In the United States today, educational opportunities are not created equal. This problem, says Sara Ewell, teaching professor in Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Education, is a reflection of a greater societal issue.
“We’re not providing equal education opportunities and we’re further stratifying in our society,” she says. “We need to level the playing field. This has been an issue throughout history, and we’re trying to find solutions so we can create opportunity for all students—not just for the workforce, but to create citizens who are more engaged and socially and emotionally prepared.”
Achieving social justice and equal opportunity in education are lofty-but-essential goals for educators in America, experts agree. To effect change, educators must fully understand the key issues and barriers in play and position themselves with the right network, skills, and education.
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Understanding Equal Opportunity and Social Justice
In some communities, girls, kids with disabilities, students of different races, and of varying socioeconomic backgrounds are not afforded the same opportunities as their counterparts.
Socioeconomic status, for example, is one of the most significant predictors—if not the most significant—of their educational success, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute.
“Children who start behind stay behind—they are rarely able to make up the lost ground,” it found. “Low educational achievement leads to lowered economic prospects later in life, perpetuating a lack of social mobility across generations. […] The undeniable relationship between economic inequalities and education inequalities represents a societal failure that betrays the ideal of the ‘American dream.’”
Students with disabilities are also at a disadvantage in receiving equal opportunity in education, according to the National Council on Disability. Their research has found that:
- Forty percent of people with disabilities over age 16 have less than a high school education, compared to 15 percent of all adults.
- Students with disabilities also drop out at a higher rate than their counterparts (36 percent versus 25 percent).
- While 56 percent of all students participate in postsecondary education programs, only 15 percent of students with disabilities do.
Achieving equal opportunity isn’t just an issue for students—the problems are found at the school, district, and national level, too, says Lydia Young, associate teaching professor and associate dean for Northeastern’s Graduate School of Education.
Some of these issues include access to financial resources to ensure kids are eating, fed, and clothed; how cutting-edge the curriculum is and how it helps to create opportunity and pathways for kids; whether teachers are qualified to support diverse learners and whether they’re educated to be educators; schools that are overcrowded and underfunded; and the impacts on districts that underperform on standardized tests, for example.
“Education is really just a microcosm of areas of improvement in the rest of society,” Young says. “The heart of social justice is assessing the opportunities for young people and communities to move toward prosperity and well-being. When you look at a human being in your classroom, what do they need to be successful? It’s about making sure that all opportunities are open and welcoming.”
How To Make an Impact
Build A Network
Tackling these issues and feeling like you’re making an impact can be overwhelming to many educators, Young says. Having a knowledge network—or a group of people who share your same trials and tribulations—is key.
“Educators operating in isolation can feel burned out and alone,” she says. “When you’re part of a knowledge network, you have the opportunity to pick your head up and engage with people who have shared passions and values. You might be one point of light across a very starry sky, but you have the opportunity to touch other points of light that are moving toward similar goals.”
These knowledge networks may be within your school, district, or professional organizations, for example.
Hone Your Skills and Further Your Knowledge
Another way leaders can prepare to effect change is by learning to be nimble in their thinking to create alternative models that meet the needs of the district they’re serving. Additionally, they should seek out resources that will empower them with the knowledge they need to attract, support, and retain leaders and administrators, Ewell says. Both are significant issues for school equity, she adds.
Northeastern’s Doctor of Education Program, for example, prepares educational leaders in this way, engaging them in research and practice to develop these competencies, dispositions, and values that promote educational innovation based on a commitment to social justice.
“The EdD program gives students a strong background in action research, which allows them to tackle complex problems in practice,” Ewell says. “As they work toward their dissertation of practice, they’re conducting research in schools and organizations to tackle specific problems and break them down into smaller pieces so they can effect change.”
Developing as a change agent is integral for any educator looking to make a difference in social justice and education equality. While finding a knowledge network and learning the necessary skills to effect change are a start, for many, it’s a lifelong process.“As educators, we feel like we need to have the answer, but it’s really about the question you want to solve. You need to care about that topic and the people you’re working for, and the efforts to improve their lives,” Young says. “Sometimes it will feel like growing pains, but with it comes new connections and opportunity you might not have envisioned for yourself.”
If you’re ready to lead the charge toward social justice and equal opportunity at your institution, download our free guide below to learn how earning an EdD can help.