Giving all American kids an equal opportunity to learn is the key to getting the country’s education system on the right track, write Drs. William Schmidt and Curtis McKnight in their new book Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools. One of the biggest challenges facing the country’s education system at the moment are the achievement gaps between students from high-income families and their less well-off peers. This discrepancy also translates to their schools, where rich communities can pitch in to make up the shortfall in funding plaguing all school districts, and therefore can provide for their children a better classroom environment.
The biggest factor that contributes to the growing achievement gap is the plague of low expectations. Children from minority or low-income backgrounds typically tackle curriculum that is less challenging, especially in the subjects of mathematics and English. That means that even if the students are prepared and eager to learn, they will not get the opportunities to tackle topics typically taught as a matter of course in schools in more affluent districts. Even if the schools have a mixed student body, serving a large percentage of both poor and rich students, typically it is the minority and low-income students who end up the victims of “tracking,” which the authors describe as practice of assigning students on weaker classrooms. As the students progress from grade to grade, in these tracked sections, they inevitably fall more and more behind kids on their grade who are routinely exposed to more rigorous content.
The importance of differences in instruction among classrooms underscores the essential role of teachers. Schmidt and McKnight are quick to note that it is unfair to simply blame teachers for struggling schools. They present strong evidence that too many teachers are inadequately prepared to teach mathematics and are forced to pick and choose what to teach from the conflicting guidance of textbooks, state standards and assessments. The authors are especially critical of the most commonly used mathematics textbooks. Many of these give shallow coverage to too many subjects rather than focusing on a few key topics at each grade, as is done in higher-achieving countries.
The solution to this issue could come in the form of the controversial Common Core Standards, the curriculum developed by academic experts and education representatives from all over the country. States that choose to adopt standards that conform with CCS will be able to lay down minimum standards for their schools rigorous enough that even students who don’t do any advanced work will, at least, be exposed to concepts that would make them competitive after graduation.