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Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America
Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Mary Louise Lennon, and Anita Sands

Looking to the Future: Developing a Framework for Action

The … vision is of a society where the gap between the haves and have-nots has been narrowed, where there is a sense of shared destiny, a common commitment to opportunity and fairness.... This vision is the only one that is consistent with our heritage and values. In it the well-being of our citizens – and even our economic growth, especially if properly measured –will be much higher than what we can achieve if our society remains deeply divided.

Joseph Stiglitz, "The Price of Inequality" 112

The landscape of opportunity in America today is not simply the result of forces beyond our control. Certainly, globalization and technological innovation will continue to accelerate and both will reshape workplaces and the labor markets attached to them. As a result, both as individuals and as a nation, we will need to continually adapt to rapidly changing economic and social contexts. But the stratified nature of opportunity, with access that varies based on economic status, geographic location, and race and ethnicity, has been strongly impacted by a range of choices made over time by policy makers at all levels of government, as well as by corporations and individuals. To take just one example, residential segregation by race and class – which leads to differential housing, neighborhood resources, and school quality – has been driven by weak enforcement of antidiscrimination policies as well as exclusionary zoning practices that allow affluent areas to prevent any incursion of affordable-housing units into their neighborhoods.113

The fact that access to opportunity has, in some part, been driven by such policies can be viewed as good news; if we have chosen our way into this predicament, we can choose to work our way out. At the same time, the combination of forces that are driving the disparities in opportunity and divergence in outcomes are very powerful and, to this point, only weakly opposed. To develop sufficiently strong countervailing forces represents a major challenge. It will require a coherent and sustained effort on the part of all – individuals, community organizations and associations, nongovernmental organizations, religious institutions, business, and government at all levels – with each playing the role for which it is most suited. Further, in order to be successful, this effort must focus on a set of clearly defined goals, follow a flexible, strategic plan for how to achieve those goals, and generate a set of feasible indicators that can meaningfully track progress. In this larger context, the Opportunity in America project has a specific, but ambitious, goal.

The Goal

Evidence clearly shows that increasing disparities in opportunity and the resulting gaps in human and social capital have significant impacts on both adult outcomes and the transmission of opportunity from one generation to the next. The long-term goal of this project is to help catalyze a national conversation on the necessity of taking actions that would substantially reduce those differences in opportunity. We want to see many more children, irrespective of the circumstances in which they are born and grow, develop critical skills and enrich their social capital, enabling them to reach their full potential as workers, parents, community members, and citizens. Ideally, this would require us to address not only the disparities in opportunity for future generations of children, but also the widening gaps in educational, social, and economic outcomes of the current generation of students and adults.

Evidence clearly shows that increasing disparities in opportunity and the resulting gaps in human and social capital have significant impacts on both adult outcomes and the transmission of opportunity from one generation to the next.

Strategic Planning

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Source: Educational Testing Service

We most certainly do not have to start from scratch to work toward this goal. All across the country, people are taking action. Some efforts are national in scope, some are regional, and many are local. They involve various combinations of individual and group efforts as well as government departments and agencies at different levels.

A first and crucial step, then, is to learn about existing, independent efforts to counter disparities in opportunity. This involves studying these efforts in order to devise strategies that would broaden their reach and improve their effectiveness, identifying areas that are not being well addressed and, most importantly, determining how such efforts – both existing and new – can be woven together into more comprehensive approaches for clearing the pathways to opportunity. Given the challenges inherent in counteracting disparities in opportunity that have evolved over the last four decades, we propose a framework for action organized around five key principles.

Principle 1: Interventions must be implemented systematically across the life span

All too often, interventions are applied at single transition points in an individual's life. Examples include preschool programs to foster cognitive development or career readiness curricula for high school seniors. These efforts may be quite effective according to certain indicators but, too often, their long-term impact is attenuated. The reason is simple: Human and social capital are not built at a single point in time but, rather, are accumulated over many years as the result of a range of experiences and interactions across multiple contexts.

Human and social capital are not built at a single point in time but, rather, are accumulated over many years as the result of a range of experiences and interactions across multiple contexts.

In terms of interventions focused on improving school achievement, key transition points that may be particularly challenging can be the target of specific attention. Such points include: 

  • kindergarten entry,
  • the midpoint of elementary school (around fourth grade) when instruction shifts from developing reading skills to using reading skills to gain information,
  • the transition to middle school and then high school, where youngsters interact with multiple teachers, their decisions about what classes to take have important consequences, and their peer groups take on increasing importance in their lives, and
  • moving beyond high school, as young adults must make decisions about higher education, pursuing job possibilities, and becoming active members in their communities.

