Equality of Educational Opportunity in the 21st CenturyAt least since publication of James Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity in 1966, social scientists and policymakers have been concerned with identifying barriers to equal opportunity and developing strategies to overcome them. Today, concerns about equal education opportunity support a variety of school reform activities as well as efforts to ensure that more students move from high school to college and actually complete a degree.
While this focus is reasonable, we believe it leaves out two crucial factors. First, there are not enough jobs–let alone “good jobs”–to go around. There are fewer jobs in the United States today than in 2000, even though there are 12 million more workers. According to some estimates, a full count of unemployment (which would include those who cannot find full-time jobs and therefore work part-time, and those who want to work and have stopped looking for work) would run very much higher than the official unemployment rate of the US workforce. Knowledge that jobs are scarce may encourage the most “able” students to work harder in school, but it discourages many others and may diminish overall achievement.
Beyond that, if one is African American, the chances are greater that you will go to prison than to college. According to the Pew Center on the States, 9.2 percent of African American adults are in prison (compared to 3.7 percent of Hispanic adults and 2.2 percent of white adults). For young people in many inner-city neighborhoods, prison is an expected part of the life cycle. Many factors have contributed to increasing rates of incarceration. But we are convinced that a lack of job opportunity in the “regular” economy is central among them. This depresses aspiration and often triggers a chain of events that have negative consequences–dropping out of school, engaging in crime, spending time in prison, and being unable to find stable employment upon release. From this perspective, the pipeline to prison that is a central fact of childhood for many African Americans is as much a barrier to equal education opportunity as it is a consequence of poor schools.
We believe that education policies that ignore these realities are myopic. They focus on participation and success in particular institutions rather than on mapping opportunity and life chances for different groups within the population. They separate rather than join matters of demography, schooling, and labor markets. They reflect the ways in which research universities have parsed social science and do not advance approaches likely to yield effective knowledge for policy and practice.
With all this in mind, the Project on Equality of Educational Opportunity in the 21st Century will serve as an umbrella for a variety of projects, including:
- Assessments of the Bard Prison Initiative
- Seminar on Youth Education and Employment
- Social Science and Social Policy since Coleman