Submitted by Rep. Dick Muri
The promise of America is your origins do not dictate your destiny. Today, many children living in poverty experience the deprivation of the resources they need to develop their full potential. This is commonly referred to as the “opportunity” or “achievement gap.”
While a gap between rich and poor has always existed, today the alarming trend is that it seems to matter more than it did in the past. In 1950s America, nearly all students achieved a higher standard of living, earning more money and living better, than their parents. However, this is no longer true.
Recently, the Equality of Opportunity Project collected the data of 30 million college students’ earnings statistics and their parents’ incomes. The analysis is startling. In the past half century children’s prospects of earning more than their parents has fallen from 90 percent, to 50 percent.
In Washington state we are seeing an alarming widening of the gap between outcomes for students born into affluent families and those who are not. As we work to find solutions, what we are learning is the gaps in educational opportunities involve much more than schooling.
In his book, “Our kids: The American Dream in Crisis” Harvard professor Robert Putnam argues family instability, increasing isolation, and lost ties with community members like pastors, coaches and mentors, have left a third of children unable to climb out of poverty. He goes on to assert an “echo” chamber in our schools amplifies the challenges many of these children face. His team found the lowest performing rich kids have a better chance of finishing college than the highest performing poor kids.
Thirty-five years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education presented a report titled, A Nation at Risk. Their recommendations included adopting more measurable standards in schools. Standardized achievement tests became a part of a “nationwide system of state and local standardized tests.” This test-based accountability led the way in our schools for decades. Clearly, this test-driven accountability needs to be re-evaluated.
What can we do to close the opportunity gap in Washington?
The first step is recognizing there is a gap, and it is growing wider. It means not blaming school districts, or teachers, who see children in their classrooms everyday with issues that go far beyond the typical boundaries of normal school interactions. It means shifting from the testing measurements of the past thirty-five years, to recognizing the varied individual needs of our students. Early childhood education, coordination of social services, and programs that offer more choices in education, like charter schools, are all part of the solution.
I am humbled to have been nominated to serve on the Education Accountability System Oversight Committee. The twelve members, appointed from the House and Senate Education Committees, are focused on defining new approaches in our state’s educational goals in order to close the achievement gap for our students. In Washington, by working together, we can make our schools a part of the solution to increased opportunities to learn and give our students what they need to be successful members of our communities.