“Opportunity” Has Never Been Enough

There it is again! The sound of well-meaning reformers missing the point. This time, it came in a NYT article about college admissions at elite colleges. As I’m finding in my current research about America’s first nation-wide attempt at urban school reform, reformers tend to shoot for the wrong goal. It’s not enough only to provide an educational “opportunity” for a few extraordinary youths. By definition, that kind of thinking will only make a tiny, symbolic dent in deep-seated social inequalities.

SYSTEM Reading circle

Hmmm…why didn’t more low-income students seize the ‘opportunity’ to toe the line? From Joseph Lancaster’s notebook, c. 1803.

It wasn’t the main point of the NYT article, but Paul Tough reported that elite universities like Harvard and Stanford have recently begun aggressively recruiting students with top-notch academic credentials from non-white, non-affluent backgrounds. As Tough reported, a few years ago elite schools began doing more than dropping tuition costs for low-income students. They began sending out

semipersonalized information packets, including application-fee waivers, to thousands of high-achieving low-income students, and the packets seemed to be changing the application behaviors of the students who received them, making them more likely to apply to and attend selective colleges.

Good news, right? A good example of the ways reformers can make society more equal by improving access to educational resources, right? Well, no.

Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to recruit more students from low-income homes into fancy colleges—though according to Tough the plan didn’t really work—but these sorts of efforts repeat the same old mistake that reformers have been making about educational equality for centuries.

As I’m finding in my current research, the reformers of the early 1800s often had their hearts in the right place. They worked hard to improve the chances that more poor kids would get a chance at school. Following the ideas of Joseph Lancaster, they built schools that cities could afford. Too often, however, students didn’t thrive in the new schools’ harsh conditions.

What did students do? A few extraordinary students took advantage of the opportunity to learn to read, write, and cipher. But most students simply stayed away. As a group of Philadelphia school reformers complained in 1823,

many parents seem to be utterly regardless of the advantages which would be conferred upon their offspring, if they duly appreciated the importance, and embraced the opportunity for improving their minds by literary and religious instruction. The children of such, instead of being placed in the public schools, are wandering about the streets and wharves, becoming adepts in the arts of begging, skillful in petty thefts, and familiar with obscene and profane language.

In the minds of the reformers, creating an opportunity was enough. Never mind the fact that their schools felt like prisons to the students, or that the students felt like they weren’t really learning anything. To the reformers, simply offering poor kids a chance to endure a hostile education was enough. If the students didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, it was their own fault.

This blind spot about the nature of education reform was not limited to white reformers. African-American leaders, too, tended to think creating an opportunity was enough—even a slim and unattractive opportunity. For example, on June 2, 1823, Bishop Richard Allen from Philadelphia talked to a group of New York’s African-American students at one of the few public schools open for African Americans. Too many of them, the Bishop warned, were inexplicably unwilling to seize

the opportunity now afforded them of acquiring a sufficient education.

Why not? Because the children knew what the Bishop didn’t. They knew that the “African Free School” didn’t really provide what most of them needed. For a few of them—an extraordinary few—the limited schooling was sufficient for them to learn academic skills. For most, however, the “opportunity” was not a real opportunity at all, but rather a holding pen where they were mocked for not mastering basic academic skills on their own.

What does any of that tell us about admission to Harvard? Too often reformers think the main challenge of education reform lies in increasing opportunity for a few extraordinary individuals from low-income families. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it misses the real goal and it can in fact divert and distract attention from the real goal.

What is that real goal? Not making sure that a few low-income kids can go to Harvard, but rather making sure ALL low-income kids have the same chances at great educations as ALL high-income kids.

Access to high-quality schools should not be the result of a happy accident of birth or good fortune in a charter lottery. Low-income students deserve not just a chance at a good education, but the same chance as high-income kids.