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For most of my career, I’ve worked toward creating access for children who have historically been excluded from high-caliber educational experiences in education and technology. I believe that if we can open up access to these experiences, it will serve as a vital step toward resolving the inherent educational inequities in our society.
In talent development programs I worked in at MIT and Duke University, children had academic experiences that changed their personal trajectories. Yet I learned that education and enrichment programs can only do so much.
We have more than gaps in achievement to overcome. There is something far more harmful and insidious. I call it the opportunity embargo, which encompasses all the injustices and inequalities that students and young people face outside of the classroom, such as political disenfranchisement.
To solve this complex challenge, we need to create solutions that combine creative learning tools, educational supports and, most importantly, broad policy changes to eliminate the root causes of the inequalities impacting our young people.
The opportunity embargo is different from the opportunity gap, which involves the unequal and inequitable distribution of educational results and benefits.
Embargos usually refer to government orders to restrict commerce or block the exchange of goods with another nation. The intent of these punitive measures is to isolate a country and create difficulties for its governing body.
I use the term opportunity embargo to describe the barriers that isolate and block Black, Hispanic, Native American and low-income students from accessing the experiences and resources that lead to success in school and life.
Education and enrichment programs can only do so much. We have more than gaps in achievement to overcome.
These barriers are not new. The opportunity embargo is deeply rooted in our historical laws, policies and beliefs, and continues to create socioeconomic and racial injustices throughout our society. By simply focusing on closing educational achievement gaps, we continue to neglect the millions of children whose potential is actively blocked.
I have come to recognize that what the Equality of Educational Opportunity Study, known as the Coleman Report, found over 55 years ago is still true today. Socioeconomic factors play a much stronger influence on children’s academic achievement than do schools.
In fact, school experiences appear to exert relatively little influence, explaining just 10 to 20 percent of the differences in student outcomes. Effective schools can mitigate social inequality, but they govern only a fraction of students’ lives and eventual outcomes.
Instead, the deep-rooted impact of the opportunity embargo on families, communities and students has a much greater influence on their future.
Simply adding more money to schools is unlikely to increase educational equity. We need to create policies at the local and national levels that address the root causes of the inequalities, like the impact of historical redlining which purposely kept Black communities from having access to the same resources as white communities.
Some of those resources can be fostered within. For example, in 1981, education expert Jean Anyon documented how class plays a role in the type of education students receive. Anyon observed that students from wealthier families had more opportunities to engage in creative and autonomous learning, while students from less wealthy families received procedural, rote instruction.
When schools do not center creative learning, students have fewer opportunities to develop key problem solving and critical thinking skills — this places them at a tremendous disadvantage compared to their peers when navigating college and careers.
Thus, we also need tools and programs that deliver equity in helping children build creative problem-solving and computational thinking skills.
We’re engaging in this work at the Scratch Foundation, the nonprofit organization I direct, where children use creative coding to express and share their ideas with the world, using stories, games, animation and many other tools.
We know that there is much more work to do, but by launching coding studios with grassroots organizations around the world, we are creating more equitable opportunities. Open-source, creative learning tools are one of the best strategies we have for opening access to creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and other essential skills.
These kinds of initiatives put us in a better position to reduce the social and economic barriers and inequities that marginalized communities still face. Through more engagement in creative learning, both in and out of schools, children from all communities will have opportunities to lead the change they want to see in the world.
Shawna Young is a leader in equitable education with over 20 years of experience in education, and the executive director of the Scratch Foundation.
This story about educational equity was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.