Toward equality of educational opportunity: What’s most promising?



A longtime advocate for equity in education looks back over 50 years of efforts to improve the nation’s schools, describing the pros and cons of three main reform strategies.


I was the beneficiary of an excellent education provided by the Boston Public Schools, where I attended my neighborhood elementary school and the academically demanding Boston Latin School, home to some of the finest teachers in the city. I was acutely aware, though, that many of my peers were not so fortunate. I graduated from high school in 1959, when the struggle to desegregate schools across the South dominated the news. However, it was obvious that even in my Northeastern city, students received dramatically different educational opportunities depending on the school they happened to attend and the teachers to whom they were assigned. While I certainly did not recognize it at the time, these observations about unequal education and uneven teaching quality would shape my career and my hopes for America’s schoolchildren.

Over a number of decades, I have worked to promote broader access to high-quality teaching and other resources in our public schools. During this time, the struggle for equity in K-12 education has employed at least three different reform strategies. Today’s reformers would do well to review this history so that they can build a better future informed by experience about what works, what does not work, and what remains to be tried.

  1. Equity lawsuits: Some success

Fifty years ago — in my book, Rich Schools, Poor Schools: The Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity (Wise, 1969a) and a companion article in Kappan (Wise, 1969b) — I suggested, for the first time, that inequities in public school funding across the country were so egregious that, if tested in the courts, they would be found unconstitutional.

My argument was a logical extension of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “egalitarian revolution in judicial doctrine.” During the 1950s and ’60s, the Court — then led by Chief Justice Earl Warren — ruled that the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause extends to all U.S. citizens, overriding local and state laws in a number of areas. In education (most notably in Brown v. Board of Education), equal protection had been extended to Black students; in criminal justice, it had been extended to indigent defendants; and in voting, it had been extended to citizens whose votes, depending on geography, were given less than equal value. Thus, I argued the revolution should also be extended to students in poorly funded school districts. In keeping with the Court’s decisions over the preceding two decades, disparities in educational funding should be understood to violate students’ equal protection under the law, denying them equal educational opportunity.

Embracing this judicial strategy, advocates for impoverished school districts filed lawsuits against a number of states for their failure to provide sufficient funds to compensate for their meager local tax bases. Several initial efforts, in 1969 and 1970, came up short, but they were followed quickly, in 1971 and 1972, by successful legal challenges to school funding disparities in Texas, California, and New Jersey. Faster than anyone could have predicted, the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1973, ruled on an appeal by the State of Texas of a district court decision (in the case of San Antonio v. Rodriguez) that held in favor of a group of parents from the low-income Edgewood School District, who had sued on the grounds that the state’s K-12 financing system was unconstitutional.

However, since Justice Warren’s retirement a few years earlier, the Supreme Court had become more conservative. Rejecting its earlier, broad interpretation of the 14th Amendment, it ruled (in a 5-4 decision) that the funding disparities in Texas did not violate the Equal Protection Clause because the U.S. Constitution nowhere defines a fundamental right to education. Thus, if San Antonio’s wealthy Alamo Heights district spent $558 per year on every student while nearby Edgewood could only afford to spend $248 per student, then so be it; the Court saw no grounds upon which to prevent states from providing public education that varied in quality depending on the amount of taxable wealth in each school district.

But while the Court found no right to equitable school funding in the U.S. Constitution, advocates could still make the case that school funding disparities violate states’ own constitutions. Indeed, just 13 days after the Rodriguez decision, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled against that state’s school finance system. Parents and advocacy groups in many other states took note of this victory.  They commenced a wave of lawsuits meant to ensure that school districts receive equitable school funding or at least the amount of funding necessary to provide a “minimally adequate education” as promised in state constitutions or state laws. The suits continue to the present, with a notable 2018 victory for plaintiffs in Kansas.

In the meantime, advocates have not given up on finding a basis for equitable funding in the U.S. Constitution that could be used to override unfair state financing systems. For instance, the Supreme Court acknowledged that it might have ruled differently in the Rodriguez case if “some identifiable quantum of education” could be shown to be necessary for the meaningful exercise of the constitutionally protected rights of free speech and voting. Presumably, if it can be empirically demonstrated that K-12 funding disparities harm these protected rights, then the Court could intervene.

As a consequence, the standards and accountability movement may have exposed states to a new wave of adequacy lawsuits. If test scores and other measures show that inadequate state funding prevents students from achieving state standards, especially those connected to free speech and civic participation, then federal remedies may be in order. (Recently, a district court judge dealt a setback to this strategy, ruling against a group of parents who had sued the State of Michigan on the grounds that its oversight of Detroit’s public schools had created conditions that undermined their children’s “access to literacy;” see Fortin, 2018. However, this early defeat does not seem to have deterred advocates.)

