Closing Opportunity Gaps

U.S. Education Secretary John King returned to Capitol Hill on June 29, 2016, to discuss with members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee proposed regulations to implement the accountability provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). To watch the HELP Committee hearing, click here.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) asked how ESSA might be used to improve access to advanced coursework needed to prepare for college so to close the Opportunity Gap. In response, Secretary King emphasized, as he did in the House hearing on June 23, that states could hold districts accountable for increasing access to advanced courses and gifted education programs and services, by including those indicators in their accountability plans. 

The states decide approach to ensuring students are not short-changed, based on where they live or on family income, increases the challenge for gifted education advocates.  Although ESSA includes new requirements and allowable uses of funds that support gifted students, these provisions are only the foundation for what must be vigorous state-by-state advocacy for even more changes.

We know many high-ability students are being left behind by their school districts.  The latest Office for Civil Rights 2013-2014 data collection reveals wide disparities in the percentages of high schools attended by mostly Black and Latino students that offer courses such as calculus, physics, chemistry, and Algebra II, compared to all high schools.  The data also show low percentages of enrollment in gifted education and AP courses by Black, Latino, and children with disabilities, compared to those groups’ total enrollment in schools offering these programs and services.

Excellence gap data bears out the results of a system that denies all bright students the opportunity to learn at advanced levels.  In Massachusetts, for example, although Bay State students performed above nearly all states on the 2013 fourth grade NAEP math exam, the state’s excellence gap of 13 points between White and Black and White and Hispanic students is concerning.  How is it that a high performing state still has comparably fewer Black and Hispanic students achieving at the advanced levels?  What can advocates do?

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, we can agree that there are some baseline strategies to improve the opportunities for all high-ability students, no matter their zip code: 

  • Ensuring all districts and schools offer advanced courses;
  • Removing barriers to accelerated opportunities; and
  • improving pre-service teacher preparation so that all teachers entering the classroom are familiar with indicators of giftedness and best ways to support bright students are responsibilities of the states. 

There is little if anything in ESSA that will substitute for the hard work needed – and already being done in many places – in our 50 state capitals.  Daunting?  Yes, indeed.  But now that we have a toehold in ESSA for gifted education conversations with state policy makers, let’s recommit ourselves to the work needed to close the opportunity gap of which Senator Warren spoke.