US Education Policy

Let’s Not Surrender in the Fight for Educational Opportunity

April 8, 2019  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the following remarks at an event hosted by Yonkers Partners in Education on April 8, 2019 in Yonkers, NY. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

Thank you for that gracious introduction and to all of you for being here. My thanks as well to the Edwin Gould Foundation for hosting us, especially Cindy Rivera Weissblum and Peg Tyre, and to the leadership of Yonkers Partners in Education—Ellen Cutler Levy, Wendy Nadel, Sam Wallis, and David Westin—thank you for all you do to support high-quality educational opportunities for young people in this community and across the country.

It’s always inspiring to be with friends and supporters of education. The Aspen Institute joins you in your commitment to building a free, just, and equitable society—work that requires excellence in education and a commitment to co-create among students, families, teachers, policymakers, philanthropists, and the private sector, an education system second to none.

There is a common theme running throughout the Aspen Institute’s work—a focus on engaging, empowering, and educating young people so that they can develop the greatness within them. To cite just a couple examples:

Our Ascend program seeks to build a “2-Gen” approach to poverty prevention by helping government and the private sector support the aspirations of both lower-income parents and their children—treating the family as a core unit in the building of an equitable society.

Our Education & Society Program just completed a three-year process of developing the report, “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope,” which documents the scientific evidence and educational implications for understanding students’ social and emotional development as the foundation upon which their academic learning is constructed.

Our College Excellence Program is working with dozens of community college presidents to increase graduation rates and employment options, while also leading the Bloomberg-funded American Talent Initiative through which 120 leading colleges and universities have committed to compete together to increase their enrollment of students like those you serve by 50,000 in 2025.

Recently I met this great young man named Trenton through the Institute’s Center for Native American Youth. He’s 20. I asked him, “what have you learned from three years of leadership development in the program?” His answer speaks to the power of what you are doing at YPIE. He said, “I used to think that not voting was an act of rebellion. Now I know it is an act of surrender.”

I know this commitment to engaging and empowering the young sits at the core of your commitments. I was excited to learn that just last week, a YPIE student named Alicia called Ellen, her mentor, to share the good news that she was accepted to five colleges that all happen to be in the American Talent Initiative. Alicia and Ellen have been working together as a team since Alicia was a freshman in high school, brand new to YPIE. That is so exciting—a real person with a real future because of the work of this organization.

As many of you know, however, in America, many young people have Trenton’s and Alicia’s talent and drive, but they don’t have access to an effective, equitable system of education, which includes strong curricula, excellent teachers, effective school leadership, purposeful parent and community participation, high-quality facilities, and a commitment to addressing the structural inequities along with promoting individual success. Educating the people is one of the most important functions of a democracy, of a society of, by, and for the people. One reason why our democracy hasn’t yet built the education system our future demands is because of the prevalence of a few myths I’d like to touch on briefly—knowing that your work represents a proof point that counters these myths so persuasively. In brief, those myths include:

One: We can’t fix public education. Okay, what about places like Newark, Chicago, New York, Nevada, or Louisiana, where some trends are moving in the right direction?

Myth number two: It is simple to fix public education. All we have to do is adopt a single silver bullet solution. Just pay teachers more. Just open more charters. Just implement the common core curriculum. Just provide free college. Sorry, there are many levers we have to pull in a system this big, complex, and important—and never just one.

Myth number three: It would be great to provide more educational opportunities for low-income students, but the talent isn’t there. Besides the fact that that’s a highly prejudicial myth, it is also rebutted by mountains of data. Consider for example the stellar academic performance of the thousands of students funded by Don Graham’s organization, Or consider the major survey by Caroline Hoxby showing that tens of thousands of terrific lower-income students under-match their college opportunities.

The fourth myth is that many lower-income students won’t succeed in college because of a block to their development during their childhood. Another prejudicial myth. One answer to that is to check the research of the Aspen Institute’s Josh Wyner, which shows that lower-income students who enroll in high graduation rate institutions graduate at the same level as their higher-income peers. I know this, too, from the stories of my first-generation students at Franklin & Marshall College who we enrolled at triple the rate between 2011 and 2018 and from whom we saw astonishing achievements, cumulative GPAs, and graduation rates.

The last myth, a newer one, is that college doesn’t offer the value students need today. One counter to that one is the research of colleagues like Anthony Carnevale and Raj Chetty who show that college is a springboard to life in the economic and social mainstream and that today’s tech-fueled global economy requires that America produce many more college-educated students in the future.

Our country faces many challenges—persistent income inequality, soaring polarization and distrust, the disruption of middle-class jobs, and a graying society. The only way to meet these challenges is to follow the YPIE lead and ensure that our rising generations have good access to superb educational opportunities. Providing such access is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do, while turning away and hoping the problem takes care of itself will be, like Trenton said, an act of surrender.

YPIE isn’t surrendering. You are the answer to our national challenge of inequitable access to educational opportunity. I’d like to take a moment to praise the extraordinary work of the YPIE team, and then we’ll have a discussion.

  • This fall, YPIE had its largest class of ninth grade scholars—180 fourteen and fifteen-year-olds brought into the aspirational ecosystem fostered here at YPIE. 180 young people who will have four years of high-quality mentorship and access to and understanding of and excitement for the opportunity available through a college education. That’s extraordinary.
  • Every year, YPIE is working with 1,200 Yonkers students, matching them with mentors and tutors to learn study skills, improve their writing, and develop the “soft skills” that are so important to college and professional success but that aren’t always intuitive.
  • YPIE has been successful—90 percent of YPIE students get into college. Thank you.
  • And YPIE is helping students succeed in college with College Success Program. And it is working. By helping students find the resources and develop the skills to overcome any obstacles they encounter in college, YPIE scholars persist at a 93 percent rate. Thank you.

The work of YPIE is essential—not only to Yonkers, but to the very future of our democracy.

Opportunity matters because education creates freedom, education fosters equality, and education expands justice. It gives individuals the gift of their own abilities and thus the chance to make life-defining personal choices; it gives communities the gift of activated citizens and thus the chance to make life-enhancing collective choices. It gives us the space to move beyond the limits of what we know and imagine what we can become, as individuals, as communities, and as a country. Education frees us to dream the impossible and gives us the intellectual tools and mindsets to make it reality.

Later this evening I’m going to an event with Aspen Institute trustee Anna Deavere Smith about the pipeline from poverty to prison. It is incredibly important that we support educational efforts to help women and men behind bars to be able to learn and grow while in prison and to prepare to return to their families and communities with the empowerment of education. Anna Deavere Smith stands for that equality of opportunity and of hope—and it is impressive that our society is experimenting with a mode of funding the prison education programming of 64 colleges that is called Second Chance Pell.

How essential for our society to use education to offer us a second chance, but let’s not forget something—no parent involved in the YPIE program wants their child to benefit from Second Chance Pell. They want First Chance Educational Excellence. They want us to build the education system that American democracy and our people deserve, like you are working to do.

Thank you, YPIE, for your visionary part in that American imperative.