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K-12 Education

How Equity Gets Us Closer to the American Dream

The American model of success has glorified the individual hero or heroine in cinema, politics, and even in education. We celebrate those who, “despite the odds,” rise to greatness. This narrative makes us feel that anything is possible despite our current circumstances. A better life awaits if only we strive for it. The American Dream is possible for all, as each of us inhabits a land of opportunity. We hold up examples of those who beat the odds and say, “If she can do it, you can too.” The exceptions to the rule become the expectations.

I must admit that I am a product of this biased thinking. I believed that with time, money, energy, and intellect, all challenges could be solved. That we could analyze how people overcame challenging circumstances, put it in a magic spreadsheet or a quantum computer and use artificial intelligence to come up with the answer. A roadmap to successful outcomes. My belief in this model extended to the children of Detroit.

The pandemic exposed many of the false narratives of this “silver bullet” thinking. Though all members of our community have been swept up in the COVID-19 storm, we have experienced it differently. We have been exposed to the best and the worst expressions of humanity during this period. My heroes became those who advocated for the well-being of us all, especially most vulnerable populations. This focus on the most vulnerable among us as a strategy to raise well-being overall is equity in action. The collaboration between scientists, government, medical institutions, biotech, and healthcare communities is exemplar of what is needed and what is possible to solve our most pressing issues. This type of collaborative response is what is needed to foster high-quality education for all children.

Making the Case for Equity-Focused Education

The Education Development Trust, an international nonprofit focused on education solutions, conducted a 10-year study on education reform in five global cities of London, New York, Dubai, Rio de Janeiro, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The chosen cities were particularly interesting because the agenda was explicitly linked to issues of equity in education.  

  • Dubai: The government strove to ensure that all the city’s ethnically diverse communities had access to quality education.
  • London, New York, and Rio: Reforms were driven by a commitment to close the gap in academic outcomes between students from under-resourced neighborhoods versus those in more privileged areas. Leaders understood and set out to demonstrate that gaps in outcomes are the result of gaps in opportunity and resources, dispelling the mechanistic relation made between socio-economic background and ability or achievement.
  • Ho Chi Minh City: This case had a different global equity dimension. Worldwide, there is a close connection between economic advantage and educational outcomes. Vietnam is the outlier. The single poorest participating country has achieved results in line with those of the richest countries. Vietnam appears to show at a global level that family income does not have to determine child outcomes

Over an eight-to-10-year period, each city made significant improvements in education quality outcomes and eliminated or excelled beyond the achievement gap as measured by graduation rates, reading, math, and/or science scores.

Cross-Cutting Improvement Themes

Although each city had a unique story, there were seven key themes that wove across them:

  • Effective leadership at all levels: Appointing or electing a key figure to drive through a change agenda;
  • Data-driven reform: Using “big data” to identify and intervene where students are in danger of falling behind and identify the schools where performance was exceptionally good;
  • Building coalitions for change: Forging strong coalitions of different stakeholders between parents, teachers, and professional bodies;
  • Making teaching a career of choice for talented young people: Adopting innovative ways of attracting talented people into teaching;
  • Combining high accountability with high levels of professional support: Increasing both accountability and support for teachers with improved training;
  • New forms of government school provision: Applying pressure for change in underperforming schools; and
  • An emphasis on school-to-school collaboration: Pairing strong schools with weaker schools, helping the latter improve.

Advocating for Detroit Children 

At this pivotal moment, the collaboration needed for our collective vision for the children of Detroit is imperative. We value and require partnership and thought leadership across sectors to create the conditions needed to cultivate the brilliance of Detroit children.

As The Skillman Foundation fiercely champions Detroit youth, we understand that strong schools are only part of what is required to ensure kids have the love, support, and opportunities needed to thrive. According to US News and World Reports’ 2020 Best Countries to Raise Kids and 2021 Best Places to Raise a Family, attributes measured include:

  • Well-developed public education and quality high school education;
  • Social justice; caring about human rights;
  • Communities that value diversity and gender equality;
  • Family-friendly; being seen as happy places;
  • Safe communities with low crime;
  • Top-notch health care access;
  • Jobs & economic factors including the cost of living, average annual salary, and income equality;
  • Transportation and commute;
  • Communities’ overall well-being.

The list above are additional areas where we value partnership. Our children need parents with steady employment, safe secure neighborhoods, equitable access to high-quality health care, and family-friendly spaces.

The American Dream is dependent on equity. To make it obtainable for all, we need to redesign our systems to allow everyone to thrive and prosper.

Comments (2)

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  • John R. Wright

    Wonderful article!! Well done. 🙏🏿☀️📚

  • Amyre Makupson

    The hope, desire, effort and sincerity that goes into Detroit children through the Skillman Foundation is simply exceptional. The case for Equity Focused Education is both inspirational and encouraging. Thank you for such a wonderful summary. Detroit students, parents, teachers, neighborhood leaders have much to be proud of. Indeed, the Skillman Foundation as well. CONGRATULATIONS, Maria on your interim appointment.

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