Where do things stand today? In much of the country, significant funding gaps persist between rich and poor districts, but there is also some good news. Over the last 50 years, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in state and local education spending overall, with the average annual expenditure per student climbing from $400 to $11,000 (an increase that goes well beyond inflation). Further, some states have made progress toward more equitable funding systems. For example, in its 2018 Quality Counts report, Education Week notes that Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming have recently made significant gains in equity and spending.

Equity lawsuits have had positive effects. Without them, school funding would likely be even less equitable than it is today, and it would certainly be less transparent. Prior to the lawsuits, spending formulas were quietly devised in the back rooms of state legislatures. Now funding formulas are subject to judicial sunshine, and two university centers are able to track and share detailed information about them. One website, SchoolFunding.Info (hosted by Teachers College, Columbia University), reports that between 1973 and 2017, plaintiffs won 27 of these lawsuits and states won 22, while 12 cases are pending. And the Education Law Center at Rutgers University reports that, as of 2017, a handful of states provided significantly more funding to districts where student poverty is highest. However, 21 states, up from 14 the year before, operate regressive plans, providing less funding to districts with higher concentrations of low-income students. That is clearly a move in the wrong direction.

What are we to conclude? The yin and the yang of legislative action and inaction and court action and inaction continue as the search for an equitable and sustainable solution continues. Legislatures respond unevenly to court decrees, sometimes fully complying with rulings for equity or adequacy and sometimes not; sometimes with new funding formulas that last for years and sometimes with formulas that lose potency over time. Legislatures control the purse strings, so we must recognize the underlying dynamic: They tend to be more responsive to privileged parents in wealthy school districts who want to give their children a competitive edge, even in the public schools.

Advocates must continue to bring lawsuits against unfair school funding schemes while, at the same time, keeping in mind that a favorable court decision is just the first step toward a more equitable system. And we must be on the lookout for new state and federal policy levers with which to move funds toward the students and schools that most need them; we must argue for principles that will capture public and political attention (e.g., the right to read, the right to an education, education as a civil right); and we must help our neighbors and elected officials to understand that unless we provide greater and more equitable educational opportunities, many of our children will be doomed to a jobless future, and our nation as a whole will suffer civic and economic losses.

  1. Standards and accountability: A failed strategy

In the mid-1970s, I became concerned that advocates pushing for higher standards and tougher accountability were hijacking the movement to promote equity in school funding. The use of achievement testing was on the rise, and some saw these tests as a way to push schools to ensure that students of color and poor students achieved minimum levels of academic competency. To my mind, though, increased testing seemed likely to have a negative effect on teaching and learning in general, without doing much to provide the neediest students with high-quality instruction. Meanwhile, the flurry of activity surrounding standards, accountability, and testing would divert attention from funding inequity.

Still, many advocates felt emboldened by the successes of the 1950s and ’60s. Policy makers and the courts had shown they could improve access to educational opportunities — by ending legal segregation by race, forcing states to direct resources to poor school districts, providing federal funds to schools serving students from low-income families, mandating that schools serve children with special needs, and outlawing formal discrimination against women in educational institutions. Now advocates set out to achieve similar results by persuading policy makers and the courts to mandate educational quality.

Within a few years, many of us became convinced not only that this strategy would not work but that it was pushing education toward much greater centralization and bureaucratization (see Wise, 1979). The trend began at the state level, as policy makers seized upon low-cost strategies based on practices from the business world, such as management-by-objectives, operations analysis, and other kinds of “scientific management.” Soon these ideas morphed into their educational equivalents: mastery learning, behavioral objectives, minimum competency testing, and more (Wise, 1978).

Of course, the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) dramatically ratcheted up this trend to a new level, demanding even more standardized testing along with measures of Adequate Yearly Progress, remedies for low-performing schools, and a top-down compliance-driven approach to management. In schools serving low-performing students, the strategy has bordered on obsession, with preparation for reading and math tests crowding out other subject areas. Even at schools that serve high-performing students, the pressure to raise test scores has led administrators to narrow the curriculum and treat teachers as instruments of the bureaucracy.

Perhaps our schools can provide all students with equal access to the most important educational resource of all: effective classroom instruction.

Failure should have been anticipated. Absent from the strategy was any new approach to teaching and learning, except for the unproven assumption that “if you test it, they will learn” (see Koretz, 2017). Perhaps the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, which rolls back much of the federal government’s role in regulating schools, signals the beginning of the end of this movement. Still, though, it is important to acknowledge that many advocates thought that standards, testing, and accountability would lead to more equitable student outcomes. Though it has been a largely ineffective reform strategy and, in many ways, a destructive one, it is one of the three main strategies in recent decades intended to produce greater equity.

