The Fight for Equity in Education


Two years after twin milestones in U.S. education – the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board and the first time students of color became the majority in U.S. public schools – the state of education in Black America today is at a critical juncture.  The achievement gap between children of color and their classmates continues to widen, and too many students are simply not being equipped with the tools that they need to succeed in a rapidly changing, global society.

Why? Because in areas where children of color are concentrated and poverty is pervasive, we are falling short of providing a high-quality education for students.

Of the 50.2 million students enrolled in public schools in the U.S. today, 16 percent are Black.   While our national graduation rate is at 82 percent, the graduation rate for Black students is 73 percent.  Those who do reach that graduation milestone are not as prepared as their classmates for learning beyond high school.  Upon entering college, only 12 percent of Black students are ready to succeed without taking remediation courses (basic skills courses) that can be so costly they lessen the odds of some students attaining a degree.

These are sobering statistics.  But if we want to close the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap, we must have a clear understanding of its exact dimensions and contours.  Not only do we need to be able to describe the problem, we need to also use our understanding to build tools that meet the challenge of educating all children to high standards.  What are those tools?

In K-12 education, we at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believe they include the following: access to great teachers who deliver high-quality instruction; high expectations and challenging coursework; and approaches to personalized learning that allow a more tailored approach for students so we can meet their individual learning needs and build on their strengths.

Along with our national and state partners, we at the foundation work to create and scale these building blocks for teachers, schools, and districts so they can help all students succeed.  We also know that they are especially important to students of color and students from low-income communities because they help connect their potential to the possibility the U.S. has to offer.  They hold the power to improve students’ lives and put their dreams within reach.

The recent New Education Majority national poll of parents and families of color suggests that parents agree.  It showed that African Americans overwhelmingly consider good teachers to be the single most important quality of a great school, and that 90 percent of African Americans believe students today should be challenged more in school to help ensure they are successful later in life.

My own parents raised my siblings and me to embrace the challenges and opportunities available to us through education.  They taught us that education wasn’t just important – it was vital.  It was the path that we would travel to make a better life for ourselves, just as they had.  And I benefitted from having great teachers who helped me connect to what I was learning and set expectations for what I could achieve in high school and beyond.

Today, more than ever before, education doesn’t end with high school.  A postsecondary degree or credential offers the surest course to career opportunity and individual success in life.  We need to make college more personalized and flexible to meet the needs of today’s students, who are more diverse than ever.  Many are working full-time, while others are raising kids or returning to school at an older age.

Our postsecondary work at the foundation focuses on financial aid that makes college affordable and promotes both access and success; technology that personalizes learning and helps students navigate their path to a certificate or degree; and an effective use of data and information to identify whether their students are on track toward success.

Georgia State University, for example, analyzed millions of student grades to try to learn why some students were dropping out.  They found that a low grade in the first course in a student’s major can signal trouble.  Now, the university gets an alert when students earn a C or lower in the first course tied to their major – and students get more support.  It’s one of the data-driven steps that helped Georgia State double the graduation rate for Black students and triple the rate for Hispanic students over the last decade.

Georgia State University, among other institutions, is facing the issue of educational inequity head-on and proving that it is not intractable or inevitable.  The real question is, do we accept it in our country?  Are we going to accept a system that sets students on different trajectories based on the color of their skin or the language they speak?  Can we sit comfortably knowing that future leaders and great minds are sitting in classrooms today and not receiving the quality education they deserve?

Absolutely not.

We cannot accept the status quo.  It is time to look closely at approaches suggested by the data, listen to families and commit to implementing real solutions in our schools and communities.

Throughout history, Black people have always prioritized and fought for educational opportunities.  Since the time when slaves learned to read and write despite the threat of physical danger that could result, through the battle for equality in our schools and Brown v. Board, the fight for opportunity through education, no matter the risks, is a part of our nation’s story.

As a foundation, we are committed to addressing inequity and achievement gaps, including looking more closely at how to get students started on the right path through early learning opportunities, because we believe that every person deserves the chance to live a healthy and productive life.  We believe the fight for equity is one that all Americans should join.  If we come together in this fight, I’m confident it won’t take another 60 years to make the achievement gap in education a thing of the past.