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"Inequality and the Schoolhouse,"

by Stan Karp Richard Rothstein asks how much schools can be expected to overcome the staggering inequality that continues to define our society. It’s the right question. Educational inequality—whose manifestations go well beyond test score gaps—is perhaps the central problem our schools face. How we deal with it will go a long way toward determining whether our society’s future will be one of democratic promise or growing division.September/October 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

Richard Rothstein asks how much schools can be expected to overcome the staggering inequality that continues to define our society. It’s the right question. Educational inequality—whose manifestations go well beyond test score gaps—is perhaps the central problem our schools face. How we deal with it will go a long way toward determining whether our society’s future will be one of democratic promise or growing division.

Weighing the ability of schools to compensate for the inequality that exists all around them is a question of balance, and there are dangers to be found on both sides of the equation. There’s little doubt that schools could do more to bridge gaps between students whose affluence provides private tutors and summer camps and those whose poverty or language status adds only extra burdens. They could use the inadequate resources they receive more efficiently and equitably. They could provide more academic supports, more engaging curriculum, and more effective, high-quality instruction They could move beyond a superficial multiculturalism that “celebrates diversity” toward a deeper anti-racist practice that helps uncover why some differences translate into access to wealth and power, while others become a source of discrimination and injustice. Schools could also design better systems for encouraging multi-sided accountability and promoting democratic collaboration with parents and communities. To do any of this, schools need pressure from inside and out to make reducing educational inequality a more visible and more urgent priority.

That said, it seems to me that Rothstein is essentially correct when he argues that schools face unreasonable expectations from those who demand schoolhouse solutions to the political, economic and social inequality that we allow to persist. Currently, the achievement gap, narrowly defined by test scores and, more recently, by NCLB’s absurd “adequate yearly progress” formulas, is being used to label public schools as failures, without providing the resources and strategies needed to overcome them. To expect schools to wipe out long-standing academic achievement gaps while denying them substantial new resources and leaving many of the social factors that contribute to this inequality in place is not a formula for providing better education to those who need it most. Instead, it’s a strategy for eroding the common ground that a universal system of public education needs to survive.

It’s one thing to document academic achievement gaps. It’s quite another to use those data, as NCLB and many of its supporters do, to promote a punitive program of test-driven sanctions, privatization and market reforms which have no record of success as school improvement strategies and which promise to do for schooling what the not-so-free market has done for health care and housing. (Just how serious this privatization agenda is and how cynically concern for achievement gaps is being manipulated to advance it is currently a major point of difference among those who otherwise share a common interest in addressing issues of educational inequality.)

Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education schools are being rightfully taken to task for failing to deliver on its promises. But the bill for that failure, as Rothstein’s book shows, needs to be itemized to include the appalling gaps in income, health care, nutrition, family support, housing, school funding and other factors that translate into inequality in classrooms. Yes, we need to press our schools to do a better job. But until society as a whole picks up the tab for the equality it so often invokes as a goal, we will all continue to pay a heavy price.

Stan Karp is a high school teacher in Paterson, NJ and an editor of Rethinking Schools. With Linda Christensen, he co-edited Rethinking School Reform: Views from the Classroom. stankarp@aol.com
 
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