  1. Teacher professionalism: Great promise

What if we made a concerted effort to ensure that all students were taught by fully prepared and qualified professionals? More pointedly, what if poor children and children of color were taught only by fully prepared and qualified professionals rather than a steady stream of unprepared and underprepared beginners, as is now the common practice? And what if we put in place a system of incentives and quality controls to produce a steady supply of such teachers, creating an abundance of practitioners who meet specified professional standards? Then, perhaps, our schools could provide all students with equal access to the most important educational resource of all: effective classroom instruction. We could take a proven giant step toward eliminating the achievement gap.

We have solved similar quality assurance problems in other disciplines by insisting that all practitioners meet high standards before they are allowed to practice. States have long insisted that new doctors, lawyers, and architects meet rigorous professional standards, and, more recently, states have decided to require the same of new psychologists, accountants, physical therapists, and others.

States employ such quality assurance mechanisms in teaching as well, relying on accreditation, licensure, educational requirements, professional standards, advanced certification, and more. Yet, they do so with obvious differences. In teaching, not all preparation institutions must meet rigorous standards. And not all candidates for teaching must meet rigorous standards before being allowed into the classroom. In other words, the teacher credentialing system is rife with loopholes, resulting in a teaching force of varied and uncertain quality.

In the 1980s, a movement to professionalize teaching took off, with a wave of commission reports and other publications calling for ambitious measures to strengthen the field (Wise, 1986a). In my own work, for example, I advocated the creation of state standards boards for teachers (Wise, 1986b) and, with colleagues from the RAND Corporation (Darling-Hammond, Wise, & Klein, 1995), a new approach to teacher licensure. Beginning in 1986, the Holmes Group (mainly comprising the deans of leading schools of education) issued a series of reports calling for stronger teacher preparation in universities and the creation of professional development schools, which would serve as clinical sites for the practical preparation of teachers. Also in 1986, the Carnegie Corporation’s Task Force on Teaching as a Profession issued a call for the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In 1995, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education advanced the Continuum of Teacher Preparation and Quality Assurance, which proposed an alignment of standards and expectations for teacher education, accreditation, licensing, and advanced certification. And in 1996, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future published What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future, offering a comprehensive set of recommendations for ensuring that “every child has the right to a caring, competent, qualified teacher.”

What happened as the result of these calls? We’ve seen some progress but not nearly as much as advocates envisioned. In hindsight, the road to teacher professionalization has been an uphill climb in the face of powerful counterforces. In past decades, teaching was one of the only careers open to women and persons of color; now, teaching must compete for their talents. At the same time, the misguided assumption that “any college graduate can teach” has undermined efforts to establish teaching as a knowledge-based profession. More recently, the pressures of the standards and accountability movement have made teaching less attractive, and the federal and foundation-sponsored push for test-based teacher evaluation, along with challenges to tenure, have undercut teaching’s reputation as secure work. Finally, and most perversely, efforts to raise standards for entry to teaching have coincided with the erosion of teacher salaries in much of the country — over the last 15 years, teacher compensation has steadily declined, now standing 11% below that of other college-educated workers (Allegretto & Mishel, 2018).

In the late 1980s, the number of states with an independent teaching standards board rose to 18, but most have now become “advisory” and lost the ability to enforce rigorous professional expectations. State certification requirements remain in place across the country, but those requirements are elastic, becoming tighter and looser in response to supply and demand. In most states, aspiring teachers must pass an entry-level examination, but only a fraction of them (mostly in states that have adopted the EdTPA model) are required to demonstrate their teaching ability. Since 1990, the majority of the nation’s schools of education have chosen to pursue national professional accreditation, but accreditation remains mostly voluntary, and the numbers are beginning to decline. Since 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has offered national certification to accomplished teachers, but only about 100,000 teachers have been certified to date, far below expectations.

Given how difficult it has proven to professionalize teaching over the last three decades, do we have reason to think that a strategy of raising teaching standards will work? Fortunately, in our 50-state laboratory of democracy, we do have a compelling proof of concept.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Connecticut began to reform its schools. In 1984, Governor William A. O’Neal appointed a Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education, charging it to design a plan for investing $300 million in school improvement (at the time, an unusually large state investment in education reform). The commission concluded that it could best achieve its objectives by raising standards for teaching — i.e., strengthening teacher preparation, certification, induction, career development, and recognition. To balance these more rigorous demands on teachers, the state would offer substantial salary increases and ensure that all districts had sufficient funds to attract and retain the teachers they need. (Full disclosure: I was the chief consultant to the commission.)

