem are numerous and clear.
Underserved students, including racial minorities and low-income students, attend and complete college at far lower rates than their peers. They are suspended, and expelled, and drop out at higher rates, and are less likely to have access to strong teachers and challenging curriculum. As just one striking example, a recent study of the computer science 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 challenges, the Obama Administration is profoundly committed to equity in education. That commitment underlies nearly every significant activity for the U.S. Department of Education.
For example, 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.
Over the last five years, the Obama administration has aimed to improve outcomes for underserved students through its major education initiatives, by supporting states in their efforts to ensure quality teaching in every classroom; raising standards for all students; building systems to improve instruction; and significantly improving chronically low-performing schools. These aims 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 Top, Promise Neighborhoods, and Investing in Innovation. ESEA Flexibility has improved on past policies under the No Child Left Behind Act, by giving states flexibility to more ability to accurately target the schools most in need of improvement through truly meaningful interventions. Additionally, the President's Ladders of Opportunity and Promise Zones initiatives aim to make rapid, positive change in communities of concentrated poverty.
Thanks, in part, to these efforts, there has been major progress for some of America's most vulnerable students. Among these signs of progress for students:
- Improvements on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the Nation's Report Card, have been led by high-minority, high-poverty places, including Tennessee and Washington, D.C. Cities, with higher than average proportions of minority and low-income students, have outpaced the rest of the country in educational improvement.
- The national high school graduation rate is at its highest point in 30 years. This trend is, in large part, due to increases in graduation rates for African-American students (up 5 points since 2007-2008) and Hispanic students (up 8 points).
- College attendance by minorities has jumped sharply. Today, 38 percent of African-American students are attending college, compared to 30 percent in 2000; 32 percent of Hispanic students are attending college now, compared to 22 percent in 2000.
- The proportions of black, Hispanic, and low-income young people (ages 16-24) who are high school dropouts each decreased by a quarter or more between 2008 and 2012. Since 2000, the dropout rate has dropped by more than half for Hispanic young people, and by more than a third for African-American and low-income young people.
- The Obama Administration has taken action to help families afford college. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of students receiving Pell Grants grew approximately 50 percent (to 9.7 million, from 6 million), meaning millions more Americans were able to afford a higher education.
- Through the Obama Administration's Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge program, 5.2 million children from low-income families in 20 states will benefit from high-quality, seamless state early learning systems that link education, health, nutrition, and family supports.
- Since 2009, the Obama administration has committed $6.2 billion to School Improvement Grants to turn around an estimated 2,000 of the nation's persistently lowest-achieving schools, which produce a disproportionate number of the more than 500,000 students who drop out of high school each year.
- In January 2014, the Departments of Education and Justice released a first-ever package of guidance and resource materials intended to help schools and districts address the overuse of exclusionary discipline and disproportionate rates of discipline for students of color and students with disabilities.