Is the U.S. a ‘Land of Opportunity’? Part 1

The Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit test developer and research organization committed to advancing quality and equity in education, recently released a report, Choosing Our Future, that examines the ways opportunity is an open door for some children, but all but a locked gate for others.

[Related:Opportunity Nation Says The Next President Can Do These 12 Things To Close Gap]

BE Smart sat down with one of the authors of the report, Irwin Kirsch, director of the Center for Global Assessment at ETS, to delve deeper into some of its disturbing conclusions. Here is the first part of that Q&A.

BE Smart: Why does residential segregation lead to differential housing, neighborhood resources, and school quality in the U.S.?

Kirsch: Developing and refining human and social capital occurs over a lifetime and across many institutions, including families, communities and schools. Education, employment, housing and many other variables — including police protection, health care, and libraries — are largely determined by where we live. For those who live in poor neighborhoods, access to opportunities is severely restricted. Neighborhoods without jobs, and without transportation to where the jobs are, limit prospects for residents, and unsafe living conditions add stress to their lives.

Poorly managed schools with less qualified teachers limit what children learn. A lack of community resources such as parks, grocery stores and medical clinics affect the health and well-being of residents. Confounding this, a lack of beneficial social capital can hinder opportunity, even for those with strong human capital. For example, high-achieving students may not reach their full potential if they are not encouraged or do not have access to individuals and resources that can help them navigate the system to enroll in advanced coursework or apply to and succeed at competitive colleges.

A quote from the report reads: “Education is the key predictor of lifetime earnings.” Yet, most American children are under-educated (according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

Those with higher levels of education have had a growing earnings advantage over the past 50 years. These increasing wage differentials are not due solely to the fact that persons with higher levels of education are surging ahead, but also because others are falling further behind.

However, while much of the discussion of this issue focuses on attainment levels — e.g., the percentage of students graduating from high school and going on to college — we argue for a broader view that focuses on skills. Forces including globalization and technology are driving the demand for greater skills, or human capital, in today’s workplace. Whether we look at the results from the NAEP national assessment of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 (the Program for International Student Assessment) or PISA (an in-school survey of 15-year-olds) or the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, we find an American skills gap.

For the rest of this Q&A, see Part 2 of Report Reassesses U.S. as a ‘Land of Opportunity.’ For information about the Opportunity Project of ETS, go here.