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Building Capacity to Tackle Education Equity

capitol buildingWhat can we do to ensure that disparity in life circumstances doesn’t result in disparity of access to a quality education?

More than 51 percent of public school students in the United States are considered low income, and for many of them this means their basic needs are not being met. That can have a serious impact on their readiness to learn. And it’s an issue that is getting increasing attention here in Washington, DC.

NCTE addresses poverty and equity head-on in our 2015 Education Policy Platform:


Equity is essential to meet America’s promise of equal opportunity for all citizens. Equity serves the common values of fairness, opportunity, and social good. Disparity in Iife circumstances should not result in a disparity of access to a quality education. With fifty-one percent of students attending public schools now eligible for free or reduced lunches, the growing wealth gap affects families across the United States as well as conditions and opportunities for learning.

In the panel discussion “Overcoming Poverty” at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit earlier this week, President Barack Obama emphasized that “if we are going to find common ground, we must invest as a society in public schools and universities [as well as] early childhood education, . . . whether rural areas, Appalachia, or the inner city, . . . to access what is needed: mentors, social networks, computers, and textbooks.”

At ASCD’s recent Whole Child Symposium on poverty and education, a range of panelists offered solutions to address issues of inequity that mirrored those in NCTE’s policy platform (in italics below):

Fund quality universal early childhood education; access to quality teaching and learning environments; and equitable support for all public schools.

Steve Suitts of the Southern Education Foundation made very clear that if we wait to teach children in kindergarten, then we are too late.  “All children should have equal worth,” he said, but many low-income children who enter kindergarten are already one to two grades behind.

Phil Sirinides’s report, “Early Learning: Unintended Consequences of the Push to Close the Gap by Increasing Quality,” recognizes efforts by states to close the gap by providing access to high-quality early education: “At-risk children who participate in high-quality childcare and pre-kindergarten can overcome risk factors, make accelerated progress in development, and enter kindergarten ready to learn.”

Provide for the successful participation of students with the greatest needs, ensuring that Title I funding focuses on districts with the greatest percentage of students who lack economic opportunities, including the delivery of wrap-around services (such as before and after school programs, nutrition and health programs, and so on).

Luis Torres, principal of the Benjamin Franklin School in the Bronx, tackled his students’ issues by bringing the community into his school.  He relocated a clinic or “hospital” to provide for his students’ medical needs and created a “farm” to grow food so his students could eat. Talk about building capacity!

Each panelist at the ASCD event emphasized that we all have a role to play. Kathleen Budge, a professor at Boise State University who coauthored Turning High-Poverty Schools Into High-Performing Schools, issued a call to action for teachers: “To tackle poverty, we need to have educators willing to talk about the realities in their classrooms, to act as citizens and do their share to speak and act.”

What would you bring to the conversation?