Review: Opportunity for ALL


 Review of:  Opportunity for ALL:
a framework for quality and equality in education

By Jennifer A. O’Day and Marshall S. Smith.

I was eager to read this book

These authors were instrumental in state reform movements 30 years ago and I wanted to know what they had learned since then.  It turns out they have learned a great deal!  Opportunity for ALL is full to overflowing with best approaches on education quality and equity.

Rich history

Both O’Day and Smith have a long history of work with districts, state and federal agencies and as university researchers.  They are forthright about what has not worked and outline well researched ideas on how we can do better. Two of their biggest findings are on equity and outcomes.


There are no silver bullets on equity.  Educational inequality is neither random nor accidental … it is systemic. Therefore, we need a systemic approach to: grow capacity, provide support, and develop ownership.  “We believe that the focus on equity and social justice for all students must be more explicit, direct and visible.”


To overcome the barriers to equity:

  • Implementation is key; 90% of success quality implementation
  • Context matters; equity initiatives have to fit with what is in place
  • Capacity matters; you have to support skill development
  • Equity is a social process; find early wins and champions
  • Clear expectations; fuzzy directions hamper the process
  • Partners are important; it is hard to do equity alone

Targeted Strategies to Reduce Inequalities

Educational inequality is neither random nor accidental.  Inequality is systemic … so solutions [must] be systematic.” The authors suggest the most promising strategies for reducing inequities:

  • School wide SEL and Positive approaches to discipline
  • Adult culture
  • Student voice
  • Leadership “Most important is visible and committed leadership”
  • Tiered Interventions: RtI; PBIS; MTSS
  • Language skills starting with oral language development
  • Transition points
    • PreK>Kindergarten
    • Grades 3>4
    • Middle School >High School
    • High School>College

Continuous Improvement

The authors say ‘we were wrong’ about outcomes and accountability.  They now see continuous improvement as a far better approach.   The focus on improvement science and creating a culture of improvement is one the strongest parts of Opportunity for ALL.  Although not a ‘how to’ book, they point to a least a dozen districts that are making headway with a collaborative inquiry approach. 

Method = Improvement Science

Keep asking – again and again:

  • What are we trying to improve?
  • How will we know change is an improvement?
  • What change could make an improvement?

Culture = System-wide culture of improvement

  • Continuous improvement … not just annual outcomes
  • Learning from mistakes … not assigning blame
  • Figuring it out … not dictating solutions
  • Internal accountability … not external
  • Social collaborative approach … not individual
  • Root cause analysis … not one size fits all
  • Double loop learning for deep understanding … not simply compliance

Diffusion experts note the “value of finding … positive deviants and then identifying their effective actions to make them visible and actionable to others.  Change, they argue, can be propelled when it is distilled from the action steps of local outliers.

Lessons Learned

  • Success requires linking schools, agencies and community to serve students and families.
  • Equity requires targeting resources and attention … to the underserved students
  • Work on systems … equity and excellence require high quality, well-functioning systems.
  • Keep improving: Learn from failures and persevere for the long haul.
  • Align policy, pressure, support … and persistence

Start!  Start where you have high potential

The Carnegie Foundation recommends:

  • Developing a theory of improvement based on analysis of problem and drivers
  • Testing small starts and improving before going to scale
  • Creating systematic ways to learn from the work

Leadership imperative

The authors, O’Day and Smith, conclude with a call to leadership:

  • We cannot overemphasize the importance of leadership … the coordinating, focusing, and inspiring leadership that helps to create the capacity and motivation for others to act in the interests of all children and communities, particularly those that have been systematically underserved and disenfranchised by a history of discrimination and neglect.
  • We know of no successful equity and improvement effort – be it driven by policy, professional action, or community mobilization – that lacked such champions and leaders.
  • Make no mistake, the struggle for equal opportunity is not a tea party; it requires bucking long-held beliefs and entrenched structures and practices. It seeks to alter power relationships that have been in place for centuries.
  • Courage and the ability to communicate across different perspectives are crucial. Similarly, keep attention focused on the ultimate goals despite setbacks and distractions and keep learning from both success and failure.

Opportunity for ALL

This book by O’Day and Smith, is a great handbook for superintendents, board members and senior staff. This book points to true north – the best places to focus our efforts to improve learning and equity.

  • Reviewed by Larry L. Nyland
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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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