The federal government must make access to a high quality opportunity to learn a federally guaranteed right for every American.

More than 25 years ago, A Nation at Risk detailed the growing inequities and lack of opportunities in our public education system, highlighting the obstacles the United States would have to overcome if these problems were not immediately addressed. Yet, our achievement gap remains at disastrously high levels, as evidenced by the 2009 NAEP Long-Term Trend Data, which showed a 53-point gap in reading proficiency between Black and White 17-year-olds and a 33-point gap in math proficiency between Latino and White 17-year-olds. The Unites States is now paying a hefty price for its opportunity and achievement gap. McKinsey & Company recently estimated that closing the achievement gap between White students and their Black and Latino peers could increase the annual Gross Domestic Product by more than half a trillion dollars.

Collectively, policy makers have spent a great deal of time diagnosing the problem. While human resource and structural reforms are key components to closing the learning gap, just as important to the reform effort is accountability: the development and implementation of outcome and resource accountability standards which guarantee students the resources needed to have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. Reform that is limited to terminating staff or restructuring individual schools may look like progress, but in a larger analysis only benefits a few. We are able to identify today individual high-poverty, high-minority schools where the students are performing well; however, we are not able to identify high-poverty, high-minority districts where students have access to high-quality educational opportunities. We need true reform that changes systems and affects all students, rather than approaches that save a few to make us feel better or allow us to “window dress” our systemic failures. Without access to real, system-wide, high-quality learning opportunities, we can never maximize the effectiveness of public education and achieve full participation in our democracy.

Under our current system, access to some of our nation’s districts or schools brings with it the virtual certainty of high school graduation and access to and success in postsecondary education. Access to other districts or schools within the same states, however, brings near certainty of an education that ends well short of a high school diploma, with little prospect for college or employment with livable wages and the near certain perpetuation of inter-generational poverty.

What is an Opportunity to Learn?

President Barack Obama has established a national goal that by 2020 the United States will be a global leader in post-secondary education. This is a forward-thinking goal. To achieve it, America must produce 16 million more postsecondary credentialed and degree attained students than we otherwise would at our current rate. Achieving this goal will require more than a school-based or systemic tweak. It is only attainable if we are able to improve the educational access and outcomes for those who have been historically disadvantaged because of their race/ethnicity or family income. Without true opportunity for all, particularly for those from historically disadvantaged groups, we can never have a level playing field for learning, achievement, and long-term success.

By measuring opportunities in a systematic way, we can have a clear understanding of the effective use of education resources in our communities. Based on existing research, we know we can provide all students a high-quality, highaccess public education, or an “opportunity to learn,” when all children, regardless of skin color or socioeconomic status, have access to four core resources: 1) high-quality early education; 2) highly qualified teachers and instructors in grades K-12; 3) college preparatory curricula that will prepare all youth for college, work and community; and 4) equitable instructional resources. If we are to provide every student a true opportunity to learn, we must first ensure that all students, even the most disadvantaged, have equal access to the high-quality resources necessary for success. Measuring access to these resources systemically and holding elected officials accountable to ensure all students an Opportunity to Learn is necessary to achieve true “sustainable” reform.

The enormous differences in the Opportunity to Learn for students are illustrated by Figure 1, which ranks the states according to the Opportunity to Learn for disadvantaged students. Figure 1 shows the quality of state educational systems as well as the system’s “Opportunity to Learn Index” or degree of access. Before we can say that all students have an equitable Opportunity to Learn, we must ensure that all students have access to the educational resources and public schools that are preparing the students for success in postsecondary education. Thus, to establish an initial resource access score or “Opportunity to Learn Index (OTLI),” the Schott Foundation defines access as the odds of historically disadvantaged students enrolling in a high school where nearly all students graduate on time and are college ready, when compared to the odds for students not historically disadvantaged.

Furthermore, since access only to poor performing educational systems and resources is equivalent to access denied, the Schott Foundation coupled the OTLI with a “quality” indicator, which is defined as the percentage of each state’s 13-year olds who score at the Proficient or Advanced level on the reading portion of NAEP, “the Nation’s Report Card.” The proficiency and access scores were combined and the states were ranked and placed accordingly into one of four groups:

1. Those states where a “moderate” number of 1. all students achieve national proficiency or above and there is high access to the state’s best schools for students from historically disadvantaged groups (African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and low income students);
2. Those states where a moderate number of students achieve national proficiency or above and there is low access to the state’s best schools for students from disadvantaged groups;
3. Those states where a low number of students achieve national proficiency or above and there is high access to the state’s best schools for students from disadvantaged groups and;
4. Those states where a low number of students achieve national proficiency or above and there is low access to the state’s best schools for students from disadvantaged groups.

Considering that Massachusetts, at 43 percent, leads all states with the highest percentage of students achieving national proficiency or above, it is important to note that as a nation, our performance on measures such as high school graduation or eighth-grade reading are mediocre at best. Furthermore, considering that Louisiana, with a 100 percent OTL Index score, leads all states in access for disadvantaged students to the state’s best performing schools, but only a mere 19 percent of Louisiana students in those schools achieve national proficiency or above, the data indicate as a whole that no state is winning the race toward opportunity for all. Even states identified in this report as “high access”, suffer from extreme issues of segregation or challenges in the quality of education. A “high access” rating in Lost Opportunity is focused on the likelihood that a student from a historically disadvantage group would be enrolled in one of the high resource or best performing schools that state has to offer. However, we recognize that what is a high performing school in one state may fall far short of that measure in another.

