The American system of education is not a national system of education, but rather, a local authority system of towns, regions and state schools. Each public school has been built and supported by a local educational authority, which most often takes the form of a school board, but could also be accomplished by a town vote, a district board, a selectman’s directive, a mayor’s initiative or a governor’s direction. The laws mandating that every child will receive an education are fairly uniform across the country but the authority to make or change schools rests with local townspeople. This is where equity and access are locally defined.
To the extent that schools are accountable for equity and access has been historically defined by attendance and course taking—meaning that every child is attending and getting the same exposure. But children are not the same and do not process the same information even if it is offered to all of them in the same way. This is the fallacy of thinking that just because the teacher said it—all of the students learned it. More recently, accountability for the quality of the education each student receives has focused on how this opportunity of education will be accessed by every student. This subtle change is due to the persistent and uneven results of a K-12 education, the advances in learning and the brain, and the same bell-curve results of standardized testing.
The continued inequity of student outcomes is evidence of the failure of local authorities to accept the diversity of learning outcomes that more accurately reflect the populations of students attending their schools. Local authorities are stuck in the bell-curve mentaility that some of their students will get As, most will get Bs and Cs and a few will get Ds. It is hard to change their schools into more diverse places of learning where most students might get Bs and As. It is even harder to imagine that for any standard of learning, all students will be given the time and instruction to attain this standard—essentially all of them getting As. This problem occurs across classrooms, schools and districts and stretches back to the Kerner Report:
The final report issued by the Kerner Commission in February 1968 contained the oft-repeated conclusion that the nation was “moving towards two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” And, in response, it set forth a series of recommendations to end the pervasive discrimination and segregation that existed in nearly every segment of American life.—The Learning Policy Institute
Inventing a System of Education
Separate and unequal is probably the result of the acceptance of this local authority structure and the push back one gets when one tries to change it. It is important to ask, can local authority be respected while some form of a national system —professional teaching practice and instructional leadership—be adopted? Most would say it cannot be systematized. However, if complex needs such as local authority and nationally recognized values of professional practice could be tolerated, the equity and access for all students may be better accommodated. Without a national system for improved access and equity, our schools will continue to bump along with an uneven outcome for all of our important students.