Five Miles Away, a World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America. James E. Ryan. Oxford, 2010. Pp viii, 384.

Equal educational opportunity remains elusive within the United States. The nation’s education landscape reveals that too often students’ backgrounds and where they live determine the quality of educational opportunities that they receive. Although most within the United States profess a strong commitment to equal opportunity and to providing everyone access to an excellent education, substantial and influential disparities in school quality are commonplace. Our nation is home to many substandard schools attended disproportionately by poor and minority schoolchildren and these schools offer students inferior educational, career, and postsecondary opportunities when compared to the opportunities provided to students in many affluent and majority white schools.3 Many schoolchildren receive educational opportunities that do not prepare them to succeed in postsecondary education or work. Many students also are more likely to attend school with those who look like themselves than with those from different racial or ethnic backgrounds and thus leave school without the tools that they will need to engage effectively in the diverse world in which they will live. For example, the average white student attends a school in which approximately 83 percent of the students are white, while the average minority student attends a majority-minority school, and approximately one-third of black and Latino students attend schools that are 90 to 100 percent minority. 

Our nation also obtains poor outcomes from our education system. Approximately 30 percent of high school students fail to graduate from high school on time, and blacks and Hispanics fail to finish high school and fail to finish on time at higher rates than whites. Furthermore, graduation rates for high school are falling rather than rising. In 2009, approximately 25 percent of twelfth graders that were tested did not read at a basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP reading scores for twelfth graders have declined overall since 1992, and the racial achievement gap in reading has not improved since 1992. Similarly, approximately 36 percent of the tested twelfth graders scored below basic on the NAEP mathematics assessment. Although twelfth grade math scores have improved since 2005, the racial achievement gap in math has remained the same.

Schoolchildren in substandard schools and their families are not the only ones that experience and live with the harmful effects of the current inequities in our nation’s schools. Research establishes that the nation pays a high price tag for substandard schools. For instance, the nation loses $156 billion in tax and income revenues over the lifetime of each annual cohort of eighteen-year-old high school students who fail to graduate from high school. Similarly, the nation experiences higher health care costs for its substantial high school dropout rate because “[e]ach and every annual cohort of high school dropouts represents a cost of $23 billion in public funds and $110 billion in forfeited health and longevity.” The nation would save $1.4 billion annually from reduced criminal activity by raising the high school completion rate by 1 percent for males between ages twenty and sixty. Improving educational attainment for high school graduates also could save between $7.9 and $10.8 billion in welfare assistance, food stamps, and housing assistance. Therefore, investments in reducing educational inequities and increasing educational attainment would not only create a more just and equitable society and enhance the ability of individuals to reach their full potential, it also would yield substantial benefits and revenue savings to the nation at a time when it is struggling to reduce the national debt. Improving educational opportunities and outcomes also would increase participation in the political process and civic involvement.

The undeniable costs associated with low-quality schools and substantial disparities in educational opportunity throughout the United States raise an important question: Why does equal educational opportunity remain an unfulfilled promise within the United States (p 1)? After all, the nation’s highest court declared in Brown v Board of Education that “education is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Since Brown and the efforts to desegregate public schools, education reformers have used a variety of tools to reduce the pervasive inequality within US schools, including school desegregation, school finance litigation, school choice, and most recently the standards and accountability movement. Despite these efforts, inequality in educational opportunities remains stubbornly entrenched throughout the nation (p 1).

James Ryan, one of the nation’s most highly regarded education law and policy scholars, has written an eloquent, comprehensive, and thoroughly researched book, Five Miles Away, a World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America, that seeks to explain why more than half a century of school reform has failed to make the promise of equal educational opportunity a reality (p 1). He captures and critiques how our nation arrived at the point at which schools that offer disparate opportunities and that too often educate students of different races exist only a short distance from each other (pp 3–14). He analyzes this complex history while also tracing the impact of school reform efforts on two Richmond, Virginia, high schools that exist only five miles apart but that offer different worlds to the students who attend the schools (p 2). Ryan weaves together a compelling story that explains why the nation has failed to achieve equal educational opportunity, including why disparities in educational opportunity exist between Thomas Jefferson High School, which educates mostly poor and minority students in Richmond, Virginia, and Freeman High School, which primarily educates white, middle-class students in nearby suburban Henrico County (pp 1–2).