Advocates have not given up on finding a basis for equitable funding in the U.S. Constitution.

In 1986, Connecticut’s Education Enhancement Act put these recommendations into action. Immediately, measures to strengthen the profession and enhance teaching quality began to be implemented. Over the next five years, average teacher salaries rose by 62% (not a typo) to become No. 1 in the nation, and the state provided all Connecticut districts with funding to pay those salaries.

In a report on Connecticut’s reforms, the National Education Goals Panel noted these dramatic results, which it attributed to the changes in teacher policy and compensation (Baron, 1999):

  • Connecticut was the top-scoring state in reading on the 1998 4th-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the state that demonstrated the greatest amount of growth from 1992 to 1998.
  • The percentage of 8th graders scoring proficient or better was exceeded by no other state.
  • Connecticut was also the top-performing state in the nation in writing.
  • Connecticut was one of only two states to receive three gold stars from the panel in 1998 for achievement in math and science.
  • A study linking the results of the NAEP with those of the Third International Math and Science Study indicated that, among 41 participating countries, only Singapore would be expected to outperform Connecticut.
  • In 1998, Connecticut’s White students outperformed their national counterparts 55% to 38%, Connecticut’s Black students outperformed their national counterparts 13% to 9%, and Connecticut’s Hispanic students outperformed their national counterparts 17% to 12%.
  • Importantly, these dramatic gains in student achievement were accompanied by an increase in graduation rates, despite increased student poverty and language diversity during this period (Darling-Hammond, 2004).

Remarkably, and in a relatively short time, the state’s more rigorous approach to the teaching profession, its significantly increased teacher compensation, and its equalization of school funding produced measurable results for every student population. By the turn of the millennium, however, Connecticut’s finance and teacher policies began to revert toward the national norm, effectively ending this bold experiment. Clearly, sustaining extraordinary effort over time remains a political challenge. However, Connecticut’s example continues to stand out as a beacon of hope for those seeking meaningful improvements in educational equity. Especially given the growing diversity of America’s schools, other states would be well-advised to consider these strategies to improve the quality of education for all. Efforts to strengthen the teaching profession just might work where other national strategies have failed.

In sum, over the last 50 years, three quite different reform movements have sought to equalize educational opportunity. One of them, school finance equalization, has achieved some success and could lead to much more. A second movement, focusing on test-based accountability, has resulted in the micromanagement of teaching and learning, with few positive educational results. And a third movement has focused on the professionalization of teaching coupled with the guarantee that every child will be taught by a caring, competent, and qualified teacher. This last movement has been pursued to some extent, and with some success, but it has never been fully implemented. I remain optimistic that if it were, the result would be revolutionary. For the first time, poor children and children of color would have the same access to teaching talent as their more fortunate peers.  This reform just might work where others have not. It is based on a proven strategy, and it is not technically difficult. But it will take political courage and perseverance — challenging the status quo is not for the faint of heart.


Allegretto, S. & Mishel, L. (2018). Teacher pay penalty has hit a new high. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Baron, J.B. (1999). Exploring high and improving reading achievement in Connecticut. Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel.

Darling-Hammond, L., Wise, A.E., & Klein, S.P. (1995). A license to teach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2004). Standards, accountability, and school reform. Teachers College Record, 6, 1047-1085.

Fortin, J. (2018, July 4). ‘Access to literacy’ is not a constitutional right, judge in Detroit rules. The New York Times.

Koretz, D. (2017). Testing charade: Pretending to make schools better. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Wise, A.E. (1969a). Rich schools, poor schools: The promise of equal educational opportunity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Wise, A.E. (1969b). Constitutional challenge to inequities in school finance. Phi Delta Kappan, 51, 145-148.

Wise, A.E. (1978). Minimum competency testing: Another case of hyper-rationalization. Phi Delta Kappan, 59 (8), 596-598.

Wise, A.E. (1979). Legislated learning: The bureaucratization of the American classroom. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wise, A.E. (1986a). Three scenarios for the future of teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 67 (8) 649-652.

Wise, A.E. (1986b, October 8). Case for trusting teachers to regulate their profession. Education Week.



Citation: Wise, A.E. (2019). Toward equality of educational opportunity: What’s most promising? Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (8), 8-13.

ARTHUR E. WISE (; @arthurewise) is an education policy consultant based in Potomac, Md. He previously served as associate professor and associate dean of education at the University of Chicago; captain and assistant director of research at the U.S. Military Academy; associate director of the National Institute of Education (a precursor to the Institute of Educational Sciences), director of the RAND Corporation Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession, and president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

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