Gaps matter. Be it in educational achievement or income level or access to health care, the differences between rich and poor America should not be ignored, with the social costs and economic instability created by an expanding underclass promising to hamper prosperity for all but a few Americans in coming generations.
Solutions do not come easily. But it is notable that a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute highlighted efforts in Vancouver Public Schools to address achievement gaps fomented in large part by income inequality. The report pointed to the district’s Family-Community Resource Centers as an effective way for helping low-income students to match the academic success of higher-income peers.
Family-Community Resource Centers are at 16 high-need Vancouver schools, with temporary, mobile access provided at others. According to the Economic Policy Institute, this is having a noticeable impact: “A growing number of poverty-affected students in Vancouver, Washington, are completing the district’s most rigorous coursework. From 2007 to 2015, overall enrollment in Advanced Placement courses increased 67 percent, while the increase among low-income students was nearly 200 percent.”
The district’s website explains, “The goal of Family-Community Resource Centers is to help all children succeed, and we do that by removing barriers and connecting families with available community resources.” Tamara Shoup, director of family services, told The Seattle Times, “Lots of these families never experienced poverty in the past. Just having that navigation support made a big difference.”
Such success in narrowing educational achievement gaps is not common in Washington. Education Week’s Quality Counts report earlier this year found that Washington ranked last among states — but ahead of Washington, D.C. — in terms of closing performance gaps between low-income students and wealthier classmates. Overall, Washington ranked 13th in K-12 achievement.
It is tempting to dismiss concerns about achievement gaps in a capitalistic society. After all, our economy is based upon competition and upon individuals making the most of their opportunities. There is validity to this line of thinking; it helped build the world’s most powerful economy.
But growing inequality portends a less-prosperous future. As Ronald Brownstein wrote about educational gaps last year for The Atlantic: “Though long implicitly tolerated, that imbalance has grown unsustainable because those young people constitute an increasing share of our future workers and taxpayers. Only boosting the young people already best positioned to scale the ladder won’t meet the economy’s needs anymore.” Failing to close achievement inequality will lead to a skills shortage and a workforce that is ill-equipped to meet employers’ demands, pay taxes, drive innovation and support social programs that underpin a civilized society.
The goal is not to eliminate inequality. That would be impossible; some people inherently have more marketable skills than others, and academic achievement is largely a function of parental guidance and influence. Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of outcomes.
Yet it is essential to focus upon differences in opportunity and to address them. As Brownstein wrote, “The gaps in education opportunity for kids are inextricably linked to shortfalls in economic opportunity for adults.” Vancouver Public Schools deserves kudos for recognizing those gaps before they become a lifelong burden.