Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools
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
Everywhere you look these days, someone is running down the Common Core. One of the most frequent critiques comes from those who argue that the CCSS “mandate” the percent of time that English teachers must spend on nonfiction and who worry that this requirement will force educators to replace Shakespeare and Twain with technical manuals and bus schedules. It’s one of those lines that’s apparently “too good to fact check” because the deeper you dig, the more it unravels. Here are the facts:
First, it’s literally wrong. Nowhere do the CCSS “mandate” the percent of time ELA teachers need to spend on nonfiction. In fact, the reference to the balance of fiction and nonfiction in the classroom specifically warns,
The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.
It’s hard to imagine the authors being clearer on this point. Yet commentators on all sides of the debate regularly—and mistakenly—claim that the CCSS wants to see literature in ELA classrooms go the way of the dinosaur. Even as recently as this weekend, New York Times education writer Sara Mosle wrongly claimed that the Common Core pushes for up to 70 percent of time in 12th grade English classrooms be devoted to reading nonfiction titles. (To Mosle’s
The American Legislative Exchange Council, a useful group of mostly conservative state legislators, wrestled for months over the "Common Core" state standards for English language arts and math. Critics of those standards feared homogenization of curriculum and excessive federal interference in K-12 education. Supporters noted that adopting and implementing the Common Core is up to individual states in any case, that greater rigor in what American kids learn in school is desirable, and that comparability and predictability across state lines in these two core subjects has much to be said for it in a mobile society situated on a shrinking and ever more competitive planet.
After due deliberation, this past weekend ALEC's "Legislative Board of Directors" voted to remain neutral on the issue, thereby not pressuring its members and states in either direction. This was the logical outcome for a group that generally respects state sovereignty in realms such as education. Many questions remain to be answered about Common Core implementation and the as-yet-unseen assessments (and "cut scores") now under development, and it's absolutely proper for individual states to handle this differently. As ALEC's high command eventually concluded, it would not be proper for a national organization to try to sway them—any more than it's proper for Uncle Sam to do so. He hasn't always resisted the temptation. It's good that ALEC did.
In 1972, Yale sociologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink.” It was a way of describing the group dynamics that occasionally lead smart, thoughtful, and well-intentioned people to make catastrophically bad decisions. What I have often wondered is, what would Janis make of the decisions being made by today’s education reform leaders?
Does education reform, like JFK's White House, suffer from groupthink?
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Janis, who passed away in 1990, focused much of his research on the meetings and conversations that preceded several key presidential decisions, including those that led President Kennedy and the best and brightest “whiz kids” he brought into his administration to move forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion—an American-supported attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba that was, by all accounts, a spectacular failure. In the end, Janis concluded that Kennedy’s biggest failure was not the final decision, but rather the process he and his advisors followed to get there. Most importantly, he felt that they failed to have open, critical conversations that might have pushed them to rethink their assumptions, and that individuals within the group failed to either voice their own concerns, because they felt there was already consensus, or listen to objections that would have helped them reshape the invasion plan.
About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
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