Opportunities for a More Equal Future

By Hania Mariën

For decades, scholars have recognized achievement gaps in the nation’s education system – that is, until relatively recently. Does that mean we’ve finally closed the achievement gaps? Not so fast. 

The research increasingly indicates that “opportunity gaps” lead to what we previously identified as gaps in student achievement. Such gaps include the lack of an equal opportunity to learn and are affected by circumstances both in and out of schools. 

Factors such as race, ethnicity, and/or socioeconomic status (and their intersectionality) impact, and may even predetermine, measured outcomes of “achievement.” Considering how such factors limit a student’s opportunity to learn illuminates potential avenues to increase these opportunities for all students. In 2014, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked that “identifying opportunity gaps is the necessary first step that schools and districts should take to address educational inequities.”

A diverse range of factors can limit a student’s opportunity to learn. As follows, there are many approaches to increasing the opportunity to learn for all students. In his article about Finland’s thriving schools, Anu Partanen explains that in its education reform, Finland chose to prioritize equity over excellence: 

“[S]ince the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost…as an instrument to even out social inequality.” 

Finland’s approach has yielded some positive results. The country has one of Europe’s lowest at-risk-of-poverty rates, and its education system has been praised for yielding some of the highest performance scores in reading, math, and science. These results have spurred conversation about the Scandinavian nation’s educational approach. Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, acknowledges that Finland’s educational strategy is not a fix-all-solution. Schools are not the source of social inequality. Yet, all proposals have their merits. And for Finland, perhaps striving to provide an equal opportunity to learn for all students is one of them.

Harvard University Professor Harvard Putnam notes a common resistance to such “European Models.” In an interview with neaToday.org, he counters that “the idea that you can reverse a high level of inequality and begin to close opportunity gaps through investing in other kids is an American value.” In the 20th century, the United States embraced education as a way to address social inequalities and spur economic growth, and by 1918, compulsory attendance laws were adopted in all 48 existing states. “I am not trying to make America like Sweden,” he says, “I’m trying to make America like America.”

The 2016 presidential campaign cycle is raising many critical issues, and the state of the American education system is one of them. If you’ve been living in the United States for the past few months, chances are you’ve heard discussions about higher education – or rather, who should pay for it. The desire to increase educational opportunity has led some to wonder whether the United States should offer free higher-education. Candidate Bernie Sanders believes that all students deserve access to quality education from the earliest stages of schooling to high-level degrees and that making public colleges and universities tuition free is one step in the right direction.

Whether or not you agree with Sanders, his campaign is encouraging Americans to re-consider the status quo; he is challenging us to consider the role of our vote in perpetuating or addressing systemic inequalities; he is choosing to focus on what “is” now, while emphasizing our role as citizens in advocating for a future with increased opportunities for all. Sanders may not have all the answers, but he is elevating the debate about a nation built on dreams of “opportunity.” And he inspires us ask an important question: “What is possible?”

Hania Mariën is a junior at Willamette University majoring in anthropology and Spanish. Willamette University is home to the Delta of Oregon Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.