This report intentionally notes these interstate inequities to highlight the need for federal action and support. It is a threat to our national interest and individual pursuits for the federal government to passively permit states like Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi, and California to cap the growth of its students by relegating them to an education system that, at best, would be substandard in most states and grossly inadequate by national and international measures. Equally egregious are states like New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio where the educational proficiency is higher than most states, but historically disadvantaged rural and urban students are virtually locked out of those high resource schools and 21st century opportunities.

A review of NAEP data, in particular, shows we have done very little over the past 20 years to close the achievement gap, signifying a general inability for states “alone” to bring true equity to a high quality public educational system for all students. When compared to other industrialized countries on international benchmarks such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) or the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranks poorly on overall quality. Lost Opportunity’s groupings of the states are comparative. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce noted in 2007, there are state leaders and laggards with regard to public education in this country. Those states that are recognized for moderate proficiency or “high” access in Lost Opportunity have gained that recognition because they are “better” in comparison to our proficiency and equity measures as compared to other states across the country. If this data shows anything, it is that there is much room for improvement for every governor, state legislature, state superintendent, and state education agency. No state has found a comprehensive solution when it comes to providing a high-quality, high-access education to every student in the United States.

Figure 1: State OTL Rankings

Rank      State Percent Scoring at or Above National Proficient Equity:  OTLI(1) Proficiency Quartile Equity Quartile Combined
Moderate Proficiency/High Access
1 Vermont 42% 93% 4 4 8
2 Maine 37% 69% 4 4 8
3 New Hampshire 37% 67% 4 4 8
4 Minnesota 37% 56% 4 3 7
5 Oregon 34% 93% 3 4 7
6 Washington 34% 64% 3 4 7
7 Idaho 32% 82% 3 4 7
8 Virginia 34% 61% 3 3 6
Moderate Proficiency/Low Access
9 South Dakota 37% 40% 4 2 6
10 Iowa 36% 39% 4 2 6
11 Connecticut 37% 32% 4 1 5
12 Massachusetts 43% 27% 4 1 5
13 New Jersey 39% 35% 4 1 5
14 Montana 39% 31% 4 1 5
15 Pennsylvania 36% 35% 4 1 5
16 Ohio 36% 26% 4 1 5
17 Colorado 35% 45% 3 2 5
18 Wisconsin 33% 45% 3 2 5
19 Maryland 33% 40% 3 2 5
20 Kansas 35% 33% 3 1 4
21 Nebraska 35% 31% 3 1 4
22 Wyoming 33% 36% 3 1 4
23 North Dakota 32% 35% 3 1 4
24 New York 32% 25% 3 1 4
Low Proficiency/High Access
25 Delaware 31% 73% 2 4 6
26 Utah 30% 64% 2 4 6
27 Alaska 27% 93% 2 4 6
28 Indiana 31% 61% 2 3 5
29 North Carolina 28% 61% 2 3 5
30 Kentucky 28% 60% 2 3 5
31 Florida 28% 57% 2 3 5
32 Oklahoma 26% 81% 1 4 5
33 Hawaii 20% 77% 1 4 5
34 Louisiana 19% 100% 1 4 5
35 New Mexico 17% 68% 1 4 5
36 Georgia 26% 56% 1 3 4
38 Tennessee 26% 54% 1 3 4
37 South Carolina 25% 58% 1 3 4
39 Alabama 21% 59% 1 3 4
40 California 21% 54% 1 3 4
41 Mississippi 17% 58% 1 3 4
Low Proficiency/Low Access
42 Missouri 31% 44% 2 2 4
44 Texas 28% 39% 2 2 4
43 Rhode Island 27% 47% 2 2 4
45 Illinois 30% 37% 2 1 3
46 Michigan 28% 25% 2 1 3
47 Arkansas 25% 52% 1 2 3
48 Arizona 24% 51% 1 2 3
50 Nevada 22% 38% 1 2 3
49 West Virginia 23% 40% 1 2 3
51 District of Columbia 12% 29% 1 1 2

Essentially, only eight states provide almost all of their students regardless of race, ethnicity or family income with an Opportunity to Learn in good schools. More disturbing are the 16 states that provide access to good public schools to some of their students, but essentially restrict other students—primarily Black, Latino, Native American and those from low-income families—to schools where they have little Opportunity to Learn. Most disturbing are the nine states and the District of Columbia that provide neither a moderately proficient school system nor equitable access to the systems' best schools or resources.

(1) OTLI compares the opportunity of students from disadvantaged groups to that of White, non-Latino students for access to those 25 percent of the schools in a state where nearly all students graduate on-time and college ready.  For example, if 40 percent of a state’s White, non-Latino students are enrolled in the top quartile of that state’s schools, and 20 percent of students from disadvantaged groups are given the opportunity to study in such schools, the OTLI is 50 percent: disadvantaged students having half the Opportunity to Learn as White, non-Latino students in that state.

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