Narrowing the “Gaps”

GapWhen I was a kid, a “gap” was something between my teeth, or next to the railway platform, or a way to get over the mountains. Today, we have other kinds of gaps: the ‘achievement gap’ and, it seems, indisputable and ever-widening income and employment gaps.

On September 10, the New York Times reported new economic data about wages and wealth in the United States: while wages have remained depressed for most wage-earning families, top income earners captured an even greater percentage of the nation’s wealth. “The figures underscore that even after the recession the country remains in a new Gilded Age, with income as concentrated as it was in the years that preceded the Depression of the 1930s, if not more so.”

And, according to a recent analysis of government data by the Associated Press, the employment gap between rich and poor is also the widest on record, noting “Rates of unemployment for the lowest-income families — those earning less than $20,000 — have topped 21 percent, nearly matching the rate for all workers during the 1930s Great Depression. U.S. households with income of more than $150,000 a year have an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, a level traditionally defined as full employment.”

Certainly this data above would indicate that we have a lot of work to do as a nation if we are to live into our American commitment to “equal opportunity for all.”

What can we do as schools?

For a number of years, the school reform movement has focused on narrowing the well-documented “achievement gap” between low-income and high-income students.

Increasingly, however, the conversation is shifting from the “achievement gap”—which focuses on outcomes—to a conversation about the “opportunity gap”—which recognizes that achievement is dependent on access to quality schools and teachers, quality childcare and early childhood programs, health care, and jobs.

This renewed focus on educational opportunity is an important reminder and call to action for all schools, including independent and Episcopal schools. Education remains one of the single most transformative and empowering engines to advance individuals, families, communities, and society. A quality education changes everything.

But how do we make our school as accessible for all so that we can, in our own way, bridge the gaps of opportunity and understanding between wealthy, middle class, and working families and students? How can we insure that all who attend our school are genuinely welcome and able to participate fully in the life of the school (participation that sometimes comes with a price tag)? How do we support our public school counterparts as they strive to provide equal access to a quality education for all, especially those in low-income neighborhoods where unemployment is high and wages low?

This work is not easy. Education is expensive. Finding the funds and the will to increase educational accessibility and opportunity is very hard work and our efforts are never perfect. Our mission as Episcopal schools, expressed in part in NAES’s recently published Principles of Good Practice for Equity and Justice in Episcopal Schools, challenge us to persist in this striving.

The Greatest Generation and the Civil Rights Generation worked and fought hard to leave the hunger and hardship of the Depression behind, to fight for the freedom of people everywhere, and to make our nation truly one of equal opportunity for all. If this most recent data is right, we must act. It is our turn now. If not us, who? If not now, when?