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Inequality in the American Education System


The ultimate test of an educational system is whether it makes sure that every student, whatever their background, is exposed to the content they need to compete in today's society. U.S. schools are failing this most basic test, and in the process wasting the talents of millions of American children - children from all backgrounds. The reality is that, for most students, the education they receive is largely based on chance, making academic opportunities into a kind of lottery - one with profound consequences.

A central challenge in improving America's education system is to guarantee equal opportunity to learn the essential content, skills, problem solving, and reasoning abilities. Reformers on both the left and right have been consumed with equalizing resources, but they too often miss the core of schooling: the instruction of academic content by teachers to students. And it is precisely in the area of the coverage of instructional content that we find large inequalities, especially in mathematics and science - key subjects for future job opportunities and U.S. economic growth.

I don't have the space here to delve into great detail; the full story can be found in my new book Inequality for All, written with Curtis McKnight. What I'd like to do here is highlight a few key points related to the extent and origins of inequalities in mathematics content coverage.

It should come as no surprise that inequality in opportunity to learn is related to the lower achievement of underprivileged students. Students in high-poverty districts are often exposed to less rigorous content. In fact, weak math instruction is so common in struggling districts that their instructional content has more in common with low-income districts in different states than they do with more affluent districts in the same state.

One of the reasons I wrote this blog - and why we wrote our book - was to dispel the myth that inequality in opportunity to learn is just a problem for poor and minority students. In fact the greatest variation in learning opportunities is among middle-income school districts. Parents can't assume that just because they live in a middle-class community that their child is getting an equal chance to learn important mathematics topics to the needed depth and in a coherent and focused way.

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