Meaningful access to opportunity, therefore, must involve a systematic effort that spans the developmental trajectory from birth to early adulthood – creating a positive cycle that supports the accumulation of human and social capital.

Principle 2: Interventions must be systemic, drawing on all relevant stakeholders and institutions

In addition to, and because of, the need for a systematic effort to open successive gates to opportunity, it is essential to adopt a systemic approach that encourages, facilitates, and takes advantage of all relevant resources, funders, and providers. Effective solution strategies and implementations cannot simply depend on the efforts of, and utilize resources within, a single organization or system. For example, it is not enough to focus efforts solely on schools, health care providers, or the criminal justice system. Doing so fails to recognize the complexity of the deeply intertwined pathways that lead to the accumulation of human and social capital. Instead, a constellation of stakeholders and institutions must assume responsibility for – and actively work together – to open pathways to opportunity. The enormity of the challenges our nation faces demands an "all hands on deck" philosophy and commitment.

Principle 3: Efforts must be sustainable

In order for a systematic and systemic approach to substantially reduce disparities in opportunity, it is essential to have a level of commitment sufficient to sustain the associated policies and interventions over a long period of time. The differential transmission of advantage and disadvantage evident in America today evolved over the past several decades. Accordingly, it will take a comprehensive, sustained effort over at least a generation or two to substantially reduce disparities in opportunity – an effort grounded in a broadly based, shared commitment to a more equal America.

Given the prevalence of partisan politics and the impact of changing priorities across political cycles, sustaining such a movement requires mobilization of a broad public constituency in order to assure long-term program viability, funding, and political commitment. As Jennifer O'Day and Marshall Smith explain, this requires both a "grass tops" and "grass roots" approach.114 The former focuses on establishing a coalition among movement leaders with an aim to "build an infrastructure for identifying shared interests and maintaining a focus on addressing inequities across changes in . . . political environments." Equally important are grass-roots organizing efforts to establish a shared community vision, gather data, and collect information about problems from local groups that represent community interests and perspectives. Grass-roots coalitions help maintain a focus on key goals across changes in leadership or conditions.

Principle 4: A strategy of continuous improvement must guide initiatives

In a long-term effort, no single, fixed initiative can carry the burden of change. Rather, in view of the complexity of the challenge and a constantly shifting environment, a strategy of continuous improvement must be implemented. This approach, in which incremental modifications are made over time, involves establishing networks to support collaboration and providing a forum so that providers, system participants, researchers, and funders can learn from each other, as well as from the mistakes and failures that most certainly will occur.115 Those modifications should be informed both by evidence from a particular site and by evidence from other, similar sites.116

Principle 5: Efforts must be adaptable to local contexts

There most certainly is no "one size fits all" approach to closing the gaps in human and social capital that we see today. Adaptive flexibility will be an essential characteristic of any intervention effort. The specific problems to be tackled, the range of resources available, and the constraints in a particular context will vary across communities and regions. As Adam Gamoran urged, we need to move beyond "what works to what works for whom and under what circumstances."117 The economic and workforce challenges presented by emerging technologies and globalization vary by industry and may require different approaches in one region or locality than in another. Social challenges also vary by location and across racial and ethnic groups. Effective initiatives must involve the negotiation and integration of the perspectives of stakeholders with different backgrounds, experiences, and expertise, with a focus on bringing them to the point of coherent, collective action.

Monitoring Progress

A long-term action agenda employing a continuous improvement strategy requires the establishment of a set of milestones representing intermediate goals and the construction of a set of indicators that can be used to monitor progress toward those goals. As Richard Reeves explains, "Indicators are necessary to guide policy, drive data collection strategies, and measure progress."118 Ideally, the indicators will incorporate both quantitative and qualitative evidence. The milestones and the indicators should be based on research and findings from practice regarding relevant aspects of opportunity, as well as the various dimensions of human and social capital. Some indicators will be tuned to the specifics of local and regional strategies, and others may be more national in scope. Indeed, it may be useful to construct one or more composite indicators modeled on the Consumer Price Index, which facilitates tracking changes in prices over time by defining a standardized market basket of consumer goods and services.


112 Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).

113 Ibid.  For the role of historical policies that supported racial residential segregation, see Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010); and Massey and Tannen, "Segregation, Race."

114 O'Day and Smith, "Systemic Problems."

115 Ibid.

116 See examples at the Collective Impact Forum,

117 Gamoran, Future of Educational Inequality.

118 Richard Reeves, "How Will We Know?  The Case for Opportunity Indicators," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016).