Americans must recommit to an education opportunity agenda

Feb 16, 2023 8:00:00 AM


For all our worries about the economy, the United States remains the wealthiest nation in the world. As a country, we can afford to give every young person the opportunity to learn, grow and succeed.

But we don’t. Instead, we reinforce outdated redlines that restrict the promise of our youth. We box them into limited options. We make it harder, not easier, to navigate the path from kindergarten to graduation to study and work as an adult.

Education is still the best way we can break out of these boxes. 

If there’s one hill I will die on, it’s this: We can create the opportunity to learn for every child. Every child could have a range of learning opportunities that prepare them for life as self-sufficient citizens.

Lest that sound more poetic than practical, here is an agenda for opportunity that should be agreeable to us all, regardless of our politics or our preferred method of education.

An Opportunity Agenda

Education provides a pathway to upward mobility. Young people who receive a quality education are far more likely to land higher-paying jobs, which can help break the poverty cycle and provide a better life for themselves and their families.

The most brilliant people I know constantly warn against assuming any one policy will fix all that ails our sputtering education systems. That is wise counsel. Many of us have experienced the highs of promising policy proposals and the lows of them failing spectacularly. 

A reasonable path to creating educational opportunities likely involves a sober mix of old and new evidence-informed policies. I don’t suppose to know the right mix, but there are a few with what I think is enough supporting evidence to at least start a productive discussion.

I’d suggest renewing interest in the 50-plus-year-old opportunity to learn (OTL) framework, a catchall term for an enduring set of education policies shown to improve student outcomes.

According to the Center for Assessment, OTL “is a way of measuring and reporting whether students and teachers have access to the different ingredients that make up quality schools. The more OTL ingredients present in an individual school, school district, or even in schools across the state, the more opportunities students have to benefit from a high-quality education.”

Some of the “ingredients” called for by OTL may or may not still be relevant. New ones may need to be added, but the focus should be on holding ourselves accountable for matching inputs for schools with outputs for students.

The Right to Learn

Education is another word for intellectual development, a phenomenon so essential to our formation that it has to be defended as a human right. More than anything else, it is the foundation of our personal and professional growth.

So it follows that job one for policy leaders is ensuring every young person has access to high-quality education, regardless of their background or circumstances.  Education should be a right protected by the Constitution. Not merely a right to an “adequate” or “uniform” education as most states currently call for in their constitutions, but a properly funded, high-quality education measured against high standards developed by the nation’s educators. 

Eliminating Hidden Lines 

Every morning when we send our children off to America’s 100,000 public schools, it’s easy to overlook the bizarre matrix of boundaries within and between school districts that trap some of them in lesser-funded low-opportunity zones while isolating others on islands of privilege

You have to zoom far out to see it, and then you have to zoom back in to see how we impose rigid enrollment qualifications, limit access to public classrooms, and sometimes criminalize parents who want to find better schools. 

That’s a terrible way to distribute and deny learning opportunities if the goal is a country that works equally well for everyone. Our education policies must prioritize expanding options to ensure all students have the chance to reach their full potential.

So, let’s erase the lines that act as barriers to learning. 

Better, clearer paths to success

As it stands now, students and families must navigate the journey from kindergarten to college without a concierge, map, or compass. Grade-by-grade, school-by-school, and program-by-program, the system has an intolerable level of incongruency and complexity that makes it hard for parents to guide their children onto a path that best aligns with their capabilities, talents, and interests. The journey involves too many offramps and dead ends that take children off track. 

When Black and Latino students and students experiencing poverty land on those offramps and dead ends–as happens far too often–our country is hurt by the lifelong lost potential that results from the opportunity gaps.

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Excel In Ed, the national policy shop for centrists in education, tells us that we can refashion “the fragmented narrative and structure” of state education-to-workforce policies into a comprehensive policy continuum that logically aligns K-12 education to college, career, or entrepreneurial success.

Teach Students How to Think, Not What to Think

Students should be empowered with critical thinking skills to defeat the military-grade misinformation media machine that seeks to trap them in stupefying algorithms. Young people should learn in school to analyze and evaluate information, test arguments, and develop their understanding of work, life, and politics. 

While our small-vision politicians work hard to remove books, authors, and thought systems from our children’s schools, we must fight those attempts to narrow our views and stunt the growth of the American mind.

Exposing young people to the world’s funds of information from past and current sources prepares them to engage thoughtfully in the civic processes we hold dear, making them better citizens and more capable of navigating the unparalleled diversity of America.

Remaking High School

The idea that too many of our high schools are outmoded relics in the education landscape is so widely accepted it borders on cliche. Yet,  it’s still true that too little is happening to change them.

We must rebuild high schools into better bridges between middle school and the real world of post-secondary education or careers. Students who attend better high schools - especially students from low-opportunity communities - have outsized gains in life.

It’s not that we lack examples of what better high schools could look like. One visit to schools like Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis or Summit Sierra in Seattle shows the power of personalized learning, interdisciplinary lessons, and clear pathways from high school to college or career. 

These schools are learner-centric and do a great job of differentiating the learning experience for various students in a way that is easier to do at scale with technology and innovative thinking.They offer a glimpse into what is possible for other communities that need help envisioning and creating more engaging, rigorous, and equitable school models that give students a voice in their education. 

None of these opportunity-based policies alone stand out as particularly profound. They are old remedies for old problems. They’ve been around. They aren’t fancy.

And that might be the point. Some of the best things we can do to improve schooling, outcomes, and opportunity aren’t magic. They are tried, true, and hidden beneath our noses.

Chris Stewart

An award-winning writer, speaker, and blogger, Chris Stewart is a relentless advocate for children and families. Based in outstate Minnesota, Chris is CEO of brightbeam, a nonprofit media group that runs campaigns to highlight policies and practices that support thriving kids. He was the founding Director of the African American Leadership Forum, was an elected member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and founded and served as the CEO of Wayfinder Foundation. Above all, Chris is a serial parent, a Minecraft enthusiast, and an epic firestarter on Twitter where he has antagonized the best of them on the political left and right. You’ll often see Chris blogging at and “tweeting” under the name “Citizen Stewart.”

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