Harvard University economics professor Roland Fryer. "The position of U.S. black students is truly alarming, " he writes.
Before Deval Patrick '78, J.D. '82, was the popular and successful two-term governor of Massachusetts, before he was managing director of high-flying Bain Capital, and long before he was Harvard's most recent Commencement speaker, he was a poor black schoolchild in the battered housing projects of Chicago's South Side.
The odds of his escaping a poverty-ridden lifestyle, despite innate intelligence and drive, were long. So how did he help mold his own narrative and triumph over baked-in societal inequality?
"Education has been the path to better opportunity for generations of American strivers, no less for me, " Patrick said in an email when asked how getting a solid education, in his case at Milton Academy and at Harvard, changed his life.
"What great teachers gave me was not just the skills to take advantage of new opportunities, but the ability to imagine what those opportunities could be. For a kid from the South Side of Chicago, that's huge."
If inequality starts anywhere, many scholars agree, it's with faulty education. Conversely, a strong education can act as the bejeweled key that opens gates through every other aspect of inequality, whether political, economic, racial, judicial, gender- or health-based.
Simply put, a top-flight education usually changes lives for the better. And yet, in the world's most prosperous major nation, it remains an elusive goal for millions of children and teenagers.
Plateau on Educational Gains
The revolutionary concept of free, nonsectarian public schools spread across America in the 19th century. By 1970, America had the world's leading educational system, and until 1990 the gap between minority and white students, while clear, was narrowing.
But educational gains in this country have plateaued since then, and the gap between white and minority students has proven stubbornly difficult to close, says Ronald Ferguson, adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and faculty director of Harvard's Achievement Gap Initiative. That gap extends along class lines as well.
In recent years, scholars such as Ferguson, who is an economist, have puzzled over the ongoing achievement gap and what to do about it, even as other nations' school systems at first matched and then surpassed their U.S. peers. Among the 34 market-based, democracy-leaning countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States ranks around 20th annually, earning average or below-average grades in reading, science, and mathematics.
By eighth grade, Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. noted last year, only 44 percent of American students are proficient in reading and math. The proficiency of African-American students, many of them in underperforming schools, is even lower.
Education Gap: The Root of Inequality
Education may be the key to solving broader American inequality, but we have to solve educational inequality first. Ferguson says there is progress being made, there are encouraging examples to emulate, that an early start is critical, and that a lot of hard work lies ahead. But he also says, "There's nothing more important we can do."
"The position of U.S. black students is truly alarming, " wrote Fryer, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics, who used the OECD rankings as a metaphor for minority standing educationally. "If they were to be considered a country, they would rank just below Mexico in last place."
Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James E. Ryan, a former public interest lawyer, says geography has immense power in determining educational opportunity in America. As a scholar, he has studied how policies and the law affect learning, and how conditions are often vastly unequal.