Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools

By 12/05/2012

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This wonky but important (and exceptionally timely) book by Bill Schmidt, a Michigan State “university distinguished professor,” and Curtis McKnight, an emeritus math professor at the University of Oklahoma, is a distinctive, deeply researched, and amply documented plea for full-scale implementation of the Common Core math standards. The authors reach that destination after taking readers on a fascinating curricular journey.

They closely examine the extent to which young Americans in various states, districts, schools, and classrooms have equal opportunities to learn the same high-quality math content in grades K–8—and find grievous gaps and injustices.

One might suppose that this most hierarchical and standardized of core subjects would yield the greatest uniformity from place to place within the United States. Critics of national curricula (and the Common Core) periodically declare that NAEP, the textbook oligopoly, the NCTM, and college-entrance exams have caused math curricula to be very similar across the land.

Schmidt and McKnight, however, show conclusively that this presumption is false. And they link the variation they identified in content coverage and delivery to the country’s vexing achievement gaps, its deteriorating social mobility, and its generally weak educational performance. Here are a few excerpts from the book’s alarming—and stirring—final chapter:

The inequalities in content coverage begin with the state and local community in which a child is to attend school…and continue with the neighborhood school to which the child is assigned. Furthermore, two children, even from the same family and attending the same school but with different teachers for each of the first five grades, are not likely to have the same learning opportunities….A topic can be covered or not covered. Topics can be studied in different sequences, some of which may not make any sense from the point of view of the content itself. Students can receive more or less time for instruction, depending on the teacher’s decision. All of these differences in content coverage can be found in the varying experiences of children from different families who live in different regions of the state or country…

Further complicating the expression of clear and coherent intentions for classroom content coverage is that textbooks and tests instantiate their own sense of which topics should be learned…

For U.S. children, the nation is by no means indivisible. The data we presented…show the extent to which the nation’s children are divided by different content exposures in mathematics and science. These content learning opportunities define the core of schooling. Since there are so few guarantees for equivalent learning opportunities, public schooling has become more like a game of chance. It clearly does not embody “equality for all,” but instead “inequality for all.”

Uniform standards such as those in the Common Core won’t solve this set of problems in and of themselves. But without such standards, it’s not likely ever to be solved.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Comment on this article
  • David Britten says:

    Why would this be limited to public schooling as the study authors indicate? And furthermore, who in their right mind would ever think that human nature could be turned into robotic teaching to the point that every student would hear or learn exactly the same thing? Even McDonald’s which prides itself on consistency provides varying levels of service and product depending on where you go and who’s working that day. The entire premise and findings of this research are a waste of time and probably tax dollars.

  • Michael Caution says:

    Instead of uniformity and “equality of opportunity” how about freedom? I would think it’s not so much the content that defines an education but the method of instruction that is key. An education is supposed to prepare a child for the rest of their life. It teaches them the method so that when confronted with new/different info and content they can integrate it easily with what they already know, thus expanding their knowledge. Education should be privatized to allow for complete freedom in learning. There needs to exist a wall of separation between school and state for the protection of individual rights just like the church.

  • JB says:

    David and Michael have stolen some of my thunder. Anyway, I am of the opinion that the “achievement gap” is not only make work for lawyers and the educrats but a loaded term designed to suck the emotion and money out of the body politic.

  • MC says:

    I’m going to guess that the three comments above are from non-teachers. As a math teacher, I want to know that certain topics were covered before a student gets to me in high school. I work in a fairly affluent area with highly rated schools and I can’t even count on students knowing certain concepts before they step in my classroom. Students don’t need to learn in the exact same way, but there are a number of concepts that they all do need to know and my job as a teacher is to prepare them to be college ready. Whether or not they choose to go is up to them, but at least they will be life/job ready. Guidance on which topics should be taught in which grade levels is critical. Otherwise teachers will teach what they are most comfortable with and ignore other topics. Why do you think that other countries are kicking our A$$ in math and science? Our current math standards teach some of the same concepts over a three year period. If students are focused on a topic at a particular grade level and really learn the concept, then there is no reason for them to see the topic again and again. The Common Core will help bring the needed focus. The CC does not teach kids to be robots. It teaches them how to be better thinkers and problem solvers.
    And by the way, I’m sucking 7% less out of the body politic this year due to my work year being cut 10 days.

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